Thursday 01 September 2016

Strategists often talk about the complex geopolitics of our century, but many ignore one of the most obvious yet critically important foundations for international power: geographic location. Strategy is about power and power is directly related to each nation’s place in the globe – literally this can mean some nations are enriched by their location while others are impoverished. Effective security in our globalized age comes from many sources, but one of the great strengths of the UAE is its geostrategic location.

Over a century ago, in 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder introduced a new theory about the advantages of central positioning on the earth. His basic ideas have influenced thinkers around the world over the intervening years and shaped the policies of many nations; some even call him the “father of modern geopolitics.” Mackinder believed that an area labeled the “Heartland,” stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic, formed the focal point for control of the world’s strategic resources. His “Heartland Theory” helped many strategists understand the fundamental importance of geography and the impact of geographic location when developing strategy.

MacKinder’s perspective still has value for the UAE. The most obvious geographic factors that influence the strategic security of the UAE are the Strait of Hormuz, the nearness of Iran and the occupation of our islands. But our location implies much more. The impact of Etihad and Emirates airlines routes are well known to the public, but the significant role of our ports (Jebel Ali, Fujairah, and Khalifa for example), the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline (ADCOP), and the crucial functions of the important undersea cables that connect our computer systems through the region are not well known to most people. Our current highways and the eventual connections made by regional rail are also increasingly important as the UAE adapts to become the international hub of commerce. Expo 2020 will make these factors more clear to all residents of the UAE and as importantly will make the geostrategic position of the UAE well known to people all around the globe.

More broadly of course the region we live in has historically been either the channel or the buffer between disparate outside cultures. Arab lands were once the buffer between the Byzantine and Persian Empires; their central location then helped spur the expansion of Islam; later they acted again as a buffer, squeezed between the Ottoman Empire and Persia and then, even later still as a critical node in between the Western powers and Iran. Living in an area of buffering can be unpredictable and even risky; our location certainly requires that the UAE involve itself in the ongoing crisis in Yemen and in the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran; but it also means that the voice of the UAE is heard internationally to a degree far exceeding most comparably sized states.

The UAE has stood and will stand irrevocably at the junction of East and West, along or adjacent to fault lines among Arab, Persian and Turkish states, as well as those of outside powers. From the caravans and dhows of old to the space launches of the future, both before and eventually after oil, this precious geography has been key and influential. The UAE has a strategy to take maximum advantage of this tremendous geographic gift of location; we just need to keep its inherent risk and potential opportunities always in mind as we move forth across the uncertain 21st century, always keeping the connections open but the culture and prosperity of the nation secure.