Shaikh Khalifa
Sheikh Khalifa at a graduation ceremony of the Armed Forces. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan played a significant role in transforming the UAE Armed Forces into the modern fighting force that it is today. He was intimately involved in building the large and modern army, air force and navy, whose primary task is defending the UAE nation while playing an effective role in various regional peace-keeping tasks.

These dynamic 21st century armed forces had started small. Under British tutelage, the units of the Trucial Oman Scouts were the armed forces of the region, with a few hundred Emirati soldiers and British officers. This eventually developed into the Abu Dhabi Defence Force.

Sheikh Khalifa graduated from the British military academy at Sandhurst. When he was nominated Crown Prince in February 1969, he was also appointed head of Abu Dhabi Defence. One of his main tasks in that role was building up the Abu Dhabi Defence Force, which soon became the heart of the UAE Armed Forces after the formation of the UAE in 1971 when it included 2,500 regular military personnel.

Unified UAE forces

In 1976, the armed forces of the various emirates were unified into the UAE Armed Forces, by which time, the Abu Dhabi forces included 3,250 regular military personnel, seven helicopters and Scorpion Light Tanks and Ferret Armoured Cars. Sheikh Khalifa was appointed Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces while his father Sheikh Zayed was the Supreme Commander.

On his appointment as Deputy Supreme Commander, Sheikh Khalifa said: “Before unification of the Armed Forces in 1976, the armed forces in the UAE were a number of small armies with one goal, but independent organisation and training. This weakened the forces and blocked closer ties among officers and soldiers. My brother officers noticed this with pain and this prompted us to work quickly to remove the flaw by unifying the armed forces.”

Shaikh Khalifa and Shaikh Zayed
Shaikh Khalifa and Shaikh Zayed at a military passing out parade in 1972. As Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Shaikh Khalifa — a graduate of the British military academy at Sandhurst — played an important role in forming the general command and preparing the laws and rules that govern the duties of the military today. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Sheikh Khalifa’s speech was noticeable for both his focus on the federal spirit and his readiness to implement practical changes. As Deputy Supreme Commander, Sheikh Khalifa played an important role in forming the general command across the entire UAE Armed Forces and preparing the laws and rules that govern the duties of the military. He focused on reorganising the commands in the military zones in cooperation with the Chief of Staff and zone commanders. He also assigned staff to help zone commanders apply the new regulations and merge the armed forces from different emirates.

Emirati responsibility

While the new Arab nation was ready to seek help from other Arab states with older histories, Sheikh Khalifa was determined that Emiratis were the core of the armed forces, which remained the core of his vision for the rest of his life and has become a fundamental criterion for the Armed Forces.

“Our goal will always be to give the national cadre the opportunity to shoulder this responsibility,” he said. “Our training institutes, especially the Zayed bin Sultan Academy, will contribute to training the national cadre and preparing them for leadership.”

Sheikh Khalifa also noted that: “The UAE is keen that its armed forces are on par with developments in the military sphere elsewhere in the world, in particular in terms of planning, organisation, weaponry and training. We shall continue to strive for this so that our armed forces attain the maximum efficiency possible.”

Since those early days, Sheikh Khalifa guided the development of the UAE Armed Forces. He was the guest of honour at many military graduations where he spoke freely to young soldiers and officers of their responsibilities to the country and people.


During one such address, Sheikh Khalifa said: “On this great occasion, I congratulate each and everyone for the dedication and patriotism you have shown while serving your country. As you all know, the UAE Armed Forces is a federal institution of which we are all proud of. Suffice to say it is this army that has strengthened and maintained, not only our federation, but also our national achievements in various fields.”

The UAE Armed Forces have undertaken various difficult and important missions in addition to their core task of defending the UAE’s borders. They have been active participants in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s regular Desert Shield training exercises. They participated in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm.

They have also fought in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-ISAF action against Al Qaida. In 2011, they were in action in Libya and in a commitment that started in 2014, they continue to fight Daesh in Iraq.

The UAE Armed Forces have also been active in helping countries during times of disaster, both natural and man-made. These include setting up camps and hospitals for refugees created by the floods in Pakistan in 2012 (and again in 2014), as well as running a huge camp for Muslim Kosovars fleeing Serbian militias in the middle of the Balkan civil war in 1999. On such missions, Sheikh Khalifa observed that the UAE Armed Forces proved to be the best representatives of the UAE’s values and culture. “Their noble mission has won the hearts and minds of many people around the world,” he said.

National service

In 2014, Sheikh Khalifa took the dramatic step of instituting compulsory military service for all young Emirati men — voluntary for women — in a move designed not only to bolster the country’s military preparedness, but also to boost patriotism and national identity in young Emiratis. “The issuing of the law comes with the goals of affirming the instilling of the values of loyalty, affiliation and sacrifice in the souls of the sons of homeland,” WAM noted.

National service at the time included training, military exercises and lectures. The first men reported for service in August, leading the way for all males between the ages of 18 and 30, in good health, to sign up. Men who have a high school degree or its equivalent serve nine months while those who do not have a high school diploma serve two years. Participation for women, who can only serve for nine months, is optional and requires the approval of their legal guardians. Sheikh Khalifa’s decree on national service is a lasting tribute to his lifetime of devotion to the UAE Armed Forces.