Despite their geographic distance, the two nations have increasingly complementary defense and security interests.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo walks with the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, during the latter’s state visit to Indonesia, July 24, 2019
Credit: Facebook/Presiden Joko Widodo
On March 6, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi, his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while attending the 2022 World Defense Show, to discuss the possible strengthening of military ties. Approximately two weeks later, the two countries held another meeting in Abu Dhabi, during which Prabowo also met with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The meetings followed the signing in February 2020 of a Memorandum of Understanding pledging closer defense cooperation. In particular, this collaboration focuses on cooperation in the field of defense industry science and technology and increasing human resource capacity through the mutual exchange of cadets and officers. These recent developments are only the latest manifestation of Indonesia’s interest in defense cooperation with the UAE, which has grown markedly over the past few years.
In December 2019, the UAE minister of defense traveled to Jakarta to finalize the involvement of three Indonesian defense firms, including PT Pindad, PT Len Industri, and PT Dirgantara Indonesia, in providing military products to the UAE. The visit also resulted in the UAE opening up a defense attaché’s office at its embassy in Jakarta.
Jakarta and Abu Dhabi have additionally discussed potential cooperation on the manufacture of drones, munitions, and aerospace technology, as well as cross-training in counterterrorism operations and their application in hot spots throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Indonesian and UAE firms already have a track record of productive collaborations. For instance, in 2021, when the two countries signed business agreements, PT Pindad and Caracal International UAE agreed to work on the development of rifles and drones.
In 2015, Indonesia, through PT Pindad, licensed its SS2 assault rifles to the Emirates, designating the UAE’s Continental Aviation Service (CAS) as the main distributor of Indonesian weapons and ammunition products in the Middle East. Similarly, CAS has collaborated with Rheinmentall Defense Canada to transfer technologies to PT Pindad for the production of remote weapons systems. Also in 2015, Indonesia was additionally reported to be planning to export 100 units of the X18 Fire Support Vessel to the UAE. Then, in 2017, Indonesian naval shipbuilder PT PAL signed a deal with the UAE’s International Global Group and Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding for the production and maintenance of patrol boats, strategic sealift vessels, and light frigates.
Beyond the defense industry, the UAE and Indonesia also cooperate in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, an international forum for regional security for countries bordering the Indian Ocean and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, a similar effort to boost defense cooperation in the region.
In this context, Prabowo’s recent meeting signifies Indonesia’s willingness to strengthen its established defense ties with the Emirates.
Although neither Indonesia nor the UAE are major security players, certain circumstances have forced the two sides to strengthen their defense cooperation. In Jakarta’s thinking, the United States’ declining role in Southeast Asia and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea signify that it needs to search for non-traditional security partners elsewhere, and the UAE appears to be one alternative.
For the UAE, as Robert Mason, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington said in a recent interview with The Diplomat, “defense cooperation will secure UAE economic gains in Indonesia, contribute to its militarization strategy, and replicate a partnership model that enables ‘little sparta’ to punch above its weight in regional and international affairs.”
Given these complementary interests, there is every reason to expect that Indonesia-UAE defense relations will continue to deepen further in the years to come.