Among the range of sensitive government documents in the 'Cabinet Files' release last week, a list appeared with reference to a secret report intended for Australian eyes only, titled "Bilateral Planning with the United Arab Emirates on the defence of the UAE in the event of Iranian Hostilities".
The title raises intriguing possibilities about what was being discussed or what, if anything, was decided. The document pre-dates Australia's commitment to fighting ISIS and the title doesn't indicate exactly what type of document it was. Was it bound for the National Security Committee of Cabinet? Was it simply an information brief about what had already transpired? Or was it a submission to request permission to undertake such planning? We will never know (which is as it should be).
But before people go off thinking that Australia has some type of mutual defence treaty with Abu Dhabi, it is worth highlighting the relationship's context.
In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Australia was looking for bases in the region from which to launch, command and sustain operations. The original plan of using Oman, as had occurred during the 1991 Gulf war, foundered when the Omanis reminded Canberra of promises for closer bilateral cooperation that had never been fulfilled after the war was over. So instead, the UAE proved to be a willing and generous host, and Emirati and Australian troops eventually conducted operations together in Afghanistan. By the end of 2009, Australian command, aviation and support elements were based in the UAE.
But nothing is for nothing in the Middle East. The Emiratis always held the view that implicit in the arrangement to access to a base in the country was an understanding that Australia would assist should hostilities ever break out with its archnemesis Iran. Australia, for obvious reasons, has always tried to avoid committing itself to anything so prescriptive. Australia has a Defence Cooperation Agreement with the Emiratis, but this makes no mention of any commitment to mutual defence or even consultations in the event of conflict.
Strategic ambiguity is a well-practised political art form, yet the Emiratis are also well aware of the power they hold over nations with bases on their territory, given these countries' sunk costs. The Emiratis used the basing of Canadian military assets in Dubai as leverage in a bilateral dispute in 2010 over the number of landing slots Canada was willing to grant Emirates Airlines. In the Australian context, it is quite possible Canberra decided that the appearance of cooperation, in the form of planning assistance, may have been a sufficient way of placating the UAE leadership, without the need to commit to anything more substantive. Or the discussion may have been something that Defence saw as a useful exercise, and sought government permission to explore.
The paper referred to in the ABC Cabinet Files story is now five years old. Times have changed. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is now signed between Iran and the US, and both the Iranian and Australian foreign ministers have visited each others' countries. It is likely that the circumstances that precipitated that paper regarding Australia's bilateral planning with the UAE have passed.
Still, the disclosure of the mere title of this document is a tantalising insight into the way bilateral military cooperation with non-liberal democracies works. There is always a real or implied cost to such arrangements, where politics is subject to personal fiat by the leader of the day. Western governments need to understand that before they commit forces, and to be prepared to employ deft diplomacy to navigate such challenges.