"Little Sparta." That's the term invoked by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis when speaking of the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf state whose close security ties with the U.S. were the subject of an expose last week in The Washington Post. And according to my colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Mattis is not the only U.S. military official who favorably compares the emirate to the ancient Greek city-state.
U.S. officials who spoke to The Post praised the U.A.E.'s involvement in operations against the jihadists of the Islamic State, which holds sway in parts of war-torn Syria and Iraq. The U.A.E.'s efforts in the conflict showed a toughness and determination that have perhaps gone under-reported in the media. "We have been an integral part of the operation,” the commander of the UAE air force told Chandrasekaran. "We have shown that we can do the job."
But Sparta? The ancient city-state was famed for its grim, fearless warriors who blunted the advance of the Persian empire and went on to later briefly build their own. Many in the West may only know of it through the garish and terrible "300" films, but here are some reasons why the parallel may actually be apt.
Authority in the seven emirates that constitute the U.A.E. stems from influential dynastic families in power in each city. They govern in a loosely-knit federation that's anchored in the city-state of Abu Dhabi. The two most important families, unsurprisingly, are from the two most important emirates: the al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi and al-Maktoums of Dubai. The U.A.E.'s current president is from the former; its sitting prime minister is from the latter.
More than 2,000 years prior, Sparta was governed by two hereditary kings, whose families' bloodlines traced back to the mythic hero Hercules. Beneath them, not unlike the present U.A.E., were ranks of oligarchic aristocrats. They were all men. In the U.A.E., slow progress has been made when it comes to women's rights: the country appointed its first female government minister in 2004.
The Spartans are famous for their historic stand at Thermopylae, when, as legend goes, 300 of its crack hoplites held a mountain pass against the invading armies of the Persian empire. The Spartan commander Eurybiades broke the Persian fleet at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
The U.A.E., meanwhile, is animated by fears of Iran across the Persian Gulf. The country's involvement in Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded in 2001 — it deployed special forces in 2003 and also invested in building mosques and hospitals — was all about checking Tehran's influence, a U.S. official tells Chandrasekaran.
Eventually, though, Sparta would find cause to ally with the Persians, particularly as it pursued its wars against another Greek city-state, Athens. And, despite the U.A.E.'s fears of Iran's nuclear program, the two countries have robust trade ties. There are hopes that, as sanctions ease on Iran, the emirate of Dubai may become a key portal for Iranian trade and capital.
Despite the romantic nonsense of some 19th century historians, who imagined Sparta as a bulwark of Western civilization and values, ancient Sparta was a grim, wretched place. A majority of Spartan society was made up of helots, or slaves. Fear of a slave revolt was the dominant reality of the city-state, and its government focused its energies most of the time in repressing such uprisings and terrorizing its slave populace. Some historians believe Sparta's famed military discipline was the product of a society whose citizens were permanently on guard.
The U.A.E., as has been well-documented, has one of the world's largest migrant workforces. Emirati nationals make up not much more than a 10th of the overall population, yet enjoy many more privileges because of their citizenship. Human rights organizations routinely cite the inequities and injustices experienced by migrant and domestic workers in the affluent Gulf states. The country's "kafala," or sponsorship system, makes foreign laborers beholden to their employers, toiling in circumstances likened to indentured servitude.