While the six-warplane Qatari contingent plays an arguably symbolic role in the Western-led coalition against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the powerful squadron sent by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will likely pack a real punch, analysts say.

Six F-16 block 60 fighter jets of the UAE air force were on standby to enforce no-fly zone operations over Libya after arriving on Sunday at the Italian air base of Decimomannu on the island of Sardinia. Another six Mirage 2000s followed via Souda Bay in Crete.

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The F-16 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin are the most advanced ever produced and contain capabilities beyond those of the US Air Force. The key American ally has yet to participate in any strikes, but when it does, its jets will likely show formidable power.

“The Qatari force is just for show. The UAE is actually capable of doing something and being quite formidable,” Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, told The Media Line.

The UAE has pledged 12 warplanes as its participation in the coalition effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. It became the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes. Qatar dispatched six Mirage 2000 jets and over the weekend has joined in the no-fly campaign. Despite their missions, they have yet to notch up any strikes or air combat.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is assuming command of the no-fly zone, which had until now been a largely American, British and French effort. Under a mandate of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces, they have been blasting his air force out of the skies, but also striking at his land forces.

Western powers have stressed the importance of Arab participation in and endorsement of the airstrikes in Libya. While the 22-member Arab League endorsed the military action most of the Arab world has balked at joining it. Qatar and UAE are the sole Arab countries to participate in Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya.

“We felt it was important for an Arab country to join, and because other Arab countries weren’t involved militarily, we felt we should,” Gen. Mubarak Al-Khayanin, the Qatari Air Force chief of staff, told reporters at the Souda Bay air base.

Both Qatar and the UAE air forces have trained rigorously with their Western counterparts in order to wage missions exactly like the ones deployed for now.

“Years of training, joint exercises and interoperability between the West and the UAE and Qatar is now coming to fruition,” Karasik said, adding that the two countries were also using their participation as a stepping stone for greater regional prominence.

“Both the UAE and Qatar have robust foreign policies that seek to heighten their presence regionally and on the world stage,” Karasik said.

His words were echoed by Qatari General al-Khayanin. “We are physically small country, but with leadership comes responsibility," he said. "Certain countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven't taken leadership for the last three years. So we wanted to step up and express ourselves, and see if others will follow."

Qatar, with vast reserves of oil and natural gas, has parleyed its relatively small size with its vast wealth. It sponsors the Al-Jazeera television news network, which has enormous impact on public opinion across the Arab world, and is hosting the 2022 World Cup, which will enhance its prestige and economy.

Sheikh Khalifa Al-Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, has led the UAE in adopting a more assertive foreign policy over the past two years. Earlier this month, it dispatched police to help with a Saudi Arabia-led deployment of troops in Bahrain, which was torn by weeks of mass protests.

The mission is aimed at protecting civilians and Arab participation, however, could change if the mission becomes too bellicose.

Qatar has already acted to gain from the Libyan turmoil. It became the first Arab country to recognize the Libyan rebels as the single legitimate representatives of the country. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Doha said the country saw the Provisional Transitional National Council (PTNC) as the representatives of all Libya’s regions. The 31-member council represents major Libyan cities and towns.

The Qatari government announcement came a day after the rebels reportedly signed an agreement with the state-owned Qatar Petroleum company to market crude oil from fields in Eastern Libya.

“We contacted the oil company of Qatar and thankfully they agreed to take all the oil that we wish to export and market this oil for us," Ali Tarhouni, a rebel official in charge of economic, financial and oil matters, was quoted as telling reporters in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi.

According to Tarhouni, the fields controlled by the rebels are presently producing from 100,000 to 130,000 barrels of oil a day and the first supplies of crude should begin flowing in less than a week.

Contacted by The Media Line, Qatar Petroleum said it had no comment at this time.

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