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Why Compulsory Military Service Will Benefit The UAE

Why Compulsory Military Service Will Benefit The UAE

The UAE government recently ruled that all Emirati men aged 18-30 would have to serve in the military. What’s not to like, asks Damian Reilly.


Once the possibility of introducing compulsory military service was mooted, it must have been hard for UAE lawmakers to find reasons not to go ahead with it. At a stroke, making young Emirati males (and females, if they choose not to opt out) undertake military service, solves, or at least addresses, so many of the problems that cause Gulf leaders to fret.

In fact, so pleasing is the circularity of the argument for compulsory military service that the only question appears to be why was it not introduced sooner in the UAE? For a start, there is the most obvious reason for doing it: the United Arab Emirates needs to be able to protect itself, or to be seen to be able to protect itself.

Despite strong military ties with countries in the West – most notably the United States and the European powers of France and the United Kingdom – the UAE is positioned at the centre of one of the world’s least politically stable regions, with several neighbours who seem always on the brink of war. Although it can rely on steadfast support from its allies abroad in the event of attack, no country – with perhaps the exception of Switzerland, for whom a commitment to neutrality and military pacifism is worn as a badge of honour – wishes to be seen as defenceless, or, worse, weak.

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla says it is logical that the UAE would want to be able to protect its sovereignty and wealth. “The UAE really needs to be on guard 24/7,” he told Reuters.

“With this kind of decision [to introduce military service], I think the country is saying ‘We want to continue with the stability and prosperity but we are also well-equipped for any eventuality’. We are living in a red zone … it’s a very difficult zone with a lot of difficult neighbours. You need to be on guard all the time.”

The UAE army is today estimated by several leading global think tanks to be in region of 50,000 people-strong.

Introducing military service will not only see this number quickly swell by more than double, but it will also decrease reliance on foreign support during peacetime. At the moment, almost all UAE defence systems, as is the case throughout the GCC, have been purchased from and installed by foreign defence specialists and manufacturers. With increased military manpower, however, more reservists will be available for training to operate defence systems.

CEO of Middle East think tank INEGMA Riad Kahwaji told Reuters: “We have to remember the UAE has been procuring a lot of military systems, and they’ve been relying on foreign recruits to help man a lot of these. Now, with the conscription, the UAE will start having more self-sufficiency in manning a lot of the systems.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the United Arab Emirates announced the government’s decision to introduce national service in the middle of January this year on Twitter. His choice of medium, given its popularity with the region’s youth, was interesting.

Youth unemployment and job creation is a major headache for Gulf leaders, one that will need to be addressed quickly if the GCC countries are to maximise the opportunities they have to develop quickly and become self sustainable in the long term. High fertility rates of an average of more than five children per mother throughout the region since the 1980s have created an ‘army’ of young people who will need to be gainfully employed and allowed to enjoy the benefits of employment – both financial and personal.

Sociologists call the development period the UAE is currently in the “demographic window of opportunity.” This term refers to the time period when the ratio of working adults to pensioners and infants is optimal. The window lasts about fifty years, presents huge opportunity, and cannot be repeated.

It is vital then, that the working population is put to use.

Job creation is not just about moving forward, of course. It is also vital to prevent moving backwards. The dangers of failing to create sufficient work opportunities for young people has recently been abundantly illustrated throughout the Middle East by the Arab Spring. Unemployment on a large scale causes dissatisfaction that can quickly turn to social unrest.

Military service, then, not only creates jobs quickly, but it also addresses a culture that sees today’s young people in the Gulf expecting employment opportunities to be in the boardroom rather than on the shop-floor. Nothing eradicates a sense of entitlement and toughens young people grown lazy on privilege like military service. The UAE’s leadership knows this.

Matthew Hedges, an analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis told Reuters: “The UAE will join a number of states with national conscription and reservist forces and as experience has shown, it is often the introduction of reservists that can alter the balance of war in a favorable way. But it will also help to empower Emiratis to be more competitive in the job market where, through national service, they can be taught skills and educated to a higher level regardless of social background.”

It is estimated that, between them, the Gulf countries will need to create 85 million jobs by 2020. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) CEO Mohammed Al Mady, who knows as much about the challenges of introducing young, wealthy locals to the corporate world as anyone in the Gulf, has long been a proponent of national service. He says that despite an unemployment rate of 25 per cent amongst people between the ages of 18 and 30 in the region, there is still a reluctance to do real work.

He says: “The problem really is that you have to tackle the cultural dimensions of the labour force. People don’t accept jobs.

“They want the jobs that will give them higher money and stability. That’s not going to happen; they have to accept certain jobs in categories that fit their situation.

“The countries have to work very hard in how to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs. How do we change them?

“Governments have to draft them into the military before they go into the job market … to give them resilience, to teach them how to be modest, how to work, how to take the ladder step by step until they reach what they want.”

There are other benefits, too, to military service. The military promotes unity and solidarity as well as an outdoors, healthy lifestyle that would be the best way to eradicate national obesity levels that cause more than a quarter Emiratis to suffer from type two diabetes – acquired diabetes, the one brought about by unhealthy lifestyle choices and poor diet. Dealing with obesity and diabetes costs the UAE government more than a billion dollars every year.

Reaction to the news of compulsory military service has been mostly positive amongst young emiratis. Saeed Rashid Al Rahbi, a 27-year-old government employee, told the Gulf News daily: “I am completely in support of the decision, which encourages us to protect ourselves and protect our country. Military service will give us experience, and it will help us give back to our country that has given us so much. The military makes men out of youth and it makes you come out with a better personality.”

Abdullah Khalfan Al Naqabi, a 26 year-old government employee, said: “The service will strengthen national identity… It’s a good thing to make young men learn military principles and how to use weapons, in case any emergency occurs.

“It will create strong personalities and will tackle all negative aspects in society, which have been appearing recently. Serving your land is of great value and the youth will feel like they are part of a team that will protect the country from any risks and threats.”

Yousuf Khalifa, 23, said the move was “very positive”. “For one,” he said, “it will instill a culture of civic responsibility. National unemployment is very high. Military service would definitely help to create jobs.”

But 24-year-old Mohammad Al Qemzi said he would like more information about how military service would be implemented. He said: “I am currently studying and working at the same time, do I take time off from work and will my boss understand? I just need a little more information.”

It seems, then, that although the army may come as a culture shock for pampered Emirati young people, it is, on the whole, a shock they are willing to expose themselves to. For the country’s leadership, military service is anything but a shock – it is an immense relief.


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