In the most militarised region in the world home to some of the most volatile conflicts in the contemporary era, every state in the Middle East’s armed forces and military policy is forever developing and reforming. While Egypt and Syria have taken front stage in this region due to their well-publicised conflicts, the Gulf States have also seen some transformative developments in recent years.
The United Arab Emirates recently announced that it would be introducing mandatory military service for all males aged between eighteen and thirty for a minimum period of nine months. Women also have the option of taking part in military training, but not on a compulsory basis – which is a remarkably progressive move for a Gulf country. The UAE joins Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Turkey and Iran as states in the region that also enforce conscription. Likewise, Qatar has made moves to introduce conscription making the two monarchies the only Gulf States that have considered such an initiative.
The young Emirati men that will make up the conscript force have a reputation for being wealthy, somewhat aloof, spoiled, and materialistic. According to WHO reports, there are also alarmingly high levels of obesity and diabetes among the population. The UAE is a country where walking is the preserve of an afternoon in a shopping mall, people are dependent on their cars, and like to take their leisurely time with material objects. Satisfied that they can enjoy the pick of careers without overly intense competition or numerous qualifications, approximately a quarter of young Emirati men drop out of high school and will never return to full time education. Citizens without a high school diploma will be required to serve for two years while those who have finished secondary school will only serve for nine months in the forces. Conscription is likely to give Emirati men a stronger sense of civic responsibility and discipline, equip them with new skills and experience in teamwork – something that that the civilian population has arguably lacked.
At present, most states in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) struggle with labour shortages and are unable to fully maximise the equipment and capabilities at their disposal without the assistance of foreign defence contractors to assist in combat and support functions. The International Institute of Strategic Studies estimated the UAE military to have an army of 44,000, a navy of 2,500, and air force of 4,500. The reserve army constituted of conscripted soldiers could make up double the number of troops in the regular army and allow the small state more self-sufficiency in manning and operating their systems.
For the UAE the stakes are also high. The state has become an enclave of prosperity and stability, carved out in a volatile neighbourhood, and preserving this stability and ensuring that conflict does not seep over its borders is key to the UAE’s growth and future success. The UAE has been something of a model example of successful diversification in the Gulf relieving their dependence on oil and fossil fuels and developing a strong financial sector and tourist industry, as well as opening its doors to the rest of the world foreign workers, investors and visitors to enjoy the Arab hospitality. Highly susceptible to movements in the markets, any unrest or overflow of conflict from neighbours could be detrimental to the economy and have an impact international visitor’s perception of the UAE as a safe and welcoming destination for business and tourism. For the government, strengthening the military establishment in quantity and quality is fundamental to securing a long-term solution to national military shortcomings, overreliance on external contractors and the provision of a mobilised fighting force in the event of conflict.
Leaders are hoping that conscription will have a positive impact on national solidarity. The UAE escaped largely unscathed from the uprisings and protests that rocked the rest of the region in 2011 while many of its Gulf neighbours struggled, notably Bahrain. With it’s small native population (approximately 12% of those living in the UAE are Emirati citizens) and near universal high standard of living for citizens the state is virtually untouched by popular discontent.
While the UAE’s is working well ahead to protect and maintain its modern metropolitan enclave of prosperity and stability, the tiny island state of Bahrain may have missed the proverbial boat in its security reforms. Like other GCC states Bahrain struggles to raise a fighting force from its citizen population, but this problem is exacerbated by societal sectarian splits. With a Sunni government but a Shi’ia majority population, Bahrain was the worst affected Gulf state in the 2011 Arab uprisings. Fuelling tensions between Sunni and Shi’ia citizens is the fact that Bahrain’s wealth does not emulate that of its neighbouring Persian Gulf monarchies and lacks the resources to improve the standard of living for Shi’ia citizens. The Bahraini economy is renowned for being the freest in the Middle East and relies less heavily on oil wealth, expanding into banking, heavy industries and tourism. The uprisings and unrest that have troubled the nation have not quite crippled the economy, but have certainly strained it, further reducing the ability to financially improve conditions for Shi’ia minorities.
In a bid to prevent a situation like in Egypt or Tunisia, where the military turned against the government siding with the wider population, the Bahraini establishment have been unofficially hiring Sunni ‘mercenaries’ from Pakistan and Jordan to swell the ranks of Sunni soldiers within the forces. In 2011, Al Jazeera reporter Mujib Mashal reported as many as 3000 Pakistani ‘mercenary’ soldiers in the ranks of the Bahraini military assisting in the protest crackdowns.The question of whether, three years down the line Sunni foreign soldiers are still enlisted in the armed forces is more ambiguous, but given that the quelling of the uprisings was successful it seems reasonable to suggest that a tried and tested method of supplementing armed forces may be utilised again in future if necessary.
Also dealing with issues surrounding Shi’ia and Sunni rivalries is Bahrain’s closest neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia struggles with Shi’ia discontent on an internal and external basis. Sizable Shi’ia communities populate the oil rich eastern provinces of the country and a hostile Iran situated just across the Persian Gulf threaten the regime’s stability. While the threat of popular discontent and anti-government uprisings are an issue of contention for the Al Saud monarchy, the possibility of a nuclear Iran is the biggest headache for the state. Questions and theories about Saudi Arabia also acquiring nuclear weapons to balance Iran have been thrown around but a far stranger, if less dramatic concept to consider is Saudi Arabia’s potential co-operation with Israel. The two states share a sense of urgency and alarm over Iran’s nuclear programme. Earlier this year the Sunday Times reported that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is working with Saudi officials on contingency plans for a possible attack on Iran if its nuclear programme is not significantly curbed. The Jewish state and the Sunni monarchy may be the most unlikely of allies but according to diplomatic sources quoted in the Sunday Times Saudi Arabia is understood to have already given Israel permission to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran.
While the notion of “my enemy’s enemy being my friend” may be too cordial to describe co-operation between the two states, perhaps the idea of “I can do business with my enemy’s enemy” describes the emerging relationship.