This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More …
One of the most important state institutions is the military and thus introducing conscription — that is, integrating civilians for a limited period of time into the armed forces — may be one of the best examples of “civilianizing” the state. Perhaps the most fundamental question regarding the military is whether its soldiers are conscripted by the state or enlist voluntarily. Sound arguments can be marshaled in support of both draft-based and volunteer armies. Conscript armies tend to be less effective and require more resources on a per-soldier basis for the amount of military capability they provide; they often act as de facto training institutions maintained at the expense of defense modernization. Nonetheless, a major advantage of mandatory military service is that it can serve as a powerful agent of socialization by bringing together young men (and women) from disparate socioeconomic, ethno-religious, and regional backgrounds and help mold them into a real community through training and shared experiences.
Since 2014 three monarchies in the Gulf introduced — or, in the case of Kuwait, re-introduced — mandatory military service. Launching the draft in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is big news. After all, the six Gulf monarchies — again, with the partial exception of Kuwait — opposed the draft since independence and appeared satisfied with a standing army based on mostly native officers, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, and volunteers recruited heavily from predominantly Sunni Muslim countries (especially Jordan, Pakistan, and Yemen).
The introduction of the draft in Gulf monarchies — after decades of sovereign statehood — presents an interesting puzzle. What are the reasons behind the newly implemented conscription? What broader implications does this phenomenon have for the Gulf?
Conscription Laws in Qatar, the U.A.E., and Kuwait
Traditionally, mandatory military service has not been a major staffing issue in the Gulf militaries for several reasons. The armies — all of which received substantial British guidance from their inception — were able to draw volunteers from tribal elites as well as members of the royal families. In some countries — particularly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — military planners believed that the presence of large Shiia Muslim communities with deep-seated grievances counseled against considering universal conscription. Most Gulf states were also prosperous enough to hire highly professional soldiers from abroad with undivided loyalties to their new employers, the royal families.
In fact, the only G.C.C. state where conscription existed before 2014 is Kuwait, which introduced it already at independence in 1961. According to Nazih Ayubi, the real reason Kuwait installed conscription was “an attempt to offset the numerical weight of its Bedouin and Shii/Iraqi soldiers.” In 2001 the government suspended the deeply unpopular and inconsistently enforced obligatory military service program. Nevertheless, since then the reintroduction of mandatory military service had been periodically debated.
In November 2013, following extended debate, Qatar’s government approved a draft law that made it compulsory for men to do military service. Four months later, Qatar’s Emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, signed legislation that required male Qatari citizens, aged 18-35, to serve in the armed forces for three months if they were high school graduates and for four if they were not. Following the three/four-month training, there are two phases of reserve service. The first continues for 5-10 years with a recall period not exceeding 14 days annually. The second reserve phase goes on until the recruit becomes 40 years old and recalled upon demand. Given the relatively small numbers of prospective conscripts and the shorter training period — especially compared to the U.A.E. and Kuwait — the Qatari armed forces accommodate multiple batches of draftees every year. By April 2014, the first group of 2,000 Qatari men had registered for the national service, their great number apparently surprising the Minister of State for Defence Affairs Staff Major General Hamad bin Ali al Attiyah. By all published accounts, the idea of involuntary conscription, first proposed by the Emir, has been received very favorably in Qatar.
In March 2014, the U.A.E.’s 40-member Federal National Council (F.N.C.) completed its review of the draft military service bill and offered it to public debate. The 44-article legislation specifies compulsory military service to male citizens age 18-30: nine months for high school graduates and two years for those who had not completed their secondary school education. Men who completed their military service would become part of the reserves until the age of 58 or 60 for officers. The National Service Law was under review for several years, dating all the way back to the reign of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s emir and supreme commander of its armed forces and the U.A.E.’s first president, who died in 2004. The process included numerous discussions between civilian officials and military leaders, most prominently represented by Brigadier General Salim Al Kaabi. A seven-member Emirati expert group studied conscription experiences in Turkey, Germany, and Jordan, but the final law is most similar to Singapore’s where all male citizens, including second generation residents, must undergo military service. As a result of public discussion and the F.N.C.’s scrutiny, about 10 percent of the law’s content was changed.
In April 2015, Kuwait’s National Assembly passed the law — approved by 41 members of parliament and opposed by eight — that reinstated mandatory military service, to start in 2017. The new law mandates all men to undergo a year-long military service as they reach age 18 and they are obligated to be in the reserve forces until the age of 45. Once drafted, all conscripts will also be required to do 30 days of military service annually until age 45. Those Kuwaiti men who reach age 35 before the new law takes effect will be exempted. Military training can also be delayed if prospective conscripts complete their studies, if they are single sons in their family, or if they have handicapped dependents. As the National Assembly vote shows, this was not a unanimous decision: in fact, there was considerable opposition to the new policy in Kuwaiti business circles owing to the anticipated disruptions in business careers.
The conscription laws of all three states assign heavy penalties to those who want to prevent or evade the draft, including fines and jail terms. In the U.A.E., those who do not complete their military service before they seek employment are refused jobs — a sanction that, according to press reports, has already affected a number of young Emiratis according to press reports. National service laws do not apply to those who are members of illegal organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in some Gulf states (e.g., the U.A.E.) that consider it a terrorist organization.
At the same time, the three states offer numerous incentives for those who perform their national duty. These inducements, outlined in the conscription bills, include job placements and promotions, loans for those about to marry and intending to purchase land. Most importantly, however, as Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid of the U.A.E. stated, “protecting the nation and preserving its independence and sovereignty is a sacred national duty” and national service “is an honor, and graduating from there is heroic.”
Women may volunteer to join the armed forces in all three Gulf countries. Of the three, it is the U.A.E. military that can already boast with a distinguished tradition of female soldiers in a variety of capacities, dating back to the late 1980s. According to politicians and military officials, thus far the rate of participation and, more broadly, the national service experiences, have been better than anticipated. In Kuwait, most experts believe that conscription will proceed without a major hitch and the experiences of the other two states will be more or less replicated.
The introduction of mandatory military service in the three Gulf monarchies is explained by broad socio-economic, military-strategic, and political reasons.
Those who have the opportunity to seriously discuss with older G.C.C. citizens the life, conduct, and circumstances of local youth — and especially in its three most prosperous states, the focus of this essay — are often told that young men have become, in a word, “soft.” In the contemporary G.C.C. countries, younger people have come to expect that the welfare state would provide them with everything — including public sector jobs — without the need for reciprocity. Recently Qatar’s ruler noted that, “When I see on the streets of Qatar the phrase ‘Qatar deserves the best,’ I say ‘Qatar deserves the best from its sons’” — implying, that the citizens of a fortunate nation do have the obligation to do something for their country. In the U.A.E. military service is called “National and Reserve Service” on purpose, to suggest that it is meant to engage all Emirati society in the service of their homeland. Another often discussed aspect of conscription is the G.C.C. governments’ growing realization of the worsening health standards of their (especially young) populations owing to their poor fitness and sedentary lifestyles. Obesity rates have risen precipitously in the past decades and the costs of treating related diseases, such as diabetes, have skyrocketed.
Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE are the first, fifth, and seventh richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP/Purchasing Power Parity. Clearly, economic reasons have not been the main impetus behind the introduction of mandatory military service, but all of these countries have seen their revenues from oil/gas exports diminish, and their governments have contemplated some cutbacks in public services — including often non-essential public sector employment for young men — and in their generous social welfare provisions. In fact, the notion of conscription received serious attention at the 2013 World Economic Forum on the Middle East, held in Jordan, where numerous experts suggested that compulsory military service might change the mindset of young men who were unwilling to consider taking just any job, by instilling qualities highly prized in the labor market, such as team work and time management.
In the last decade, but especially since 2011, the Gulf states — particularly Qatar and the UAE — have pursued a more activist foreign policy and have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to project military power. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for conscription and the elevated presence of the armed forces in the lives of Qatari, Emirati, and Kuwaiti citizens, is this newly dynamic and proactive foreign policy posture. Yet another reason for the introduction of mandatory military service is the G.C.C. states’ reaction to their deteriorating external security environment since 2011, including the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which have spilled over national boundaries. The introduction of mandatory service — and the resulting growing pool of trained citizen-soldiers — suggests that the armies of these states are transitioning towards a larger reserve force, to be made up both of draftees who completed their national service and former professional military personnel. Unlike Saudi Arabia, for instance, the U.A.E. (as well as Kuwait and Qatar) have relatively small populations to staff the army.
Finally, the officials of the three countries, and especially of Qatar and the U.A.E., also continue to worry about the threat they believe Iran poses. This is especially so in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) signed in July 2015 and implemented six months later (i.e., the Iran nuclear deal); the G.C.C. states (along with other Sunni Arab states and Israel) continue to entertain grave doubts about the wisdom of the agreement. Conscription will generate a larger reserve force that could hold off the enemy longer in a hypothetical invasion until help — in the form of Saudi and Western forces — arrives.
The mandatory military service legislation of all three countries clearly states that an important purpose of this endeavor is to protect the homeland and its borders. As the U.A.E.’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said on his Twitter account, “Protecting the nation and preserving its independence and sovereignty is a sacred national duty and the new law will be implemented on all.” But there is another political reason that is just as important for the long-term stability and prosperity of the G.C.C. state: mandatory military service gives the state an exceptional opportunity to mold its citizens. After all, aside from military training and learning skills, conscripts constitute a truly “captive audience” for the regime’s propaganda messages. There are few better chances of indoctrinating a country’s citizens than during their military service.
The main idea, G.C.C. leaders contend, is to strengthen the sense of belonging to the nation among young people and inspire patriotism in their nationals. The encouragement of nationalist sentiments expressed by al-Maktum and other rulers in the Arabian Peninsula has been unusual until now. The absolute monarchs of the G.C.C. had preferred their subjects’ loyalties and allegiances to be focused on them — and the welfare state provisions they extended — rather than on the more hard-to-define “nation,” as they had feared that nationalism might dilute fealty to the monarchy. As Kristin Smith Diwan wrote, mandatory conscription embraces a “more robust conception of nation, and … imposes more expansive demands on nationals.” In other words, Smith Diwan argues, “the initiation of national service sits squarely at the intersection of regional ambition and national integration.”
The introduction of mandatory military service in the three richest Gulf states is big news precisely because it is a major departure from the policies they have pursued since independence. Although the new measure has surprised many in the Gulf and beyond, the reasons behind it are logical. The increasingly activist foreign policies of the G.C.C. states require military establishments with deeper personnel reserves that conscription can generate. The Middle East, and even the Gulf region, has been in a political and security flux and it is entirely sensible to anticipate that promoting nationalism and a sense of belonging — through the vehicle of national service — will cement the loyalties of young people and the overall cohesiveness of Gulf societies. Finally, there is sound socioeconomic reasoning behind the introduction of the draft, from engaging young people with often little else to do to improving their general health. Thus far the implementation of conscription has proceeded without major glitches and, by all accounts — not just the broadcast and print media but also according to social media — it has been a success.
In general, conscription has been a hit so far both in the U.A.E. and Qatar, and it may well turn out to be in Kuwait as well when it is introduced later this year. The Gulf region has been rapidly changing in economic, societal, political, and military-strategic terms and the fact that Kuwait’s earlier experience — with a very differently conceived draft system — was not a success is not directly relevant to the current iteration of national service. Still, no matter how successful these three countries’ conscription experiences will be in the long term, we should not anticipate their replication in the other G.C.C. countries. The main reasons in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are sectarian division and in Saudi Arabia and Oman the ready availability of volunteers — in the latter case, especially, highly qualified ones — to facilitate the staffing of their armed forces.
One could hardly think of a measure that more directly “civilianizes the state” than the implementation of the mandatory draft in three GCC countries. This policy achieves the important objective of involving a new generation of civilians in the affairs of the state. At the very least, young Kuwaiti, Emirati, and Qatari citizens will be active participants in one of the most essential state institutions of their country, learn first-hand about national defense, and recognize their personal responsibility for the security of their homeland.
 Nazih N. Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995) 281, 286.
 “Hundreds Register for National Service,” Gulf Times, February 20, 2014.
 Interviews with Qatari citizens and military officials (Doha, September-October 2016).
 Ola Salem, “Unemployed to Receive Income While on Military Service, FNC Says,” National (U.A.E.), March 16, 2014.
 Confidential interviews (Kuwait, December 12, 2016).
 “National Service Must for Emiratis to Get Job,” Khaleej Times, April 13, 2016.
 Ola Salem, “UAE Cabinet Introduces Mandatory Military Service,” The National, January 19, 2014.
 Interviews with Qatari and UAE military officials (Doha, September 30, 2016).
 Interviews with Kuwaiti defense experts and military officers (Kuwait, December 10-16, 2016).
 Cited in Nada Badawi and Shabina Khatri, “Emir: Time to Move Qatar’s People Off of Social Welfare and into Action,” Doha News, November 1, 2016.
 See, for instance, Shu Wen Ng et al., “The Prevalence and Trends of Overweight, Obesity and Nutrition-related Non-communicable Diseases in the Arabian Gulf States,” Obesity Reviews 12,1 (January 2011): 1-13.
 “World Economic Outlook,” International Monetary Fund, April 2015, accessed January 22, 2017, http://statisticstimes.com/economy/projected-world-gdp-capita-ranking.php.
 “Military Service for Emirati Men Offers Benefits and Challenges,” The National, January 20, 2014.
 Cited in “UAE Introduces Compulsory Military Service,” Al Jazeera, June 8, 2014.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.