Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, more than 20 countries have suspended or abolished conscription. Most were either former Soviet States or within proximity of Moscow. Once the Soviet expansion came to a halt and the highly tense and militarized dual world order came to an end, civil-military relations that dominated that period began to change, ushering different demilitarization processes worldwide. In Europe, especially, this resulted in a shift in military priorities. After the elimination of the imminent threat, once military preparedness and military might become less pressing concerns for European and ex-soviet countries, their respective governments went on to reduce their military supplies as well as the sizes of their military personnel. This was mainly done by changing the military recruitment systems from compulsory to voluntary – in other words, abolishing and/or suspending conscription.
In the long run, this trend promised a less militarized and more “peaceful” international order where different countries and regions could (re)start cooperation. In the early 2000s, following the US invasion of Iraq, attitudes opposing militarist rhetoric and mandatory military service reached their peak, with thousands of anti-war protests held worldwide and discussions on conscientious objection gaining momentum. However, international cooperation and/or dialogue along with disarmament protocols did not expand to all countries or regions. Although there was an expressed willingness, especially in Western countries, to depend more on international cooperation than armed conflicts to advance political ambitions, certain countries remained dependent on military preparedness, military supplies, and populous armies.
In the Middle East, the US invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring of 2011, and the subsequent foreign interventions in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, brought military preparedness and competence to the surface again. This led to a return of compulsory military service not only in countries that are at war and/or under the threat of military intervention but also in other countries. This was the case of certain Gulf countries including Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which historically seldom resorted to conscription.
Qatar introduced conscription in 2013, followed by the UAE in 2014. Kuwait, on the other hand, reintroduced it in 2014, having practiced conscription between 1961 and 2001. Until recently, these countries’ militaries were formed by a national officer corps, foreign - mostly Western- expert non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and foreign contract soldiers coming from different countries (Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Oman). The fact these three GCC countries resorted to conscription after running volunteer military systems raises several questions concerning the development of civil-military relations in the region. What are the driving forces of this return to conscription? How does it fit into the broader geopolitics of the region? And what does it mean for the future of civil-military relations and nation-building in the Gulf?
Conscription in the Gulf
In November 2013, Qatar passed a new law regarding compulsory military service for men. It requires male Qatari citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve in the armed forces for three months (the first two in a training camp, and the third in the army), or four months if they are not high school graduates. After this relatively short period of training, there are two phases of reserve service: the first continues for 5-10 years after the initial training, not exceeding 14 days annually, and the second continues until the recruit is 40 years old, during which he can be called upon when necessary. Current students, citizens with medical conditions, and those who have no siblings are exempt from mandatory service. However, those who failed to enlist without any valid reason could face up to a month in jail and a QR50,000 fine (approx. USD14,000).
In 2018, not long after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, the Qatari government amended the National Service Law, introducing national service for women and extending its duration for men. While the national service remains voluntary for women over the age of 18, men are now expected to serve a year instead of three or four months. The new law gives eligible men only 60 days after they come of age to apply to the military and stipulates harsher punishment (up to three years in jail plus a fine) for those who fail to do so.
In the UAE, the Federal National Council passed in March 2014 the bill to introduce conscription in the country for the first time. Although the bill was officially approved in 2014, it was on the agenda of the country’s leadership for almost a decade. The 44-article legislation requires Emirati men aged 18 to 30 to enlist in the armed forces. High school graduates serve nine months while those who fail to complete their secondary education are subject to two years of mandatory service. Men who complete their military service become part of the reserves until they are aged 58 – 60 if they are officers. Women can also enlist voluntarily. Citizens who fail to enlist in military service without a valid reason could be jailed for up to a year and/or fined between Dh10,000 to Dh50,000 (approx. USD2,800-USD14,000).
As for Kuwait, the country abolished conscription in 2001 and its National Assembly approved a law that reintroduced conscription to the armed forces. The Kuwaiti law, which entered into force in 2017, requires men over the age of 18 to complete a yearlong military service and be a part of the reserve force for 30 days a year until they reach 45. The new law also provides punitive measures such as an extension of the recruitment period, a travel ban, a fine, and jail time for those who fail to register.
Since the beginning of the 2020s, several articles were written on the economic, social, and geopolitical reasons behind Gulf countries’ shift in military recruitment strategy. The security problems originating from Iran and Yemen, the willingness to exercise soft power in the region along with the volatile energy sector, and the ruptures within the rentier state model are put forward as the main justifications behind the Gulf countries’ developing defense industries and growing their armies. In this context, compulsory military service does play an important role, be it to increase the size of the army, cause deterrence in the region or create new job opportunities and a qualified workforce out of young citizens.
However, making military service compulsory not only has tangible practical advantages for the countries’ economies and internal-external policies but can also create intangible moral advantages, and thus have significant effects on these countries’ civil-military relations. The biggest reason for this is the symbiotic relationship that has formed over time between compulsory military service and national sentiment. In this sense, introducing conscription shows an effort to turn these societies into nations where individuals would be bound to one another by national sentiment and not the rentier state model they have so far known.
A Brief History of Nationalism-Militarism Axis
The symbiotic relationship between nationalism and militarism has its roots in the French Revolution. After the Revolution, different currents of nationalism emerged to engage in drawn-out clashes with one another. In the Imperialist Europe of the time, these developments caused conflict and war, which intensified with the industrial revolution and the production of more devastating arms. Subsequently, when conflicting ideologies clashed, the goal became to bring destruction and/or total domination over the adversary. And it was soon understood that a complete mobilization of all the available sources – men and technologies – was required to fight these new multifront wars with foreign powers and still survive the economic realities of the new industrial era. This ushered in an era of total wars and the rise of mass armed forces, requiring warring armies to be strong, big, and nationally conscious.
To thrive in these newly emerging conflicts, European states resorted to strategic solutions, the most common of which was conscription. Conscription is a very important concept for analyzing the close relationship between militarism and nationalism in certain countries, with France perhaps being the most historic example of such a relationship. After the French Revolution and to strengthen a weakened army, the French National Convention resorted to conscription – a practice that was already in use in Prussia for lower classes. During the Revolutionary Wars, rural France was mobilized to combat the Revolution’s domestic and external enemies. As Mehmet Beşikçi explains, “The French Revolution’s levée en masse was enacted in 1793 to confront the threat of a multifront war with foreign powers and of rebellions at home by summoning all able-bodied men to defend the ‘nation’.” Unlike its adversaries, France fought these wars as a nation-in-arms, whose seeds were germinated by the levée en masse, in which the entire male population was conscripted and was at the service of the army.
However, when it comes to the concept of nation-in-arms, Prussia occupies more space in academia compared to France. This is because, after its defeat by Napoleon’s highly organized and bureaucratized conscript army, Prussia carried out a series of reforms to build a national will strong enough to win total wars and claim more territory. This meant that old military practices such as resorting to mercenaries would be replaced by calling on the people of the nation, where every man, woman, and child would mobilize and contribute to the war effort. The initial step towards this mobilization was taken by reworking the conscription system the French previously introduced and making “protecting the state” a national duty in the eyes of the draftees. Yet, to obtain the envisioned political and strategic grandeur, a more rooted indoctrination of national values was needed and happened mainly through education. To raise obedient and productive citizens who wore the same uniform, spoke the same language, and sang the same anthems, education became an important tool in the nation-building process. In Prussia, this “new form of nationalist socialization” was provided through military establishments with the hope that, after their discharge from military service, men would remain loyal to the state and transfer their sentiment and what they “learned” to the rest of the population.
However, it was the Great War that drastically changed the civil-military relations of the time and proved the relevance of concepts such as compulsory military service, national mobilization, protection of the homeland, patriotic duty, and total war.
Conscription was, therefore, not only a social tool that revived the patriotic feelings of the society but also one that reoriented the civil-military relations of the period by centralizing and strengthening the authority of the state over society.
Conscription as a Nation-Building Tool in the Gulf
Considering the recent security concerns in the region and the world, including foreign interventions in the Middle East (including in Syria, Yemen, and Libya) and the recent invasion of Ukraine, one could argue that, through mandatory military service, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, these three Gulf countries are trying to channel nationalistic sentiments and community belonging in their respective societies. Decreasing oil revenues, Iran’s expanding influence and the emergence of multiple extremist non-state actors in the region are among the various factors that increase the necessity of having tightly bound societies – something that is currently missing in their rentier state model.
In the case of these three rentier states, conscription can potentially be an efficient tool to boost patriotism and loyalty. Bringing together young compatriots under the obligation of a national service – in the sense that is a service rendered for the nation – fosters an environment where these conscripts are constantly indoctrinated to serve their people, country, and the ruling ideology. However, mandatory military service in these countries should not be seen as a way to efficiently raise strong and competent armies. First, like their Gulf neighbors, neither Qatar, Kuwait, nor the UAE is populated enough to sustain a competent standing army. Most of their populations are made of ex-pats who are not subject to conscription laws. Second, their current system of outsourcing military needs has proven to be efficient in the long run, with all three countries continuing to invest in contracting foreign soldiers to efficiently populate their armies. Therefore, the new conscription laws should be seen as a symbolic move to strengthen nationalistic bonds and ambitions.
While foreign contract soldiers do provide an efficient and adequate military force, they rarely possess emotional bonds toward the country in which they serve and for which they fight. For both the hiring Gulf states and the foreign contract soldiers, the arrangement is no more than a business relationship, which explains why contract soldiers maintain a rather indifferent stance toward the host countries’ internal and external affairs, and seldom express resentments. In return, the Gulf states welcome this neutral attitude and regard foreign contract soldiers as any other foreign state employee.
Up until recently, having a military force that is indifferent towards the host countries’ policies and ambitions has been considered an effective shield against any possible coups from within. The less attached the foreign soldiers are to the country where they serve, the less likely they are to sympathize with internal social or political causes or participate in attempts to dissent or overthrow those in power. Introducing conscription and, thus, giving in a top-down manner the country’s men and women a purpose, is a way to break this listless attitude towards the country and bind the society with the homeland and with its rulers, to create a patriotic nation that can collectively overcome current economic and security challenges such as the on-going conflict in Yemen, the threat from Iran and the volatile energy sector.
The UAE as a Case Study
Since the mid-2010s, the UAE has been trying to enhance military ethos in the northern emirates to strengthen the ties with the central Abu Dhabi government and promote social cohesion. Central to this effort is the mandatory military service and the role it plays in strengthening center-periphery ties by uniting compatriots behind a nationalistic message than political or economic ones.
For example, until the early 2010s, the relationship between the Emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah (RAK) and the central Emirati government has been strained because of the former’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In the early 1970s, MB’s Emirati group, Jamʿiat al-Islah wa-l-Tawjih al-Ijtimaʿi (Reform and Social Counselling Association, also known as the Islah Movement) was generally accepted by the central government, with the Emirate of RAK and its leaders becoming adamant supporters of the movement in the 1980s when the group was systematically enlarging its influence in the country. RAK maintained its strong ties with the movement even after the latter’s tense relations with the central government, culminating in waves of judicial investigations into the group in the 1990s and the central authorities’ zero-tolerance policy towards extremists after the 9/11 attacks. This was followed by a complete crackdown on the movement after the Arab Spring in 2012 when the authorities arrested and imprisoned Islah members and organized media campaigns to discredit the movement and its supporters. In the meantime, RAK defended the group and allowed its operations to continue within the Emirate. This created a political divide between RAK and the Federal Government on top of the existing socioeconomic one when it comes to GDP per capita, the density of Emirati nationals, sources of income, and employment rates. “In the context of such economic, demographic, and ideological disparities, the military represents not only a way for residents of northern emirates to improve their socioeconomic status but also for Abu Dhabi to engineer more social cohesion”. Even for a short period, Emirati men from different Emirates and socioeconomic backgrounds are put together in a context that equalizes them. This equalization is not only provided by the physical aspects of mandatory military service (such as wearing the same uniforms and doing the same drills) but also by the act of gathering the country’s men under one purpose: protecting the country and the nation.
In the case of the UAE, the effort of enhancing social cohesion through mandatory military service -within a general trend of militarization - is concretized by the conflict in Yemen. Although the UAE has not been entirely successful in Yemen, the federal government managed to mobilize all of the Emirates’ trust and support for the case, including RAK. RAK along with other emirates like Fujairah are “…poorer than Abu Dhabi or Dubai and with fewer expatriates, [and] have traditionally been the backbone of UAE’s armed forces”. Regardless of RAK’s disagreement with the central government on supporting the Islah Movement, this trend of providing manpower to the country’s army did not change with UAE’s involvement in Yemen. This is not only because RAK is the closest Emirate to Iran but also because the central government has successfully managed to portray Yemen as a national security concern, with conscription providing the best social space to arouse these collective concerns and indoctrinate conscripts with the leadership’s ideology. By establishing a militarized discourse, which glorifies national holidays/martyrs and creates common enemies, the UAE government manages to bring together different Emirates under the umbrella of one nation and subtly influence different rulers in the region to agree on issues over which there was little consensus before.
Potential Consequences of Introducing Conscription
No matter how important for these Gulf countries to present themselves as regional actors with strong national ties and rapidly advancing defense industries, making military service compulsory is not without consequences.
Firstly, although the Gulf monarchies exercise totalistic control over their state systems and societies, there is no guarantee that the conscripts, who were given the symbolic task of protecting the country and its people, will not revolt against the monarchies in the name of increased social liberties. In other words, paradoxically, the exact nationalistic sentiment and loyalty that the Gulf countries try to channel among their citizens can backfire if the people (including the conscripts) were to ever resent the rulers and their policies. This is rather contrary to the long-established coup-proofing strategies that Arab countries followed over the years. However, given the low numbers of citizens that will be drafted each year, the risk of such revolts taking place remains low.
Secondly, making military service compulsory may lead to an increase in the discourse of conscientious objection inside and outside these countries. In Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar, there are legal sanctions in place against anyone who fails to enlist when they become eligible and conscientious objection is not recognized. This could cause or further the feeling of oppression and resentment and trigger protests and turmoil in these countries. However, at this stage, this risk is low but still a possibility as seen in Thailand, Israel, and Armenia.
Thirdly, the development of a militaristic national self within Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar can cause intra-state tensions and polarization in the region. Until now, there has been general support for introducing conscription in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2016, the GCC Secretariat organized a conference called “Security in the Eyes of the Youth” to highlight the need for conscription in light of the recent developments with Yemen, Iran, and the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. However, as demonstrated by the blockade on Qatar, political disagreements and ideological differences between the GCC members exist to this day. If these disagreements were to persist and/or aggravate, the presence of more developed and powerful citizen armies might further entangle the region by inducing physical and ideological clashes between them. Yet, considering the current symbolic nature of conscription and national service in the region with very little service time and low citizen populations, such clashes remain unlikely.
Since the early 2010s Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait have respectively introduced and/or reintroduced conscription, triggered by a series of economic, societal, or geopolitical motivations. However, when examined carefully, these motivations can be put together under the desire to create a sense of national belonging and collective memory that is loyal to the governing body. The aim is not only to be rentier states but also to unite their societies as a nation against all threats (economic, political, military, etc.).
However, it is too early to draw any definite conclusions about the effectiveness of conscription in strengthening national bonds in the Gulf context. Bringing compatriots under one roof for one cause is a step forward, but it has its own practical limitations and potential consequences. There is a clear effort from Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE towards strengthening national ties and using it as a soft power tool in the region. However, only time will show how this desire will concretize later. Will the war in Yemen, the threat of Iran, the decreasing global dependency on oil, and the growing influence of armed non-state actors be enough as “common enemies” to bring these societies together as nations? Will compulsory military service succeed in becoming an important educational tool on the path of nationalistic indoctrination? Or will the citizens of these countries continue to regard concepts such as military service, love of the nation, and patriotic duty as symbolic and remain indifferent to the "nation-building" project of their respective states?
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.