In the Gulf monarchies, civil-military relations are at a turning point. In contrast to their historical system of clearly separating citizens from soldiers—many of whom had been recruited from other Arab or Muslim nations—Gulf states are increasingly using conscription to enhance national identities.
Qatar was the first to introduce conscription for male citizens in 2013, requiring men aged 18-35 to register to serve 3 to 4 months—extending this to one year in March 2018. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) followed suit in 2014, requiring men aged 18-30 to serve between 9 months and two years depending on their education level, and in 2017 Kuwait likewise reintroduced its one-year mandatory service for men aged 18-35, which it had previously abolished in 2001. In Qatar, those who have completed their service can be recalled to active duty as needed within the following ten years until the age of 40, and in a state of war or declaration of martial law, active conscripts may be retained even after their term of service is up. Kuwait can similarly recall former conscripts for 30 days per year until they reach age 45, and the UAE requires two to four weeks of annual training for past conscripts up to age 58 (or 60 for officers).
Not all men who register in these countries are called to service, and the laws do allow deferments and exemptions—for example in Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar, in addition to health reasons, a man may be exempt from service if he is the “son of a martyr” who is also the main household provider. However, fines and imprisonment are imposed on draft dodgers or those who fail to register.
Furthermore, the UAE inaugurated women’s voluntary enrollment for nine-month terms in June 2014, extending these to twelve–month terms in 2016. Qatar did the same in March 2018, and on February 26, Saudi Arabia too announced the start of the voluntary military service for women. Kuwait’s defense minister, Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has also suggested the introduction of conscription for women.
In contrast, in February 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Chairman of the Security Committee of the Shura Council, Major-General Abdul Hadi al-Amri, ruled out the possibility of instituting conscription for Saudi male nationals, reasoning that voluntary enlistment would still satisfy Saudi armed forces’ manpower needs. However, many Saudi voices have openly supported the introduction of mandatory military service, including Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh, who stressed the necessity of military training for male citizens in times of rising geopolitical threats, and female Shura member Iqbal Darandari, who called for a mandatory draft for men and women as a national duty.
This reliance on conscription reflects the Gulf monarchies’ efforts to cope with interconnected regional changes. Notably, the decline in global oil prices has reduced their capacity to provide welfare and benefits to foreign nationals, including those who have served in their militaries. In addition, regional instability and the growing presence of militant non-state actors has generated a desire for a stronger national bond. Despite its potential political risks, conscription is an effective tactic to boost loyalty and patriotism, as already seen in times of monarchical succession. For instance, Qatar’s National Service Law was promulgated in November 2013, a few months after Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani acceded to the throne in June. And Saudi Arabia’s decision to open up military service to women coincides with the unprecedented military operations in Yemen, full reorganization of the security sector, and the gradual “Saudization” of the workforce pursued by Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman.
Public rhetoric sheds further light on the Gulf states’ intent. Compulsory military service will help Qataris to become “ideal citizens,” stated Doha’s Minister of State for Defense, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, before the launch of the program, highlighting the initiative’s civic education purpose. Lectures on national history, security and citizenship are part of the Qatari national service program, a model that the UAE and Kuwait followed when they instituted their own drafts. Qatar might also invest more financial and human resources in military service: the ongoing boycott organized by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain is boosting nationalist feelings among Qataris, who are more likely than before to consider it a duty to provide military service to the nation.
The UAE’s military service is similarly designed as a national education program that supplements the path of basic to specialized military training. In March 2016, the UAE also opened the National Service School of the Presidential Guard to provide further applied training, planning to have enrollment stabilize at two classes of 5000 conscripts each per year, and offered an additional abbreviated version of the national service for male volunteers aged 30 to 40 who wished to serve, as well as an “alternative service” of administrative or technical work for volunteers who do not meet basic requirements.
Coupled with military-driven foreign policies, conscription is blending together national mobilization and external projection of power. This connection is clearly seen in the Gulf militaries’ collective mourning for their soldiers—mostly Emiratis—who have died in the war in Yemen. In addition to soldiers from the Presidential Guard, some Emirati conscripts were sent to Yemen, despite their lack of combat experience, although the UAE stopped sending these conscripts after a Houthi attack in Mareb killed 45 Emiratis on September 4, 2015. Local media and rulers celebrate these soldiers as martyrs of the nation, and in November 2016 the Martyrs’ Families’ Affairs Office further installed the Wahat al-Karama (“Oasis of Dignity”) in Abu Dhabi, a permanent memorial to Emirati soldiers who lost their lives serving the nation.
The Gulf states are also using conscription to support national-oriented policies. For instance, the UAE seeks to reduce the presence of foreign nationals in the military, who formed about 40 percent of the armed forces in the 1990s. The UAE has since prioritized recruitment from Northern emirates such as Ras al-Khaimah, which together make up 61 percent of the population, aiming to both reinforce their ties to Abu Dhabi and increase Northern tribal support for the military—a relationship that conscription would further cement. Significantly, in August 2015, the UAE announced that children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers (currently prevented from holding citizenship) become eligible for naturalization if they voluntarily join the national service.
Similarly, in March 2018, the National Assembly of Kuwait voted to again allow the stateless Bidoon to join the army, for which they had been eligible until 2004, and to begin accepting non-Kuwaiti volunteers as contractual or non-commissioned officers. Although this is partly to address the declining number of military volunteers in Kuwait over the past ten years, the choice to mandate national service—rather than depending on mercenaries—underlines the government’s goals of building up collective identity via the military.
In Kuwait, conscription also supports its national economic goals. Although about 6500 men are of an age to be conscripted according to the law, only 140 have been recruited in the country’s first batch of national service members. Although some men failed to register on time, 2233 of the qualifying men received an academic exemption. Moreover, Kuwait’s business community had feared that reintroducing conscription would interrupt careers, so the National Assembly agreed to exempt private sector workers from the compulsory draft. This decision encourages Kuwaiti nationals to choose employment in the private sector, since the public sector is overwhelmed.
At the same time, these policies seek to compensate for recent unpopular measures, including the reduction of subsidies and increased taxation—in particular the introduction of Value Added Taxes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in January 2018, and plans by the other Gulf states to do the same in 2019. In this context, soldiers are the symbolic frontrunners of the sacrifices currently demanded of all citizens. Not only does this reduce opposition to the gradual reduction of social welfare, but it also enables new rulers or crown princes to pursue the military-driven foreign policies they rely on to portray themselves as strong leaders.
Therefore, the top-down measures to increase participation of nationals in military activities are driven primarily by social and cultural intents such as fostering a sense of nationalism, rather than purely military goals such as creating a reserve force, which is made more difficult by the low percentage of nationals in smaller Gulf states—for example, citizens make up only about 12 percent of Qatar’s population and 11 percent of the UAE’s population.
The Gulf monarchies are gradually reshaping their traditional pattern of civil-military relations, which had been strictly based on regime security and coup-proofing strategies wherein there was a clear separation between soldiers and citizens. In mobilizing national identities, soldiers are now playing the role of “modernizers” forging a strengthened relationship between society and the armed forces. In this framework, Gulf states increasingly conceive of and use conscription as a national engineering project to give them the public support needed to make the transition to post-rentier models amid a tense regional environment.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), and an analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation and Aspen Institute Italia.