Leaders in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are promoting militarization as a way to strengthen their rule. In a recent example, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have introduced conscription for male nationals, which highlighted concerted efforts to introduce a militarized nationalism.
Over the past two decades, the Emirati and the Qatari governments (and to a lesser extent the Saudi monarchy) have been implementing top-down identity projects to forge homogeneous and recognizable national identities. This includes exhibitions and museums displaying national history and heritage, National Day celebrations, and heritage festivals. Social engineering through school curricula has also become critical for promoting an identity able to overcome confessional, tribal, and territorial divides.
In this context, Gulf monarchies’ post-rentier strategies are increasingly relying on a military dimension to drive their national identity projects. This is a new element in these countries’ state formation processes. In the UAE and Qatar, the role of the military was absent from state building, which was instead driven by oil revenues and external powers. After establishing a state, these countries started an embryonic and still ongoing process of nation building in which the military dimension remained marginal. By contrast, the military was important to the creation of Saudi Arabia, wherein the Saud family used ties with the Wahhabis to mobilize tribal fighters (the Ikhwan) to secure the kingdom’s borders. But even in this case, the military factor did not play a prominent role in nation building. Instead, since 1932 religion has been far more decisive in conveying a sense of Saudi national unity.
In addition to that, domestically, the Gulf monarchies have been engaged in a gradual process of economic restructuring to build sustainable post-oil states able to navigate a volatile energy market. This current complex juncture, which mixes demanding domestic transformations and external challenges, requires stronger national ties and sense of belonging. The traditional social pact no longer seems able to ensure loyalty and cohesion. Militarization offers a top-down process focused on identity and shared values, in which military narratives and symbols can boost patriotic feelings and mobilize citizens around flags and leaders.
In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the military dimension has fostered a hyper-nationalist trend. This emphasis on the military can be seen in the arms race in which the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are engaging. Qatar has become the world’s third largest importer of arms (mainly airpower), reflecting a 282 percent rise in military purchases between 2012 and 2016. Qatar and the UAE are each spent around 10 percent or more of their GDP on defense in 2018, and in Saudi Arabia’s 2018 budget, defense expenditures were higher than for education. “If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” bragged Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in a March 2018 interview with CBS News.
However, militarization has not only been about hard power. In this case, the process has aimed to strengthen rulers’ powers and foster a bottom-up sense of pride among nationals. In Saudi Arabia, militarization reflects the increased concentration of power in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman, who has started a deep restructuring of military and security agencies in an effort to consolidate his rule. In the UAE, militarization means centralization to enhance the strategic primacy of Abu Dhabi over the other six emirates within the loose federation (especially Dubai) and to support the Emiratis’ ambitious plans to project geopolitical power. In Qatar, militarization serves a defensive purpose: since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift began in June 2017, Doha considers autarchy and self-defense as essential and sees patriotism as a kind of resistance to the Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott. In each case, drives to militarize—such as the introduction of conscription in the UAE and Qatar in 2013–2014 and its reintroduction in Kuwait in 2017—must necessarily take into account national identities and recognition by external powers.
As part of this trend, public holidays and initiatives aiming to enhance national identities through a military lens have multiplied. These include National Day parades, military demonstrations, and “martyrs’ commemorations” celebrating soldiers who lost their lives serving the nation. For example, the Saudi National Guard has organized the Janadriya National Festival of Heritage and Culture every year since 1985, thus taking on—long before the other monarchies—an additional cultural role. In the UAE, the Union Fortress military demonstration, first held in March 2017 in Abu Dhabi, has rapidly turned into a national identity moment incorporating military drills, patriotic music, and pictures of each emirate’s leaders together. Later iterations of Union Fortress have been held in Ajman, Fujairah, and Sharjah—the latter combined with the UAE Flag Day—further heightening its resonance among the more peripheral emirates. And as seen by Qatar’s 2018 National Day celebrations, the military dimension has become more prominent in recent years. The 2018 military parade was longer and three times larger than in 2017. Marching along Doha’s Corniche, the Qatari armed forces sang patriotic songs and chanted the slogan, “As long as it was proven by our deeds, Qatar will remain free,” thus linking military strength with national resistance against the current boycott.
Official political discourse also spreads this militarized nationalism. As Qatari Minister of State for Defense Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah stated, conscription helps Qataris become “ideal citizens.” During an address to the emir on Qatar’s 2017 National Day, he added, “All these forces [the armed forces] are your sons, the fruits of your good efforts in building a strong shield to protect the homeland and raise its name high among the nations.” And according to Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Emirati soldiers embody sacrifice, belonging, and patriotism, qualities that render them “heroes” and “positive models” for the nation. In Saudi Arabia, the 2016 National Day was celebrated with the slogan, “Our Heroes Are in Our Hearts,” referring to Saudi soldiers serving along the Yemeni border, and in 2018 Prince Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud, governor of Makkah, wrote a poem titled “I wish to be with you” to support and thank Saudi troops at border.
In this framework, militarization bolsters regime security, thereby serving national security twice over. Although focused on resident citizens, militarized nationalism can also involve expatriates, as during National Days. However, rising nationalist feelings are likely to enhance regional polarization. For instance, Qatar is increasingly building an identity that emphasizes differences from its neighbors: Qatari nationhood pits “us” against “them,” and the military factor helps strengthen and prepare the nation against external threats. Militarized nationalism—from a leadership perspective—should support the transition to post-rentier Gulf societies, boosting civic engagement and national pride. Yet the acceleration of the ongoing process of nation building, coupled with a troubled intra-GCC relationship, could consolidate rivalries within the GCC, thus hampering the very shared Gulf (khaleeji) identity that the council had long nurtured.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation and Aspen Institute Italia.