The UAE Cabinet’s recent decision to endorse draft federal law on compulsory national and reserve service for males aged 18-30 and optional service for women is an important milestone in this young nation’s history. Personally, I am excited by the prospect of serving my country, since I fall within the age limit. My first thoughts on the decision are that it comes at a good time as the country experiences a youth bulge (percentage) and complements the recent discussions relating to national identity. This sends the message that the government is proactive and forward thinking when in comes to approaching these issues.
One of the scenarios the governments of the Gulf region are preparing for is a cool down following the high levels of tension felt during the Arab Spring and its aftermath, especially with the breakthroughs in the multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the stalemate in Syria, and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Although elected in Egypt’s first democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood was generally viewed with apprehension by Gulf rulers, except Qatar, which was its key supporter. With western powers favouring the diplomatic route in resolving issues related to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Gulf states remain on the sidelines of these negotiations as other regional and global powers take the lead in these discussions. For now, it looks like the Gulf remains calm and the states of the region are cautiously optimistic. The future of the Middle East remains highly uncertain though, and governments of the Arab Gulf states have to accept that they cannot take too many things for granted. Like Saudi Arabia, the governments in Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman all seem to be heavily focused on their domestic agendas, in many cases detracting from their ability to exert the same regional influence they did before and in some cases after the Arab Spring. However, unlike other places around the Middle East, the capitals of the Arab Gulf states are stable and attractive regional economic hubs. Local thinking is the best thing for governments in the Gulf and the UAE’s mandatory public service decision is a perfect example of this kind of thinking. This kind of government initiative is likely to increase sentiments of national pride and loyalty within the society. UAE society has always shown strong support for the government and this decision will probably reflect well on public opinion. As the US signals it is playing a lighter hand in the region, moves like the UAE’s mandatory national service show independence in managing security-related concerns.
Military service is not going to be viewed positively by everyone and since this issues stirs a lively debate on various channels, the many teams of government constants are busy gauging public reaction and developing recommendations. The fact is, this decision is a benchmark in the UAE’s 42-year old state/society consciousness and viewed as such, we must take care to consider how this resonates with young Emiratis. The under-18 population is profoundly vulnerable to influences, still being in the nascent process of building their social and idiosyncratic mindsets, let alone socio-political identities.
Many of us forget that September 11, 2001, was more than a decade ago. Since then, a jittery US has cooled off from high-alert and returned to the relatively more stable and recognisable — although increasingly questioned — hegemony. In the early decades of the 21st century, nation-states retain their status as the unquestionably dominant actors in international relations and political identities remain intrinsically tied to them. So as a new generation draws its boundaries of social identity, the nation-state once again forms crucial ties to the superego.
Emirati youth appear to have the best facilities and opportunities available for professional and academic development, with extensive public and private sector investment in higher education institutions, namely the New York University Abu Dhabi, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, American University of Sharjah and Zayed University. These institutions are staffed by highly qualified academics, they are housed in state-of-the-art buildings with high capacities and are filled with the same advanced technical equipment expected at any world-class facility. Producing graduates at steady rates each year, these institutions provide vital throughput to the UAE’s economy, providing young Emiratis with degrees. However, many students face simple language and grammar challenges well into their final years, in spite of having had a foundation year in English language. The most debilitating gap is between the standard of the graduates of public secondary education and the expectations of higher education institutions. The UAE sees itself developing a sustainable knowledge economy and qualified workforce. Although military service helps sustain national identity, Emirati youth need more support with the basics such as better education and a more effective and coherent federal institutional structure to manage knowledge development sustainably.
Some young Emiratis are bound to be not thrilled by the prospect of military service. The UAE is not ranked second highest worldwide for diabetes prevalence because it has the most active population. Whether the directive that the two-year service be reduced to nine months for high school graduates will motivate teenagers to continue with their education remains to be seen, but a decision as big as mandatory military service will definitely be on the mind of many young Emirati men. The only thing that stuck with me since I found out about the decision was that why was this not made mandatory for women as well. The UAE has gone a long way to promote women’s empowerment and a gender-neutral public service mandate just seemed in line with that.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer and a PhD candidate at Durham University. His research focuses on Khaleeji identity and political identity in Arab Gulf states. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab