Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s announcement earlier this week of mandatory military service for all Emirati males between the ages of 18 and 30 might have come as a surprise to some, but the idea has been maturing within the collective thoughts of several regional states, including Qatar.
Conscription is an age-old concept and traditional arguments against it have stated that compulsory service creates inefficiencies and generates social and economic costs for society.
In a 2011 article for this newspaper entitled A volunteer national guard would build on strength, I contended that an ideal system for the UAE would be the introduction of a voluntary, part-time force to serve alongside the military.
While I still believe that professional forces are superior to conscripted ones, the regional situation has changed substantially since then and the responsibility of defence has shifted.
This creates an even greater demand on local militaries to defend the countries where they are engaged. Today, this demand may be so great that the exclusive use of traditional forces would simply be too little, too late.
Armed forces around the GCC are faced with labour shortages that impact on their ability to maximise their capabilities and the equipment at their disposal. In the UAE’s case, this leaves one of two options available: either to tolerate an understrength military or rely on contracted personnel in both combat and support functions.
The former is unacceptable for any country that aspires to properly protect its borders. The latter is the status quo. Thousands of foreign contractors from all over the world continue to man the UAE military’s support and logistic functions, and many are involved in the training and preparation of the armed forces.
The use of contractors brings its own set of challenges. Many contractors do good work here, but some have no incentive or motivation to protect the long-term interests of this country. The more unscrupulous could also potentially export their knowledge once their term of service is over. Additionally, it is often the case that further layers of contractors have to be arranged to support these staff and help them liaise with their Emirati counterparts.
And, despite the theory that privatising an industry makes it cheaper, contractors can cost many times more than their counterparts on staff and can prove unreliable. Perhaps the most extreme example of contractor unreliability is that of Edward Snowden, who compromised the National Security Agency in the US and widely distributed its information before finding asylum in to Moscow.
Therefore, from the perspective of military planners, conscription might be the most feasible long-term solution to make up for the UAE having far too few manpower resources at its disposal.
There are also the under-examined “positive spillover” effects of military training to take into consideration when discussing the merits of conscription.
Militaries offer leadership training, experience in teamwork, and a crash course in getting along with all types of people to accomplish demanding tasks under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances. These are some of the skills that are necessary to carry on a highly demanding job. This is not to mention the technologically intensive assignments that might be available for the entrant, and the positive impact this experience could have on their careers.
An example of this can be found in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.
The authors discuss Israel’s policy of compulsory service for young men and women and how it encourages individuals to develop their skills and join units that reflect their own interests.
One of these units is Unit 8200, an Israeli Signals Intelligence Unit, which is alleged to be the creator of the Stuxnet computer worm. This unit has also served as a springboard for successful startup entrepreneurs after leaving the military. Veterans of the unit have founded leading Israeli IT companies such as ICQ, EZ Chip (maker of Ethernet network processors), Fraud Sciences (which forms the backbone of PayPal security solutions) as well as many other companies in the IT world.
A mandatory period of military service brings with it a whole range of possibilities and responsibilities. If applied correctly, it could serve to strengthen our core interests, secure our country and make future generations more competent, confident and capable in their chosen careers after their military service has ended.
Ahmed Al Attar is a defence and security commentator based in Abu Dhabi
On Twitter: @ahmedwalattar