The UAE's military strength could be bolstered by the greatest national resource: patriotic Emiratis.
A volunteer National Guard would build on strength
Citizen soldiers have played a major role in warfare since the time of Hammurabi 3,900 years ago. When the professional, active corps of a military has too little manpower to achieve its objectives, a citizen soldiery can be vital to national goals.
As we watched the outpouring of patriotism and national unity at the weekend's National Day celebrations, we see a resource that could be tapped to the country's benefit. The prosperous eastern Arab Gulf states including the UAE have large defence manpower needs but small populations. One good solution for the UAE would be to train a solid cadre of part-time soldiers as a national guard that would serve under the existing military authority.
Reliance on foreign powers to safeguard any country's national interests is at best temporary. Britain's 1971 withdrawal left the Gulf states in an unenviable strategic position, unable to properly defend their interests if the need had arisen. Depending on foreign powers alone is a flawed and dangerous game.
This was evident in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. If in the preceding years the Kuwaiti government had developed a large reserve, and deployed it to delay the Iraqi advance, it might have bought time until reinforcements from other countries could have arrived to repel the Iraqi threat. Contrary to popular wisdom, many Kuwaiti units, nightmarishly outnumbered, fought very hard for three days until they ran out of fuel and ammunition.
Development of a reserve would have been a highly worthwhile effort. During Desert Storm, the Iraqi forces were vulnerable in empty desert, but had they instead made the strategically sensible decision to entrench in Kuwait City, there is no doubt that the potential for civilian casualties would have greatly complicated the situation. A Kuwaiti reserve force might have prevented that scenario.
All of the GCC states need to be able to access a larger manpower pool to support their defence. But how does a small country boost its military manpower?
Conscription is one way. Typically conscripts go through a period of mandatory service, from a few months to a few years. But this is a poor alternative if you need quality citizen soldiers. Conscription is not voluntary, so an individual may have no motivation to be a soldier, or may even be incapable of this duty.
An unmotivated and uncommitted force is extremely inefficient. As the quality of a military decreases, so does the likelihood that it could win a conflict. France, Spain, Portugal and Italy have all scrapped their drafts because of the negative effects of conscription on military effectiveness.
And the negative economic effects of conscription have been well-documented. Manpower is unwillingly removed from the economy, and certain skill sets are left in short supply.
There is also concern about the social effects of conscription. In Russia, for example, the draft can involve very brutal hazing, and a high amount of criminal activity. And those conscripts will eventually rejoin society, bringing their new-found vices with them.
The US National Guard system offers a suitable solution for the GCC states. Guardsmen in the US usually undergo a 10-week basic training course. This is followed by part-time service one weekend a month, plus a stretch of two weeks once a year. This system allows service members to pursue their own economic and social activities in private life, but gives them recurrent training so as to maintain them as a reserve with a good level of readiness.
During their entire service period, which can last from three to eight years, national guardsmen are paid a monthly stipend, and are supported to continue their education and employment without penalty. This makes the system ideal for college students, business owners, the unemployed or under-employed, and those who seek to enhance their knowledge and experience while continuing their civilian lives. These arrangements also address the segment of the population which desires to serve the colours, but cannot do so in a full-time regular forces role due to any number of factors.
Service in a new UAE National Guard would allow its members to gain skills needed in the military but also often useful in civilian life. Conversely, the Guard could benefit from the varied skill sets of its recruits. As high school graduates and college students come into the service, they could put their technical, linguistic or administrative skills to use.
Unit preparedness would also greatly improve. As opposed to recruiting in times of crisis, and having to assess and train an enormous rush of manpower, an already-organised and trained National Guard would require little retraining and could be rapidly and effectively deployed. US National Guard units have served regularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing the US military to maintain its commitments in both theatres, and even to find the manpower for the surge in troop numbers in Iraq, which eventually helped to quell the Iraqi insurgency.
Having served as a national emergency response volunteer both in the UAE and abroad, I know from experience that there is no shortage of Emiratis who would be willing to give back to their country for what it has given to them. In these uncertain and unstable times, an Emirati National Guard would have no problem finding volunteers.
Ahmed Al Attar is a security affairs commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @AhmedwAlAttar