x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

We should all salute the introduction of national service

National Service will be good for the nation and also good for the conscripts, says a slightly envious Peter Hellyer.

National service will provide a way for young Emiratis to give something back to the country that has given so much to them. Christopher Pike / The National
National service will provide a way for young Emiratis to give something back to the country that has given so much to them. Christopher Pike / The National

In recent months, a young colleague has developed the habit of coming smartly to attention when he sees me in the corridor and of snapping off a smart salute. It’s not something I feel I really deserve – my own military experience doesn’t extend beyond reaching the exalted rank of lance corporal in my school cadet force half a century ago.

Later this year, he, and thousands like him, will have the opportunity to deliver smart salutes in a proper setting when they commence their national service. For him, it’ll be a nine month stint, since he’s completed his education. Other young Emiratis who have failed to complete secondary school have two years service ahead of them.

I have no personal experience of national service. It was scrapped in Britain a few years before I would have become eligible. It is, however, something that I wholeheartedly welcome for the UAE.

At one level, it will provide a way for young Emiratis to give something back to the country that has given so much to them. They’ll learn how the UAE is protected by other young men who put in long hours, often in harsh conditions and, for those who serve abroad, often in conditions of great personal danger.

This will, one hopes, engender both a greater sense of pride in their country and the satisfaction to be derived from playing their own part in protecting it.

The purpose of introducing national service, however, goes beyond the desire to instil a greater sense of national identity, important though that may be.

There is also the conscious intention of helping to prepare these young men for the years after their compulsory service has come to an end.

Some, perhaps some of the best, will choose to follow a career in the armed forces, and that’s all to the good. Most, though, will return to civilian life, a little tougher and a little more mature, with the recognition that their own futures will depend on their own efforts, not on what is given to them.

Many of those today emerging from their teenage years are, to put it bluntly, spoilt. Rarely rising to the challenges they should surmount in school, rarely short of a few dirhams when they desire the latest electronic toy, rarely told to get out of the house and earn a living, these guys are going to face a short, sharp shock.

For many, I predict, it’ll be the making of them, particularly those who have a full two years of service ahead of them. They’ll go in as boys and they’ll come out as young men.

Having been saluted by my young colleague yesterday morning, I sat down with an older colleague, recently retired from the armed forces after 30 years of service and now serving the state as a civilian. What, I asked, would be the benefits of national service for those who will now have to complete it?

He picked out the teaching of discipline as being the most important of all. But, he said, there will be other benefits too – learning to operate as a team, for example, depending on others and having others dependent on you.

Learning to give as well as to receive orders, and to take responsibility for your own actions – learning to lead as well as to follow. Learning to stretch oneself to the limit of one’s capabilities – and finding out that those capabilities extend further than one realises.

The experience on which these young Emirati men are now about to embark, he feels, will equip them for life long after their days of square-bashing have passed. He has no doubt about its value, and nor do I.

Both he and I wondered about how many young women will also take the opportunity to volunteer for national service themselves and we agreed that a surprisingly large number might choose to do so.

If some of them are anything like the UAE’s first female graduate from Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, whom I had the pleasure to meet recently, the young men are going to face some tough competition.

To all of those who are soon to commence national service, like my young colleague as well as the gang of young yobs I saw at a mall on Friday night, I offer my best wishes. It may prove to be the making of them, but it’ll be of enormous value for the country as well. In a way, I rather envy them.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture