Attrition: The UAE Tries Conscription


January 23, 2014:   The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has adopted conscription in an effort to maintain its military strength, create a reserve force of trained citizens and be less dependent on mercenaries. Conscription is rare in Arabia, but the growing Iranian threat is causing many radical ideas to become acceptable.

The main idea behind the UAE conscription plan is to get all qualified (for military service) Emirati men aged 18-30 trained so they can fight effectively if called up in wartime. In effect the UAE wants to emulate the Israeli system. The UAE will only keep conscripts in uniform for 9-24 months and that will all be for training. College educated men will stay in longer and be trained as officers or technical experts. After that everyone will be in the reserves and organized into units that will train regularly for as long as they are able. That usually means for about twenty years. That is the plan, sort of. A lot of details have not been announced yet. But if the UAE went through with this they would have an armed force of 270,000 trained troops within days of mobilization. 

Meanwhile the UAE depends on UAE volunteers and a lot of mercenaries to man a force of some 70,000 troops. To maintain even this forces has required some innovation. For example, back in 2011 the UAE formed a battalion of 800 troops composed of Western contractors who were combat veterans. This force was recruited from men who had combat experience and were then trained as a counter-terrorism and rapid reaction force. This new battalion is but a small portion of the many foreigners already serving in the UAE armed forces. Hiring foreign mercenaries, to ensure that the rulers are protected by troops who are the most skilled and reliable, is an old custom in the region. Actually, it used to be a widespread practice worldwide. Some Western nations, like the Vatican, still retains foreign mercenaries. In this case, it's the Swiss Guards, which the popes have been using for over 500 years ago, because the locals were too often unreliable.

The UAE battalion is recruiting men who have been trained to Western standards, which means many do not come from Western countries. Gurkha veterans of British or Indian service are welcome, as are special operations troops from anywhere. Colombian veterans, who have been fighting drug gangs and leftist rebels for decades, were also sought and ended up being the largest national contingent in the battalion. The unit is unified by English (a few hundred key words needed for military operations) and similar training and military experience. Beyond that, it's a true multinational force.

The UAE armed forces are small, about 70,000 troops, and many of them (the exact number is kept secret, but is believed to be about a third) are foreigners with UAE citizenship. Most of the eight million people in the UAE are neither citizens, nor even Arabs. About 16 percent of the UAE population are citizens, and only about ten percent of the total population is Arab. The majority (80 percent) are foreigners, mostly from South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India). The rest are from the West, Africa and Iran. This is not unusual in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf.

The problem is that all the oil wealth has, over the last sixty years, changed the lifestyles, and aspirations, of the citizenry. The Arab citizens of the UAE have become very picky when it comes to jobs. Most jobs available, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy. Thus most UAE citizens prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy, 99 percent of the jobs are held by foreigners. The owners are often citizens, but the workers are almost always imported foreigners. Most are male, resulting in nearly 70 percent of the UAE population being male. The unemployment rate among citizens is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. The unemployment benefits are generous, so no one has any incentive to do something crazy, like joining the army. The conscription law changes that.

While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other high-tech systems UAE has bought in the last decade look impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department, the UAE has some serious problems. And it is generally very difficult to get the UAE to even discuss the situation.

Examples are widely available, and seen daily by the thousands of Western technicians, specialists and trainers hired by the UAE to keep their high-tech gear operational. Western trainers are also used to impart military skills to those that can be persuaded to enlist. That's why so many foreigners are accepted into the military, with the promise of citizenship. Standards for these foreign recruits is higher, but their loyalty is not as certain. This is where the new "mercenary battalion" comes in. In addition to having some more highly skilled troops for special operations type missions (like hostage rescue or anti-terror operations), you also have some skilled soldiers who can be depended on to protect the royal family. These guys are there for the money, and because such units have, historically, been dependable. In other words, when bought, they stay bought. That's what made the Swiss so popular as mercenaries for so long. Switzerland went neutral in the early 19th century, and that meant no more mercenaries (officially, anyway, except for the Vatican). Otherwise, the UAE might have just hired a battalion of Swiss Guards.

Many Arabs in the Persian Gulf area are aware of these problems, especially those who have studied in the West, or spent some time there. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Arabs seek ways to work around these problems. For example, the Saudi royal family established the National Guard in the 1930s, as a private, tribal army, that is now almost as large as the regular army and considered more dependable and effective than the regulars. That's because the National Guard troops follow traditional rules of military leadership, and have a personal relationship with the king. Only men from tribes that are known to be loyal to the Saud family may join, and they are expected to make their family and tribe proud. Saddam Hussein, and other Arab leaders, form similar forces. Saddam had his Republican Guard. Despots the world over tend to have a guard force recruited more for blood ties and loyalty, than for anything else. In the UAE, the Arab minority is following another traditional, and ancient, path. They are hiring foreign mercenaries, who know that their main job is to ensure that their employers are protected.

In the entire region, the regular forces (army, navy and air force) are just government jobs, run by another government bureaucracy. There are lower standards because there are none of the family or tribal ties that demand better. Only in the West do most people give the same devotion and respect to non-family/tribal institutions. So the UAE is importing another Western custom; professional, dependable, Western troops along with conscription of the locals.




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