There are angry parents in the UAE (United Arab Emirate) because their sons have been killed in combat in Yemen. UAE customarily hires foreign mercenaries whenever possible but times have changed and some families have not adapted. The UAE adopted conscription in 2014 in order to maintain the strength of its armed forces. This was not popular with many UAE citizens, but given the growing threat from Iran it was seen as a necessary evil. But now the UAE government has a public relations problem because hundreds of these conscript soldiers were sent to fight in Yemen and several have been killed and many more wounded. Families complain that their conscripted sons, none of whom have any combat experience, should not have been sent to war zone. The parents are told that the only way to gain combat experience is by being in combat and that’s why their sons were conscripted in the first place. Moreover most emirates understand that the Shia rebels in Yemen are openly backed by Iran and this is just the sort of situation that conscription was instituted to deal with. But the grim consequences are another matter.
The UAE troops comprise about half the strength of a recently (July) formed mechanized combat brigade of about 3,000 troops and over a hundred armored vehicles. This unit has come to be called the Arab Brigade because about half the brigade consists of UAE troops, including many UAE men with family ties to Yemen and knowledge of local dialects and customs. The rest of the brigade is largely Saudi. The Yemen family connections of many of the UAE soldiers is one reason the conscripts were sent. The brigade arrived via the port of Aden in early August and immediate joined the fight. The Arab Brigade is apparently responsible for many of the recent victories of the Yemeni government forces.
The UAE adopted conscription for other reasons, like creating a reserve force of trained citizens and thus 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 an emergency. 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 are still being worked out. The UAE goal is to be 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 already 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 “contractor” battalion was 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. 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 contractor battalion sought men who had been trained to Western standards, which meant many do not come from Western countries. Gurkha veterans of British or Indian service were welcome, as were 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 and many of them (the exact number is kept secret, but is believed to be about a third) are foreigners with recent 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 foreign workers 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 was for a long time very difficult to get UAE officials to even discuss the situation. The problem was that with the security forces everything depended on foreigners, not all of whom could be depended on in a major emergency. 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" came 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 is common 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, formed 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. But now they are creating insurance in the form of a trained reserve of citizens.