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On September 4, Emirati and other Gulf nationals were met by the news that 60 soldiers from the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen had been killed in a single missile strike launched by Houthi rebels. The number of fatalities later rose to 67: five soldiers from Bahrain; 10 from Saudi Arabia; and 52 from the United Arab Emirates, the heaviest military loss in the federation’s history. While the death toll may seem small relative to the mounting Yemeni fatalities in the evolving civil and proxy war being fought on their territory, they represent significant losses for the small, wealthy Gulf monarchies. The initial reaction, shared in testimonials and condolences through social media, revealed a public unaccustomed to sacrificing sons in foreign conflicts.
The Military Option
This incident is important as it crystallizes two interrelated transformations underway, to a varying degree, across the Arab states of the Gulf. The first is the growing willingness of Gulf states to pursue their interests in the region through the projection of military power, and to do so more independently of their U.S. ally. The Saudi strategy of buying international influence – dubbed “riyal politique” by political scientist Gregory Gause – is now being supplemented by military muscle, often in concert with Gulf allies. The Saudi-led Yemen operation, Restoring Hope, is the most mature expression of this now clear trend, but it had antecedents in the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council intervention in support of Bahrain’s monarchy in 2011, which initially included 1,000 National Guard troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 Emirati police under the aegis of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force. Later, Qatar and the UAE undertook air campaigns in support of rebels and factions in Libya.
The ambition of Gulf states to shape the regional order through troop commitments has its challenges. The requirements of the Yemen campaign are stretching the capabilities of the Gulf states, which face limitations in both the relatively small pool of recruits and experience of their military forces in large-scale ground operations. One solution is to recruit other more populous Arab and Sunni majority countries to the coalition. Thus as the air campaign in Yemen transitions to an impending ground offensive targeting the environs of Sanaa and possibly the capital itself, the predominantly Emirati, Saudi, and allied Yemeni forces are being reinforced with troops from fellow Gulf state Qatar, but also from a newly reconciled Sudan. An earlier attempt by Saudi Arabia to recruit troop commitments from Pakistan was rebuffed by that country’s parliament.
Still the Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar – appear determined to enhance their military capacities in pursuit of their strategic objectives. This is bound to put a greater strain on national budgets, and ultimately, on Gulf nationals. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Saudi Arabia increased its military expenditures in 2014 by 21 percent. That same year the UAE and Qatar took the unprecedented step of introducing mandatory military service for their citizens. Kuwait’s parliament likewise approved the reintroduction of military conscription – suspended since 2001 – with implementation due to begin in 2017.
The New Gulf Nationalism
The introduction of National Service Laws requiring mandatory military service speaks to the second important transformation underway in Gulf states, captured in measures to embrace more robust conceptions of nation, and to impose more expansive demands on nationals. While new conscripts may not be immediately fit to send into foreign battles, they will provide a reservoir of support – both materially and morally – for the military forces and their national mission. The Emirati draft strategy hints at a more expansive view of their role “to encompass economic, environmental, cultural and other aspects, ensuring the stability, growth and prosperity of society.”
Historically the Gulf states have been unenthusiastic promoters of nationalism, which sits uneasily with monarchy. Instead the Gulf emirates and kingdoms have relied more on the economic membership of the welfare state, presented as the benevolent and paternalistic provision of the royals. In Saudi Arabia, national identity has been shaped by commitment to the unitarian Salafi creed and conformation with its strict social norms, enforced by state religious officials
Yet in the past decade or so, Gulf rulers have begun to perceive the need for a more robust platform for national integration beyond mere economic citizenship. The origins of this transition are complex, yet appear to be rooted in at least two dynamics: economic and political.
Growing populations and diversifying economies have inaugurated an era of subsidy cuts and private sector expansion. This erosion of public services combined with the inability of the public sector to expand to meet employment demand are undermining the power of the welfare state to engender gratitude and loyalty. It is also elevating demands for a better-trained and more enterprising citizenry.
In the absence of strong national identities, Islamic movements have met the desire of many for political participation and belonging. State concerns about the transnational reach of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi populist movements, and politicized Shia clerical networks have grown along with the collapse of neighboring states and mounting challenges from Islamist reformists and jihadists. The need to tie citizens in a more compelling way to the state and its leadership has motivated Gulf monarchies to experiment in novel forms of nation-building and inculcation of patriotism.
The initiation of national service sits squarely at the intersection of regional ambition and national integration. State authorities in the UAE and Qatar have promoted it as a means to “protect the nation and preserve its independence,” to “instill values of loyalty and sacrifice,” and to help make “ideal citizens.” In Qatar, the conscription policy includes men 18-35 years old who train with the armed forces for three to four months. Emiratis serve for a longer period, from nine months to two years, with optional service extended to Emirati women. After their initial service, conscripts in both countries are assigned to various units of the armed forces. They then enter the reserves and are subject to recalls.
A documentary about Emirati national service broadcast on National Geographic Abu Dhabi shows the conscripts learning discipline and exercise, through personal hygiene and upkeep, military drills, and basic weapons training. It also portrays their personal transformation, overcoming physical and mental weakness, bonding with fellow conscripts of different social and economic backgrounds, and deepening their respect for the military and love of country.
Promises and Pitfalls
The military losses in Yemen have been met with public grief, but also with official resolve and a public campaign to honor the dead. In all three affected countries, the fallen soldiers have been deemed “martyrs.” The UAE observed three days of official mourning with organizations as diverse as literary clubs and women’s groups finding ways to eulogize the new national heroes and to support their families. The more institutional elements of the response in the UAE clearly reveal a studied effort – forthrightly acknowledged – to honor the fallen and to elevate them in a way that strengthens national identity and national unity. The annual recognition of Martyrs’ Day, and the planned construction of a martyr’s museum and archive will provide a lasting means of remembering, while also promoting honor and patriotism.
In some of the Gulf states, the potential synergies between regional ambitions and national projection face greater complications. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, policies restricting the participation of Shia citizens in the security forces will likely proscribe any national conscription. Foreign interventions may threaten to exacerbate these sectarian and other social divisions, especially to the degree that regional policies are portrayed as the construction of a “Sunni front” against Iran and affiliated Shia militias.
There also remain questions of public accountability. In the wake of the deaths, Emirati officials and opinion leaders have made a concerted effort to explain and justify to the public the Emirati participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Still, while the campaign appears to have significant public support in some states, including Saudi Arabia, the tolerance for public criticism of the strategy or its execution is severely limited in many. Arrests have been made for criticism of the Gulf participation in the Yemen intervention in Bahrain and Kuwait. After the recent military deaths, the UAE issued an arrest warrant for a person circulating a list of names of soldiers purported to be killed in Yemen. While the condolence visits by Emirati leaders to the families of fallen soldiers have been widely covered in the media, the Emirati authorities have released no official list of casualties.
The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen marks a watershed in Gulf military assertiveness and growing strategic independence. Its reverberations back home in reshaping the relationship between nation and soldier – and ultimately, citizen – are no less significant. The leadership of its Gulf participants is intent on using the fires of war to forge a stronger national bond, though as in most patriotisms, it is not one that welcomes dissent.
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