When the plan for compulsory military service in the UAE was first proposed, it was generally received with enthusiasm and patriotic pride but, as would be expected, some of that fervour will have dissipated as the implications sunk in. This is addressed in the details of the scheme, which is being fast-tracked into law.
This mix of carrot and stick is finely considered, mixing benefits for those willing to serve and jail terms for anyone tempted to shirk their duty in a way that enhances the advantages of service while also encouraging compliance. Nor is it solely military in nature, with options to serve at the Ministry of the Interior or State Security.
For example, those who are already in the workforce will have their jobs held for them and, to make up for the on-the-job experience they missed out on during their service, they will gain priority in work placements and promotions. The longer service – two years, versus nine months – for those who do not complete secondary school encourages further education, enhancing the UAE’s aim to become a knowledge economy.
The experience of other nations that have military service is that it is often resisted by those who ultimately derive the greatest benefit – particularly young men with little formal education and whose lives frequently lack discipline, structure and boundaries. Service can include learning skills that will open the path to gainful employment in civilian life.
As with any scheme of this kind, there is a risk of unintended consequences. Those working in the private sector when they do their service will have half their wage paid by their employer, but this could discourage some employers hiring Emiratis in a sector in which UAE nationals are already under-represented. The proposed law is being assessed by a Federal National Council committee, which should address such issues.
The penalties for failing to complete military service before the age of 30 include jail terms of up to a year and fines of up to Dh50,000. Emirati men aged between 18 and 30 will be unable to travel overseas or enrol in university without showing their military status.
But the indications are that most will serve immediately after completing high school, giving them the benefit of additional maturity before starting university. It is likely that the majority of young Emiratis will welcome the opportunity to give back to the nation that has given its citizens so much.