The plan for all Emirati men between the age of 18 and 30 to do military service, as announced by the Cabinet, follows the example of many other countries that require their young people to perform some kind of national service. While conscription can deliver many advantages to the UAE and its youth, it also comes with some challenges.
The initiative was ordered by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, to create a new national defence and reserve force. As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, revealed via social media, Emirati men who finish secondary school will be required to serve for nine months, while those who left school early will need to serve for two years.
The new requirement has been welcomed by many. Compulsory military service will lead Emiratis to have a stronger sense of responsibility towards their nation and also a greater awareness of the challenges facing the UAE by training them to be ready to fight to protect the nation and preserve its independence and sovereignty from any external attack. But this should not be mistaken for aggression. As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid explained, the UAE's "message to the world is a message of peace; the stronger we are, the stronger our message".
Conscription will also address other issues, such as youth unemployment. Experts discussed this effect during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan last year, suggesting that such a move would help to change the mindset of young people who are unwilling to consider taking just any job. Military service could instil in young people qualities such as discipline, vigilance, resilience and modesty. It could also teach them skills including team work and time management.
However, compulsory military service will also pose considerable challenges for the UAE military, which has been focused on a small and highly-trained force but will need to gear up to train a larger number of young men who will only serve for a relatively short time. Many of these conscripts will be physically unfit and lack even the most basic military skills. And so there are some questions to be asked here: will there be fitness programmes for those who need it before embarking on their service? Will there be alternatives for those unable to do the training because of health issues? For instance, countries such as Switzerland, Finland and Norway have the option of civilian service – often of a longer duration – in lieu of military service. Should this option be available in the UAE and if so, how would it be implemented?
There is also another question to be asked here: will military service affect young people’s education, considering that the nine months is the equivalent of an entire academic year? What would the consequences be of taking skilled young Emiratis out of the workforce for that time? The opportunity cost needs to be calculated, especially given that the country has a shortage of young professional Emirati men.
The best solution in this case is for young people to do their compulsory service between secondary school and college, where military duty would serve a similar role to the gap year that is popular in many other countries, providing a chance to experience how the world works and increasing maturity before entering university.
Yet, for all these challenges, mandatory military service will bring many benefits and is to be welcomed.