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Pressing Threats

Implementation of Military Conscription in the Gulf

12 December 2016

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have long been among those that did not adopt military conscription. However, there have recently been gradual and increasing calls from within GCC countries to begin implementing such a policy. These calls became more evident in a recommendation from a workshop entitled “Security in the Eyes of the Youth,” organized by the GCC General Secretariat on  November 8, 2016. The primary recommendation was to apply youth conscription. Moreover, on November 16, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, called for the implementation of conscription, particularly since the Gulf region is under increased threat.

Some Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have seen significant developments towards instating conscription in the last three years. The developments call for reflection on the realities of the system in GCC countries, the motivations for implementation and the challenges states may face. This is especially given the present dangers facing Gulf countries from various directions.

The reality of conscription

After Kuwait had repealed its conscription law in July 2001, the National Assembly reinstated it in response to the government’s request for deliberation on April 7, 2015. In doing so, it tried to avoid the previous law’s drawbacks. The National Assembly decided to put the law into effect two years from its ratification. The new law agreed to include some MPs’ recommendation to exempt private sector workers from conscription. This was an attempt to encourage Kuwaitis to work in the private sector and reduce the burden on the public sector, based on guidelines set out in the state development plan.

After a decree issued by Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani concerning national service on  March 11, 2013, Qatar implemented conscription. Then in April 2014, Doha began training its first intake of 500 recruits, for the new compulsory military service program. The UAE issued a federal law in July 2014 regarding the application of national service and reserves. It compels young males to military conscription while giving females a choice to join, depending on the consent of their guardian. As far as Oman and Bahrain are concerned, there are no real indications that conscription will be introduced any time soon. Although Saudi Arabia has announced that it is not willing to introduce conscription at present, it has not eliminated the possibility of its application when the need arises.

Saudi Arabia justified the absence of its immediate need for conscription, by referring to increasing willingness among the youth volunteering to join the military, exceeding the actual requirements of the Saudi Armed Forces. This was confirmed by the Minister of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdulla Bin Abdul Aziz.  In spite of this, the debate still continues inside the Saudi Kingdom about the importance of taking such a decision. This is especially after Chief Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, renewed his appeal for conscription on November 16, 2016, during the “Gulf Security 1” joint security exercise, in which he said, “thank our blessings that our youth - in training as conscripts - are always ready to defend the country.”

This was not the first time the Saudi Mufti called for conscription. He previously did so in 2015, with the launch of operation “Decisive Storm” in Yemen and increased Iranian threats. At the time, his call was supported by many military officers and academics as well as members of the Saudi Shura Council. It was also accompanied by media appeals to remind Saudis of previous events when volunteers including the sons of King Abdul Aziz - Fahad, Abdullah, and Salman - were involved in repelling the tripartite aggression on Egypt in 1956.

Motives for interest

Some observers point to a number of reasons that explain the growing interest in conscription, even among Arab Gulf states, which have not had this system. Noteworthy among them are:

1. Strengthening national identity: It is the principal reason used by those calling for conscription. This argument relies upon the claim that the system not only helps in preparing Gulf citizens and offering them military training to confront threats facing the country, but more importantly, but it also helps to strengthen loyalty and to belong to the state, which in turn enhances a sense of national identity. It also contributes to instilling good traits and national and community values in the minds of the young conscripts. These include: belonging to the homeland and sacrificing oneself for it, discipline, responsibility, self-reliance, respect for the law, and good time management and investment. The argument goes that these traits are increasingly important in the midst of the present unrest in the region. Furthermore, it directs the energy of youth to strengthen the sense of national identity among citizens, rather than allowing terrorist organizations to exploit young people in pursuit of their plans, thereby affecting security and stability in the region.

2. The fluidity of regional developments: For the past five years, the strategic situation around the Arab Gulf has witnessed continuous and rapid changes, especially since the outbreak of the  Arab Spring revolutions. It requires strong efforts to counter those developments, their shifts and their potential repercussions on the Arab Gulf States by adopting effective policies and precautionary measures in the long term. Those measures will ensure the preservation of security and protection of national independence and sovereignty. Conscription is also becoming increasingly important in light of the changing balance of global and regional powers, including the relative decrease of the United States’ active interventions in the Arab region, compared to the significant role of Russia, which some say does not serve the Arab Gulf states in most cases. The clearest example of this is direct Russian military support for the Assad regime in Syria compared with US weakness in supporting the Gulf position concerning the developments in Syria.

3. Iranian political expansion: It is notable that the Gulf’s inclination to instate conscription comes in light of the Middle East’s continuous unrest in places such as in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Furthermore, it comes amid Iran’s growing military role in those countries, which spurred Arab Gulf states to counterbalance Tehran’s influence. In doing so, Saudi Arabia led the Decisive Storm military operation in Yemen to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi militias. That operation, in particular, was a cause for increasing Gulf recognition of the vital need for a capable national military power to defend the homeland and build national armies capable of defending the state, especially in times of crisis and emergency.

4. The risk posed by terrorist groups: The need for conscription grows as the activity of armed terrorist groups expands across the region. Foremost among them is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), with its growing role relying on its vast human resources. Against this threat, calls for conscription grew, with a demand to study the issue seriously at the very least. The logic goes that despite the Gulf countries’ great riches that enabled them to acquire modern weaponry, the absence of conscription probably explains the failure to mobilize reserve forces. In turn, this may disrupt the balance of traditional powers between them and neighboring countries, which harbor expansionist ambitions. There is also a growing need to confront armed terrorist groups, which fundamentally depend on human resources.

5. Economic factors: This is primarily connected to oil wealth. On the one hand, the oil wealth enjoyed by the Arab Gulf States requires a national army to protect it against risks or potential rival ambitions. On the other, it is important to invest this wealth in securing their military deterrence capability. This would be based on a capable nationally trained force that can be tactically called upon to meet the challenges in the region, utilizing its economic, operational, technological and human capacities. It also strengthens the Gulf’s role and influence, regionally and internationally.

6. Social gains: There is a predominant inclination among Gulf states to see conscription as a solution to some of the negative social phenomena in their societies. This is because training Gulf youth on intensity, strength and self-reliance will reflect positively on their personality, behavior, and performance, even in their personal lives. More importantly, it will direct their abilities to serve their nations. Moreover, this system contributes to the inclusion of a segment of young to middle-aged individuals in the military system. This would strengthen the efficiency of the Gulf military and defense institutions to repel any aggression and address potential external threats.

Challenges in implementation

Despite the benefits of conscription, Gulf national initiatives to introduce this system may face challenges, for political and social reasons, as well as logistical, administrative and financial difficulties. This may explain the opposing views among Gulf Arab states in implementing conscription. Some of the reasons are as follows:

1. Financial challenges: Conscription of most youth requires the provision of substantial financial resources, especially in the early stages of application, because of the immediate need to provide infrastructure and the necessary logistical support. There is no doubt that allocating huge budgets for recruitment are a major challenge, given the expectations of a decline in public spending by Arab Gulf states in the coming years, as a result of the decline in global oil prices.

Moreover, this system will also have an effect on the workforce in the Gulf States, which has yet to reach its development goals and exploit the capabilities of its youth. In light of this, one can understand a provision of the Kuwaiti National Service Act, which exempted those working in the private sector.

2. Administrative and technical challenges: Another challenge is how government agencies, represented by the ministries of defense and their institutions, can accommodate applicants for recruitment, and provide training and the qualifications necessary for them. The experience of some Gulf countries – notably Kuwait – suggests that when conscription was implemented in the past, it suffered from several drawbacks. Among them were weak training and qualification programs for scores of recruits as well as prohibitive costs.

3. Variable estimates of the social gains: Despite what some see as the significant social benefits of conscription, others argue that the system is not necessarily a good one. Countries leading at an international level on social, economic, military and even moral fronts, do not have conscription. One example is Japan, which does not even have a regular army. And though there are a number of countries that recognize good reasons for conscription, they often only apply it in times of war, not peace.

4. The technological nature of war: Confrontations between states are no longer wholly dependent on the presence of humans. Technological and modern methods, weaponry, sophisticated drones and the acquisition of advanced missiles and equipment have shifted the balance of power on the battlefield. One response to this point would be that battles are ultimately resolved by humans on the battlefield, but technology provides technical and air superiority which plays a crucial role in weakening enemy capabilities. However, it cannot alone definitively resolve battles. The clearest example of this is the difficulty encountered by regional and international powers in waging war against ISIS since the latter mainly depends on its human resources to fortify its presence on the ground.

In light of the motivations and challenges in implementing conscription in Gulf states, it can be said that the introduction of this system in some countries could become a significant strategic gateway to utilize their human potential fully. It also serves as an indication of military strength in the face of growing threats at a regional level. This applies in particular since relying on sophisticated weapons and missile technology alone, without the corresponding skilled, trained and professional human resources, is not enough to build professional armies.

Though some Gulf Arab states have opted for voluntary recruitment, the absence of any full application of this system can be understood by virtue of the natural differences between them and the balance of feasibility and cost, most importantly the differences between them in their respective human resources, advanced technological capabilities and the gravity of the security threats they face.