Squinting into the desert sun Faisal Mohammed al-Mansoori clutches a handful of personal documents, and looks defiant.
“I’m doing this for my country, because if I don’t save my country, no one will,” he says.
The 18-year-old has just registered for military service at the Rahmania Camp in the emirate of Sharjah. He is one of 7,000 Emiratis who will make up the first batch of recruits under a new conscription law in the United Arab Emirates. Training begins in September.
Passed last month amid growing concerns of regional instability, the legislation requires all male citizens to enlist at some point between the ages of 18 and 30. The UAE’s armed forces, with roughly 51,000 members, has traditionally been all volunteer.
Gulf Arabs are increasingly jumpy about the potential threat from Iran and Islamic militants to their wealthy enclaves of privilege and relative stability. And analysts say their leaders are beginning to question whether the United States can be counted on to ride to their rescue.
Many Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, were highly critical of Washington’s decision to sidestep military intervention in Syria last year despite evidence that its regime had used chemical weapons on civilians. They now blame American inaction, in part, for the rise of Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq who aspire to overthrow Arab monarchs.
“For all their talk of ‘red lines,’ when it counted, our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region’s stability,” wrote Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, in an op-ed published in The New York Times in December.
Dressed in a traditional Arabic robe known as a kandoorah, Mr. Mansoori talks passionately outside the recruitment office about alleged threats to his country. He says that “no one outside will help” – a reference to the US's perceived reluctance to get involved.
Regional nerves were further strained last month when the US appeared to be lining up with Iran to contain the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS. The Gulf’s Sunni rulers look askance at Iran’s nuclear program and fear Iranian influence spreading in the region. Abu Dhabi and Iran have a longstanding territorial dispute over three islands. Bahrain, which crushed a popular revolt in 2011 and continues to face protests, accuses Iran of fomenting unrest among Shiites.
The US has security agreements with the UAE and other Gulf states. American troops are stationed at bases throughout the Gulf, and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. Still, some analysts say the Emirates' military draft is a sign of growing doubts over the US security pacts. Qatar introduced a draft last year, and Kuwait is reported to be considering a reinstatement.
“Part of it, I think, has to do with America’s reluctance to engage in securing the region,” says Ahmed al-Attar, assistant director of defense and security at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. “In the end, these security cooperation agreements are things that will most probably be followed through, but the problem here is that the US has proven to the regional community that it is not as committed as people once thought it was.”
According to the 2014 Global Firepower Index, the UAE has the highest military spending per capita in the world, shelling out billions of dollars annually on military equipment. In 2011, it was revealed that the Emirati government had signed a $529 million contract with a US security contractor to recruit a foreign counterterrorism battalion to defend the territory. But the deal appears to have since fizzled.
Some argue, however, that the nation’s new conscription policy, which requires recruits to serve between nine months and two years – depending on educational qualifications – and is aimed also at building a solid reserve force, will do little towards significantly boosting the country’s defense capabilities.
“It makes absolutely no difference to the security of the UAE to have a bunch of Emiratis running around the desert firing off weapons for fun,” says Michael Stevens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, a defense think-tank.
“These guys aren’t Israel, they don’t have the domestic need or the drive for conscription to be part of a deterrence posture.” He points out that the UAE has no major direct threats and argues the main reason for the draft is “more social than strategic.”
The UAE is well known for its cradle to grave welfare system and many younger citizens have taken advantage of government handouts or their own family wealth to live comfortably and remain unemployed. Now, they will have to earn their citizenship by giving something back.
“Rather than ask people to pay taxes just ask them to do more. It’s much better and it works more positively with the local mindset,” says Stevens.
Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysts, says the military training is also a way to prepare Emiratis for professional jobs that are currently filled by foreigners. Ninety percent of the UAE’s work force is made up of expatriates. Even the country’s armed forces are said to include many people of foreign origin.
“[The draft] has to do with the training and opening doors for young people to get involved in knowledge management and in mechanical engineering and aerospace in order to populate many of the emerging industries,” says Karasik.
But inside the recruitment office at the Rahmania Camp many new recruits prefer to see themselves as future war heroes than future engineers.
“I’m prepared to fight because I love the United Arab Emirates,” says 18-year-old Moathe Ahmad. “I have to be ready for anything that will happen to my country.”