Paramilitary: The Arab Soldier


May 11, 2019: More Arab countries are introducing conscription and the response has not been good. In part, this is because Arab nations have a bad reputation when it comes to military service, especially when the troops are not volunteers. While some Arab states do a good job with selecting, training and living conditions for conscripts, the general attitude is that anything is preferable to military service as a conscript. As a result of this, Arab nations that have conscription have a hard time getting most eligible young men to show up. A recent example was the North African state of Tunisia. Conscription was introduced there in 2018 and less than two percent of those eligible (by age) men even showed up to see if they were fit for service. In the few Arab states that have had conscription for a long time young men (and their families) energetically seek exemptions from service or illegal ways to avoid it. All the North African states are Arab and all depend on conscription to keep their armed forces up to strength. Morocco, a monarchy that pays attention to popular opinion, abolished conscription in 2006. That did not work and the military found itself with a growing personnel shortage. So conscription was reintroduced in 2019 to a population that reluctantly accepted it rather than lose their relatively effective military. Next door Algeria, after a century of being a French colony and subject to the French conscription system (including service in two World Wars) managed to maintain an effective conscription system after independence in the 1960s. The Algerian military maintained fairly high standards and the millions of former conscripts in the population helped maintain national unity and acceptance of mandatory military service. Conscription is not popular in Algeria but it is tolerated and generally seen as a necessity to maintain the peace because the military has been dealing, successfully, with local and foreign Islamic terrorists since the 1990s.

Next door in Libya conscription did not work out as well because the Kaddafi dictatorship also used tribal rivalries, and sometimes tribal militias and feared secret police to maintain order. Libyan troops had a well-deserved reputation of ineffectiveness. Next door Egypt had the longest tradition of conscript service and conscription was never popular and still isn’t. But with effective officers (not always available), the Egyptian troops can be quite formidable.

Two nations in the Middle East with effective conscript militaries have largely non-Arab populations (Israel and Turkey), and Israel is largely non-Moslem. It’s not a coincidence that Israel and Turkey have the most effective armed forces in the Middle East. In both nations, conscription is not only tolerated but seen as a civil obligation and an honor. In both Israel and Turkey, where members of their Arab minorities are subject to conscription, these Arab troops perform as well as their non-Arab colleges and some even make a career of the money and become officers. In other words, there is no reason why Arab conscripts can’t be excellent soldiers. It’s all a matter of cultural practices and the quality of their officers. Jordan, next door to Israel, was one of the few Arab nations that embraced and perpetuated the military training standards they were exposed to during the few decades the British controlled the area.

In most Arab nations the military is seen as more of a police force, to keep the local dictator or monarchy in power, and not to protect the population. Those few Arab states with effective militaries, like Jordan, have troops seen as protectors, not secret police auxiliaries. Jordan was able to completely eliminate conscription in 1994. Lebanon dropped conscription in 2007 mainly because it was more disruptive than unifying.

Money makes a difference, especially oil wealth. This sort of thing became a major factor in the Middle East after the 1940s, particularly in Arabia. Only Yemen missed out on the massive oil wealth. Yemen had long been the most prosperous part of Arabia because it faces the Indian Ocean. That meant it had more rain (and agriculture) than the rest of Arabia. With the arrival of oil and the departure of British colonial rule in the 1960s, Yemen found itself the poorest state in Arabia and the least united because in the oil-rich states most everyone wanted to share in the wealth. Yemen had conscription and, by the 1990s, nominal national unity but it was still poor and divided by tribal loyalties.

The Arabian Arab oil states were another matter. For thousands of years (since the last Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago) most of Arabia north of Yemen has been desert, with a few spring-fed oases. Most commercial activity was along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts. There were no nations, just collections of shifting tribal alliances. Nearby empires did not see anything worth conquering and generally stayed away. Oil wealth changed all that. Suddenly nationhood (and who belonged) and national defense became major issues. There was no conscription (an alien concept anyway) so armed forces were composed of mercenaries and well-paid volunteers selected from the most loyal citizens. Saudi Arabia, founded (in the 1920s) and ruled by the Saud family, formed a second army (the National Guard) open only to members of the tribes considered most loyal to the Sauds. The National Guard was actually the Saudi Royal Guard that protected the Sauds from attack by less loyal Saudis. All the Arab oil states also made use of a lot of well paid (for their skills and reliability) mercenaries. The ones from the West were there mainly used as trainers and technicians to help maintain modern weapons. Mercenary combat troops could be obtained from Pakistan (especially the Baluchis) though by the 1980s these were no longer needed as the Arab oil states established close military alliances with Western nations. After 2003 the Arabs also obtained mercenaries from the many non-Western personnel screened to serve as security contractors in Iraq.

There was one other major problem with most Arab oil states; a shortage of Arabs. With all that money these enormously wealthy Arab nations could afford to import most of their labor force and in some Arab oil states, the Arab citizens were a minority. This became a problem when trying to maintain adequate armed forces. A generation or two of affluence meant fewer young men saw the military as an attractive career. These Arab oil states did not want to become dependent on mercenaries so they began introducing conscription. Kuwait had conscription, mainly to provide protection from Iraq and Iran, but dropped it in 2001. In 2017, with the Iranian threat increasing Kuwait brought back conscription. Meanwhile, other small Gulf Oil states introduced conscription for the first time. Qatar did so in 2013 and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) in 2014.

The UAE has been having an interesting experience with conscription. In 2018, four years after adopting conscription the UAE increased the length of time conscripts must serve on active duty. Those with a high school education will serve at least 16 months and those who did not finish high school for 24 months. Back in 2014 implementing conscription was seen as a bold move for a wealthy Arab oil state. But the UAE felt they had no choice. Conscription was needed so the UAE could create a reserve force of trained citizens and thus be less dependent on mercenaries. The growing Iranian threat is causing many radical ideas to become acceptable in Arabia. The main idea behind the UAE conscription plan is to get all qualified (for military service) Emirati men aged 18-30 trained so they can fight effectively if called up in an emergency. In effect, the UAE wants to emulate the Israeli system. Initially, the UAE only planned to keep conscripts in uniform for 9-24 months and that was mostly for training. College educated men would stay in longer and be trained as officers or technical experts. After that everyone will be in the reserves and organized into units that will train regularly for as long as they are able. That usually means for about twenty years. That was the plan and it was meant to be a work in progress because details were expected change as the program is implemented. The UAE goal was to have an armed force of 270,000 trained troops within days of mobilization. Before conscription, the UAE relied on volunteers (a mixed bag) and mercenaries (very expensive and an ancient custom in the region) and the numbers were not impressive, especially compared to what more populous (and militarily competent) Iran could send.

The decision to adopt conscription got off to an uncomfortable start because by late 2015 there were angry UAE parents of sons who were recently killed in combat in Yemen. UAE customarily hires foreign mercenaries whenever possible but times have changed and some UAE families have not adapted. In late 2015 the UAE government had a public relations problem because hundreds of these conscript soldiers were sent to fight in Yemen and several had been killed and many more wounded. Families complained that their conscripted sons, none of whom have any combat experience, should not have been sent to a war zone. The parents were told that the only way to gain combat experience is by being in combat and that’s why their sons were conscripted in the first place. Moreover, most UAE citizens understand that the Shia rebels in Yemen are openly backed by Iran and this is just the sort of situation that conscription was instituted to deal with. But the grim consequences are another matter. The UAE conscripts remained in Yemen and their commanders took measures to keep casualties low. That meant more training and better leadership, especially sergeants and junior officers. UAE has proved to be useful, if painful, education for the UAE and what works to create the kind “reserve army” that Israel has had for generations.

The UAE troops in Yemen initially comprised about half the strength of the hastily formed Arab Coalition mechanized combat brigade. This unit initially had about 3,000 troops with over a hundred armored vehicles, and landed in Yemen in mid-2015. This unit came to be called the Arab Brigade because about half the rest of brigade was largely Saudi. Since then troops from other nations, including Sudan, have joined. But initially, UAE and Saudi troops were seen as best suited for the job because many of the troops had family ties to Yemen and knowledge of local dialects and customs. The Yemen family connections of many of the UAE soldiers was one reason the conscripts were sent. The Arab Brigade was apparently responsible for many of the subsequent victories of the Yemeni government forces. Three years later the fighting was still going on and the rebels were losing but not yet defeated. The Arab Brigade keeps its casualties down by relying on the modern air forces the UAE and Saudi Arabia have and using a lot of smart bombs to hammer the resourceful and elusive rebels. The smart bombs have also killed a lot of civilians but that is easier to deal with than a lot of dead soldiers being shipped back home for funerals attended by unhappy families. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also convinced many other (generally less wealthy) Moslem nations to send ground forces with assurances that they would be well-taken care of. If wounded, all medical expenses would be paid. If martyred (the favorite Moslem term for “killed in combat” for any legitimate cause) the families would be well compensated.

The fighting in Yemen revealed a lot of other interesting details of the UAE armed forces. Soon after the Arab Brigade arrived in Yemen, UAE commandos found and rescued a British citizen who had been held captive by Islamic terrorists for 18 months. This was one of the few times the UAE admitted publicly that it had a SOC (Special Operations Command) and commandos capable of finding and rescuing someone held captive by Islamic terrorists. The UAE has been particularly secretive about its special operations force. What is known is that since 2008 the UAE has been actively trying to upgrade and expand its special operations capabilities. One of the new units established (in 2010) was a Presidential Guard Command (PGC). This was described as a “best of the best” unit containing the most reliable and capable troops the UAE had. There are only about 5,000 troops in the PGC and most of them appear to be in the even more mysterious SOC (Special Operations Command).

The UAE has been trying to train its own citizens for special operations ever since they found out how effective Arab special operations troops had been in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by 2010 the UAE appeared to be recruiting non-Moslem foreigners for a special security battalion that was more “royal guard” than SOC. By 2011 this battalion had 800 troops and was composed of Western contractors. This force was recruited from men who had combat experience and were then organized as a counter-terrorism and rapid reaction force. Officially this new battalion was to provide security for key facilities in UAE but that may have just been a cover story. Apparently there was also special operations training for some of the men in the “contractor” battalion. Some of these foreign troops already had special operations training and experience in their home country. Many Colombian combat veterans were known to be in the UAE unit. It is unclear if the UAE commandos in Yemen were all UAE citizens or largely men from the contractor battalion or even special operations troops from foreign countries wearing UAE uniforms. It is known that the head of the PGC is a retired Australian general who spent most of his career in special operations. Since 2015 the UAE has expanded its special operations training program for UAE troops and these have been successful going after al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terrorists in some of the more remote parts of the country. These Islamic terrorists are Sunni and not working with the rebels but they will be a problem in post-war Yemen and having UAE commandos go after them now is an opportunity that will not be available once the civil war is over.

The “contractor” battalion and many other members of the PGC were but a small portion of the many foreigners already serving in the UAE armed forces. Hiring foreign mercenaries, to ensure that the rulers are protected by troops who are the most skilled and reliable, is an old custom in the region. Actually, it used to be a widespread practice worldwide. Some Western nations, like the Vatican, still retains foreign mercenaries. In this case, it's the Swiss Guards, which the popes have been using for over 500 years ago because the locals were too often unreliable.

The UAE has been trying to reduce their reliance on foreign mercenaries. A part of that program was a 2011 decision to give military retirees a 70 percent increase in their pensions. The active-duty armed forces only consisted of 65,000 troops, and for a long time, many of them were foreigners. But now, most of the military retirees are locals, and the aristocrats that run the place want to make sure that these older men, with military experience, remained loyal. This was particularly true with all the calls for tossing out existing rulers that has been going on throughout the Arab world during the “Arab Spring” uprisings that broke out in 2011. Actually, taking good care of military veterans has become increasingly important in nations that are prone to civil disorder or revolution. Military veterans can turn the disorder into a well-organized rebellion. This is especially true in the UAE, where only 20 percent of the population are citizens, the others are foreigners imported to help spend all that money and make the economy work.

The UAE is a confederation of seven small Arab states (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain) at the southern end of the Persian Gulf. With a population of only 5.6 million, and large oil and gas deposits, the Emirates have a per-capita income of over $40,000. Thus the UAE has a lot to defend, and an increasingly belligerent neighbor just across the Gulf. The UAE controls one side the entrance to the Gulf (the Straits of Hormuz). Iran is on the other end, and both nations dispute ownership of some islands in the middle.

The UAE wants to defend itself from potential Iranian aggression. To that end, they have become the third largest importer of weapons in the world, and the largest in the Middle East. The UAE is also spending billions on armored vehicles, artillery and other equipment for their ground forces. More billions being spent on bases, training, support and logistics.

Despite all the imported weapons UAE doesn't  forgot that the ultimate weapon is the guy on the ground willing to fight to protect the emirates.




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