In the Arab Gulf states, the military has turned the page: a new, national-oriented pattern of civil-military relations is in the making, triggered by foreign projection and, in some cases, mandatory military service.
Differently from the past, the military dimension is now the core of the Gulf monarchies’ foreign policy, but not only. At a regional level, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reacted to the 2010-11 Arab uprisings with counter-revolution, as testified by the harsh police intervention in Bahrain. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s proactive foreign policy was also an answer to the retrenched stance of the United States vis-à-vis Middle Eastern security. On the other hand, also Gulf domestic responses to regional unrest are centered on the military dimension, translated into “top-down” transformation measures (as the introduction of conscription) and nation-building efforts.
The Saudi and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen represents a turning-point in this process, at the interplay of regional and domestic levels. The Arab Gulf states’ militaries cope now with new tasks: Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s armed forces organize counterinsurgency operations for the first time in their history, regaining Yemen’s territories from the insurgents. In the South of the country, the UAE military has the upper hand: the Special Forces of the Emirati Presidential Guard plan the Yemeni counterterrorism campaign against al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and local affiliates, pushing jihadists to withdraw from strategic coastal cities (as Mukalla, Jaar and Zinjibar) as well as from interior fiefdoms (northern Abyan and Shabwa regions). The Emirati soldiers also support the protection of critical oil and gas infrastructures and are investing remarkable resources in the training of Yemen’s tribal-based military forces in the South. Notwithstanding the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RALF) and the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) joined the Yemen ground operation, their engagement is definitely lesser than the Emirati one, in terms of numbers and tasks.
The Arab Gulf states face new threats. Border security has become a priority for Riyadh: the first Saudi border operation against the Houthis, in 2009, was a military failure. Since 2015, the Saudi-Yemeni border is repeatedly attacked by Shia insurgents’ guerrilla and incursions; the Houthis’ missiles are now able to reach Riyadh, as occurred on November 4. In 2014, the Saudis already deployed 2000 troops (1000 units of the National Guard among them) to secure the border with Iraq. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also strengthening their navies, both for maritime security and projection. Yemen’s Shia insurgents threaten freedom of navigation amid the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, striking missiles (or using drone-boats) against Saudi and Emirati navies and, in some cases, commercial vessels too. At the eyes of the Gulf monarchies, the military presence in the Bab el-Mandeb sea-lane is not only about protecting national interests, but also a way to gain leverage in Eastern Africa vis-à-vis Iran. As a matter of fact, the counterterrorism campaign has transformed the Gulf monarchies, most of all the UAE, in potential targets for AQAP. This occurs in spite of the Emirati Special Forces don’t face AQAP directly in Yemen: jihadi attacks against Yemen’s Emirati-backed militias represent a new reality.
Due to new tasks and threats, the Arab Gulf states have promoted military reform at a strategic level, in capabilities and in civil-military relations: this process is mostly triggered by the military test in Yemen. From a strategic point of view, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are investing not only in expensive and sophisticated weapons, but also in local expertise, training, arms maintenance and indigenous defense industry. Such a behavior fosters the creation of military-centered national strategies, with an impact on foreign policy postures: the Emiratis are an inspiring model for Saudi Arabia, since Abu Dhabi was the first in the Gulf to emphasize the strategic role of the military.
In terms of military capabilities, the Yemeni campaign has tested Saudi and Emirati maritime skills: they enforced the blockade to prevent arms smuggling for the Houthi insurgents. The UAE navy was able to carry out its first amphibious operation, recapturing Aden and strategic Red Sea islands (Perim), and then al-Mokha. The establishment of military bases abroad (Saudi Arabia in Djibouti, the UAE in Eritrea and Somaliland, plus a military training center in Socotra) suggests that both will seek the development of naval blue water capabilities. Looking at the air campaign, the Arab Gulf air forces have frequently performed dynamic targeting instead of fixed ones, but show persisting limits in accuracy, as demonstrated by the high number of civilian casualties.
Yemen’s war has been also deeply influencing civil-military relations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the first-ever “out of boundaries” ground intervention, Emirati and Saudi militaries are interacting more with societies and citizens are coming to identify fervently with them. More than 200 Arab Gulf states’ militaries have died in Yemen so far, included some nationals: the collective mourning for the “sacrifice of martyrs”, strongly emphasized by Gulf media, is a ˊbottom-upˋ phenomenon which feeds the nation-building process. On the other hand, the introduction of mandatory military service is a ˊtop-downˋ measure to enhance shared identity and patriotism, constituting a reserve force. Conscription is now compulsory for males in the UAE (since 2014, age 18-30, 9-12 months/two years depending on the education level), Qatar (since 2013, age 18-35, 3 to 4 months) and Kuwait (reintroduced in 2017, age 18-35, 1 year). Recruits receive career benefits, while financial and penal sanctions are established for draft-dodgers. In this framework, the military service debate is no more a taboo in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh openly supports its adoption. The army remains a volunteer force also in Oman.
First of all, the Gulf military service is a national education program: not by chance the history of the country is a learning subject. In the UAE, it also has a remarkable military content: basic and then specialized training are followed by applied training with the Presidential Guard, who opened a National Service School on March 2016. Some Emirati draft soldiers were sent to Yemen till the Houthis’ bloody rocket attack of 4 September 2015, when 54 Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini soldiers died in Mareb region.
Arab Gulf states’ armed forces are gradually leaving the traditional, regime security-oriented model, to embrace a bolder military pattern, combining foreign projection and national mobilization:militaries fulfill the national identity-building project. In the long-term, this transition will likely have political implications, especially for Saudi Arabia. Weakened coup-proofing strategies and rising military cohesion will shape a military officers class, made up of nationals who fought together abroad: to furtherly bind their loyalty, Riyadh could opt for the informal integration of Saudi officers into the decision-making process. Mohammed bin Salman, the next Saudi king, will have an unprecedented control on the military forces: he also tightened his grip on the National Guard (with the removal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah on November 4), so paving the way for the full restructuring of the security sector.Political and military powers become growingly entrenched: Mohammed bin Salman is in the footsteps of the Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
The Arab Gulf states’ new military pattern differs more and more from the typical monarchical model, focused on the protection of royal families: the armies are becoming active part of the regime, beyond the original “praetorian guards” function. In the UAE, a “double military system” is blossoming: parallel (not conflictual) military structures, as the Presidential Guard, counterbalance the army, but also contribute to create a nexus between the state and the society,due to conscription and foreign projection. The Peninsula Shield Force has revealed its limits. The military wing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) only intervened in Bahrain (a police-style operation) and the crisis with Qatar emphasizes that huge obstacles remain in GCC effective defense integration.
Gulf monarchies’ armies look like cultural vectors of nation-building rather than collective security tools. On the contrary, a reshaped military might also become a driver of nationalism in a highly-competitive Gulf, definitely turning the page with respect to its modern history.
Eleonora Ardemagni, ISPI Associate Research Fellow and Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean Analyst, NATO Defense College Foundation. A previous version of this article was published on 15 November 2017 by the Middle East Institute online.