The United Arab Emirates announced in June that it is introducing compulsory military service for all male citizens aged between 18 and 30 and setting up a new national defense and reserve force. The surprising development in the stable country can only be seen as a reaction to the growing unrest in the surrounding region – Iraq, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Men who have finished secondary school will have to serve nine months, while those who have not will serve two years. Service will be optional for women. Citizens who complete service will enjoy a range of benefits, including priority for jobs in government institutions and private businesses, and housing plots and scholarships.
The law also disqualifies from service citizens who are members of illegal organizations – an obvious reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group banned in the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
Compulsory military service seems at odds with the UAE’s reputation as the dreamland of the Arab world – a place where oil and gas money literally made the desert bloom.
Those revenues transformed the seven Arab emirates that were grouped into a unified federation by the visionary Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan -- the founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates – into a modern state characterized by lavish wealth.
The oil boom of the 1970s turned small, dusty towns into futuristic-looking metropolises resembling scenes out of science fiction movies, and in the process, created hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Some seven million people live in the UAE, of which only about one million are citizens. The rest are expatriate workers attracted by the discovery of black gold and all the spin-off jobs the industry has created.
The country -- a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum -- is one of the 10 largest oil and natural gas producers in the world. In 2012, the UAE produced an average of 2.8 million barrels of crude oil per day, the eighth highest total in the world.
Thanks to petrodollars, the UAE has become the second largest economy in the Arab world, after Saudi Arabia -- with a GDP of $377 billion in 2012, one-third of which is from oil revenues.
And the growth shows no sign of stopping. The economy was expected to grow from between 4 and 4.5 percent in 2013, up from 2.3 - 3.5 percent over the past five years.
But harsh political realities in the region are threatening the dream. The years when the biggest worry was whether Dubai or Abu Dhabi would be the recipient of the newest tunnel, or would have the tallest building, the fanciest hotel or the largest shopping mall, seem trivial in view of the dangers lurking ahead.
Soon after the conscription law was introduced, last January, Reuters reported that UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum posted a message on his Twitter account that said, "Protecting the nation and preserving its independence and sovereignty is a sacred national duty and the new law will be implemented on all. Our gains are a red line that must be protected.”
In particular, Emirates leaders have been keeping a watchful eye on the nightmare that is the rise to prominence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is on a deadly advance through Iraq -- a hop, skip and a jump away from Dubai and Abu Dhabi and some of the world’s richest oil fields.
Then there is Iran, just across the Gulf waters, with which the UAE is in a territorial dispute over three islands.
Although the UAE has powerful allies in the West, it has been arming itself for years, building a powerful air force and a navy. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UAE was the world's ninth-largest arms importer during the period between 2008 and 2012, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
One might say that the Emirates face no imminent threats just yet, but given the turn of events in their surrounding neighborhood, they have every reason to play it safe. Granted, the UAE is considered a U.S. ally, but after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, no country in the region is willing to place its future in the hands of the United States.
In 2013 alone, the UAE bought 14 Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S., 72 Nyala armored personnel carriers from South Africa, six warships from France, and 1,000 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.
The Emirates now have a formidable first-class arsenal, and they need the personnel to operate it. Oil made the Emirates an enviable modern society of the Arab world. Its leaders aren’t about to let that success be threatened.
By Claude Salhani of Oilprice.com