The potential dark side of the militarization of Gulf societies

I'm an image! 2020 / 14 / Oct

The economic repercussions of the spread of the Corona virus call into question the ability of the Gulf states to finance an expensive regional arms race. In turn, this is reshaping not only their geopolitical position, but also efforts to make the military a pillar of a new national identity at a time when these countries are forced to renegotiate outdated social contracts.

The significant decline in the financial revenues of the Gulf states, as a result of the collapse in oil and natural gas prices and the significant decline in global demand for fossil energy sources, raises the question of whether countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar can maintain the level of huge military expenditures that have made them classified among the... The world's highest spending countries in the military field and purchasing weapons.

Saudi and Emirati military spending is known to be driven by a perceived need to counter Iran's progress in developing ballistic missiles and drones as well as a potential nuclear military capability and the increasing activity of its proxies in Arab countries. Qatar recently joined the arms race in the Gulf in what appears to be a reaction to the economic and diplomatic boycott that began three years ago, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of this small Gulf state with great regional influence.

Another motivation for this growing military spending is an attempt to make the army a force for creating a comprehensive national identity based on belonging to the homeland rather than religion or tribal heritage, with the aim of helping to lay the foundation for a transition, which may be painful for the societies of these countries, eventually to post-oil economies. The most diverse and organized.


The introduction of compulsory military service for males in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait over the past decade and the recent Saudi decision to open the door to voluntary military service for women have created the general climate for achieving this goal in addition to supporting governments’ efforts to expand citizens’ participation in the workforce at the expense of expatriate workers and expatriates, including Service in the armed forces.

These steps marked a break with a past in which Arab rulers were largely distrustful of the political positions of their armies and used multiple methods to protect their regimes and themselves from attempts supported by the army or carried out by themselves to remove them from power.

The decision-makers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates expected that their military intervention in Yemen and the UAE’s participation in the Western military intervention in Libya to remove the regime of Muammar Gaddafi would enhance the prestige of the army by achieving quick and decisive victories. But five years after the seemingly endless war began, the ill-conceived intervention in Yemen has produced mixed results at best. So did the recent efforts to overthrow the Libyan Government of National Accord, which has Islamic overtones, which is supported by Turkey and which is considered a front for the Muslim Brotherhood movement.


The UAE, which former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described as Little Sparta, partially withdrew from the Yemen war in an attempt to reduce the losses it had taken on the ranks of its forces there. Moreover, the Emirati forces suffered the death of dozens of Emirati soldiers and citizens, which is considered a high number compared to the number of citizens of only 1.4 million out of approximately 10 million residents of the country. As a result, the UAE increasingly relies on recruiting fighters of other nationalities.

However, the UAE forces may have fared better than the Saudi army, which has lost much, internationally at least, of the image that the authorities in that country have tried to build for decades. It seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recently, has begun to implicitly acknowledge that the Yemen war cannot be won militarily. Media reports recently indicated that the Saudi government has begun to reduce funding for the Yemeni government headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is internationally recognized and which Saudi Arabia greatly supports.

The method of war carried out by Saudi forces in Yemen included attacks on multiple targets, including civilian sites, which led to the exhaustion of the country's economic and civil infrastructure and made Yemen experience one of the largest humanitarian disasters in the world. Likewise, UAE-backed Libyan fighters led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar suffered a similar fate. More than a year ago, Field Marshal Haftar made promises to carry out a quick and sudden attack to occupy the Libyan capital, Tripoli, which proved to be nothing but illusions. The forces affiliated with the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord were able to make its fighters switch to a defensive position instead of attacking. Decision-makers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are placing their hope in focusing on values associated with the homeland and the role of the armed forces, such as a sense of citizenship, sacrifice, discipline, duty, and the concept of a model citizen with a heroic image, in order to enhance the people’s appreciation for the army despite its checkered performance record. For now, that focus appears to be fulfilling some of those hopes.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has successfully achieved broad popular support for the Saudi Armed Forces and their contribution to the Yemen War, despite widespread international criticism, by glorifying the national sacrifices made by members of the Saudi Armed Forces, generously compensating the families of fighters who were injured or killed in the Yemen War, and establishing Multiple institutions to guarantee the rights of retired veterans. The UAE has institutionalized the process of honoring military martyrs. Ultimately, however, the mixed record of Saudi and Emirati military performance raises questions about the level at which these forces can present themselves as institutions qualified to carry and transmit the values of the new national identity.

The question also comes, in the same context, as to whether citizens in countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who were forced to face painful cuts in social spending without there being a clear measure to ensure that the elites of society would share the burden, will continue to support their governments’ approach to massive military spending in Time for financial austerity.

If social media has anything else to offer us, it is an understanding of overall trends in a country. By following Saudi public opinion trends on social media platforms, the overwhelming trend was Saudi citizens’ praise of their government because it guaranteed the return of Saudi citizens who were stranded outside the Kingdom at the beginning of the spread of the Corona virus epidemic, financed quarantine operations to prevent the spread of the virus, and supported private sector salaries that Affected by lockdowns by up to 60%.

However, a fair number of middle- and lower-class people expressed concern about who would bear the brunt of the economic repercussions of the spread of the epidemic and questioned the feasibility of continued investment in unclear investment opportunities such as the English football club Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund. For the kingdom. Until now, the issue of military spending has not come into question.

Possibly what makes matters more complicated is the fact that the majority of Emirati and Saudi casualties in the Yemen war come from less developed and economically advantaged areas of the UAE and some areas of Saudi Arabia populated by religious minorities with a history of feeling disenfranchised. As a result, we will have to wait and see whether applying for military service will ultimately narrow or widen social gaps.


Ms. Eleonora Ardemani, associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, professor at the University of Milan and expert on Gulf affairs, warned of the potential increase in militarization of societies in the Gulf states by saying: “Militarization enhances the security of the regime, and thus serves national security on more than one level... However, heightened nationalist sentiment is likely to reinforce regional polarization.”

Ms. Ardimani's warning focuses on the danger of militarization that could entrench differences between Gulf states. The question is whether the promotion of militarization, which has so far succeeded in promoting local cohesion, could, in harsher circumstances, have a downside that could lead to societal polarization rather than creating social fusion.