DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will introduce compulsory military service for young Emirati men, it said on Sunday, a move highlighting the Gulf state’s concern over turmoil in its neighborhood.
The UAE, a federation of seven emirates with mostly an expatriate population, faces no immediate threats from neighbors and has been spared militant attacks that have afflicted other countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Like other Gulf Arab states, the U.S. ally has strong military ties with Western powers which say they are committed to helping the OPEC member country deter or repel any threat.
But the UAE, a big buyer of Western military hardware, has a territorial dispute with its much bigger neighbor, Iran, over three Gulf islands controlled by the Islamic republic.
It is also wary of a neighborhood fraught with conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq and Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The state WAM news agency said the cabinet had endorsed a draft law which requires all men over the age of 18 or those who have finished high school and are under 30, to complete military training. It is optional for women.
It was not immediately clear when the system would start being implemented.
The UAE has a population of around 8.2 million, about 90 percent of whom are foreigners.
“Protecting the nation and preserving its independence and sovereignty is a sacred national duty and the new law will be implemented on all,” UAE Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said on his Twitter account.
“Our gains are a red line that must be protected.”
Men who have finished high school will serve nine months, while those who do not have a high school diploma will serve for two years, according to Sheikh Mohammed’s tweets.
The move follows a similar decision by Qatar’s cabinet in November which approved a law to make brief military service compulsory on male Qataris between the age of 18 and 35.
Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the decision showed that for the UAE to preserve its stability and prosperity “they really need to be on guard 24/7”.
“With this kind of decision today, I think the country is saying ‘We want to continue with the stability and prosperity but we are also well-equipped for any eventuality’,” Abdulla told Reuters.
“We are living in a red zone ... it’s a very difficult zone with a lot of difficult neighbors. You need to be on guard all the time.”
Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the INEGMA Middle East think tank that focuses on security and defense issues, said the move would help “boost national solidarity”.
The reserve army borne out of the conscription could make up more than twice the number of troops in the regular army, said Kahwaji.
“We have to remember the UAE has been procuring a lot of military systems, and they’ve been relying on foreign recruits to help man a lot of these,” he said.
“Now with the conscription the UAE will start having more ... self-sufficiency in manning a lot of the systems.”
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates the size of the UAE armed forces at 51,000, with an army of 44,000, navy of 2,500 and airforce of 4,500.
Hamad al-Rahma, a 26-year-old Emirati lawyer, said he was in favor of the move. “National service teaches a person important qualities,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Doha; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Potter