“I’ll be one of those guys from the army you see with the shaved head and fatigues, driving my tan-coloured matte-finish car through Sheikh Zayed Road,” joked Ziad in early February. He was talking to me over coffee at a restaurant on Jumeira Beach, one of the wealthy areas of Old Dubai (the part of the city that preceded the skyscrapers and planned mini-cities that made up New Dubai).
Ziad is one of many Emirati nationals being asked to sign up for national service as of mid-2014. Already thousands of young men had been drafted into the service, which was unheard of in the UAE until last year. However, with tensions building up between Gulf countries and Iran, as well as the growing threat of Daesh, the UAE decided to start training its citizenry for possible combat.
The UAE news services had been touting aspects of the draft, such as that recruits were ready to eagerly enlist, and that female recruits were also keen to join. Anyone who had to leave their job to join the armed forces was guaranteed half their salary from their employer and the position if/when they returned. With so much press around the positive elements of conscription, I decided to hear from young Emiratis what they thought of the situation.
“They should call it what it is: mandatory military conscription,” said Ziad, who was working happily until this year in the public sector, but now awaited a three to six-month training session.
“It’s longer for some people,” explained Ziad. Others had been drafted for nine months up to a year depending on whether they had completed high school.
Ziad was worried for himself as well as his wife since he would have to leave for the full training service term and not return till it was over.
“Already a young guy died during training,” said Ziad, referring to an incident from late 2014 in which a conscript suffered a heart attack during training. “And from the other side, I heard that the family of the UAE pilot that bombed Syria disowned her,” talking about Major Miriam al-Mansouri, who had made the headlines around the world for representing Gulf allies in a US-led campaign against Daesh in the region.
As he spoke, I glanced at Ziad’s Mercedes Benz, a white AMG-styled coupe, parked next to the beach. Ziad is one of numerous young Emiratis – everyone from when it was introduced in the 1990s – that had been provided education expenses for studying abroad (including boarding and spending money), excellent health-care and several other services by the UAE. Although he had never accessed it, the UAE also kept a housing and marriage fund available to him and others like him. Emiratis are secured jobs in the UAE in both the public and private sector by their government. The government now wanted them to pay back and protect the nation, with perceived threats on two fronts.
“I don’t really want to think about it,” Ziad said about his upcoming service. “I did go and have my tattoo removed though.” The UAE armed services frowns on tattoos, which are seen as being haram by orthodox Islamic standards.
When I pressed further, Ziad said that he had very little idea about what service looked like, since there had been no report-backs. However he, like several others, had started watching a documentary series on the topic called Hayati Walaskariya to find out more. Made in conjunction with the UAE Armed Forces, the Abu Dhabi Media-produced show chronicled the lives of military personnel. Though made to advertise the Armed Forces, the show was the one accessible point of information on life in the service.
“This is not what I want,” said another Emirati, Abdul, in conversation with me over shisha at the Dubai Marina. “I can’t imagine being in there.”
Abdul is an artist, fiercely independent and not wanting to side-track his career. He has set up exhibitions locally and in Europe, loves the dance scene and gym lifestyle. Like Ziad, he was young and in the process of setting up his life in the UAE until national service conscription began.
When I met Abdul, he was in the process of trying to be exempted from service. Those over thirty and under sixteen were exempt, as well as those who were the only son in the family.
“There are some basis for exemption, I know,” he said. “I just have not gone to the recruitment office yet. I am afraid that they will soon call.”
Abdul was especially thinking about his parents worrying about him being drafted. He, like Ziad, did not see any opportunities in the draft. The issue for Abdul was that he was getting torn away from the life he had set up for himself in the UAE, including his courses, career and freelance work. Even though his position at work would be held for him, he would lose valuable time and much of the momentum behind his freelance gigs. The art world is quick-moving, and does not wait for anyone to take time off.
“They say they want to fix the spoilt Emirati rich kid problem,” he said. “But then they should only recruit those who are twenty and younger. It’s too late for us that have gotten used to all of this.”
Abdul was referring to the fact that Emiratis of his age group had gotten used to a lifestyle where their jobs and many entitlements were guaranteed by the state. They did not expect to be taken away from those very privileges in order to pay their dues to the state.