BETWEEN REALITY AND ASPIRATIONS
The strength of a country has been measured in recent decades by the size of its population. The bigger the population, the bigger the deterrent it provides to any threat from a hostile regional power. This was what countries like Iraq, whose onemillion-strong armed forces which was rated the fourth biggest in the world, used to brag about. Such criteria was current until recently; and it was the reason why countries that lack this advantage, such as the GCC countries, resorted to other means to curb external threats. We found that these countries opt to build up large arsenals of armament and forge coalitions with Arab and international powers to meet their security requirements. Foreign fleets became a common presence in a large number of states along the Arabian Gulf. Some Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt are at the forefront of countries that received economic assistance in return for the security services they provided, while countries like Iraq and Egypt with large populations gained distinguished leverage in the region inspite of their receding economic conditions.
The absence of compulsory conscription in the GCC countries inevitably leads to the lack of reserve forces needed to confront external threats. Contrary to this, for instance, is the situation in Iran – the traditional source of threat to these countries – which has a strict compulsory conscription system, and a large base of career reserve forces with wide ranging direct or indirect combat experiences and duties.
Depending on an external power for security has its political cost that no Gulf state may wish to continue to pay, especially when there is an agreement between these external powers and the threatening regional side. The recent agreement between the USA and Iran has contributed to forcing some Gulf States to adopt compulsory conscription for the first time in their history. These countries are seeking – amid regional threats and rapid interactions in the region – to optimise the benefit of their financial and armament-advantage by adding qualified and trained resources to their military capabilities to confront Iran, the neighbour with an ambitious strategy to dominate the Arabian Gulf region.
Regional threat could be a major part of the new doctrine of mobilisation in the Gulf region as the GCC couldn't, throughout decades of its history, meet the security requirements of its members and GCC members were concerned about the wave of the Arab spring revolutions that had struck many large Arab republics. However, they viewed compulsory conscription as a means to “build a generation of disciplined youths”, and to “upgrade and optimise the utilisation of human potential through engraining good values and developing positive behaviour patterns among the youth so that they can support the armed forces in crises and emergencies”. These countries used to recruit immigrant workforce in various units of the armed forces, which poses a long-term threat to the social fabric especially when the population of this workforce exceeds the indigenous population, let alone the problems this may create due to divided loyalty on the part of these recruits.
The reasons for introducing the compulsory conscription service (the service of the flag) vary from one country to another. All countries, however, agree that this service contributes to fulfilling the requirements of the society and the country. Jordan, for instance, is planning to reinstate the service, and the law has recently been passed by the parliament. It considers the national service a reform measure and a means to serve
society, contain social violence and reconfirm the state deference through upgrading the respect for the state's institutions and the armed forces and safeguarding the fabric of society amid genuine threats to national unity. Some Gulf countries view the service as a means to develop the potential of the youth. They tend to reinstate the service not for political and security reasons as much as a means to refine the characters of the youth and solve the problems originating from idleness and unemployment, most of which are attributed to the failure of government departments to plan and study the requirements of the work market proactively, and the absence of suitable professional training. As a result, a large portion of immigrant workforce took the place of the national workforce in the work market. For these reasons, rather than security and political ones as in the case of Israel, the governments of the region are introducing the national service.
Countries such as Qatar and the UAE consider it important to provide a military training to conscripts or volunteers for a few months in order to refine and shape their characters and integrate them into military life. In addition, the absence of a national culture leads to lost or weakened loyalty or sense of national belonging, which in turn will regenerate the ethnic or sectarian sub-identities responsible for most of the cases of unrest in some Gulf States, like in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In Jordan we can see this phenomenon in the universities where violence reached unprecedented levels. To enhance a unifying national identity some suggest changing the phrase “the service of the flag” to “the national service”.
As a way of combating unemployment, these governments consider that preparing university graduates professionally, technically and technologically even after completing their military service is required to qualify them for a profession, especially in the most needed jobs, in the work market. Voicing economic aspect as a main reason for rejecting the return of the national service can be bypassed in the societies of the Arabian Gulf States where the returns realised from oil and gas can be used to strengthen and encourage the national service. In the countries that suffer from economic difficulties, financial requirements for compulsory conscription can be secured through partnerships between the armed forces and the private sector to support training with experienced human resources. The current tendency today among the governments that want to reinstate or introduce the national service for the first time is to adopt this new concept so that the service may not be seen as an unnecessary financial burden by governments. At the same time, some governments are thinking about reducing the term of the service to just six months of training, or start training the students from secondary school and count that period as part of the regular service term that the conscript is ready to start after completing this stage of education.
For example the Jordanian government is heading towards reinstating the national service and reducing its term from two years to only six months of military and vocational training. A large number of the officials supporting the return of the service of the flag in Jordan associate it with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of them think that as long as no state is established on the other bank of the river (a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip), this subject should not be ignored. The threat is still there and the current strategic environment should be understood in a holistic context.
Other governments think the duration should be assigned in accordance with the circumstance of individual countries. The security side should not be ignored when considering serving the society and emphasising productivity as parts of the national service. For example Algeria limited the service of the flag to 18 months, three of which are spent in military training, and one month in driving training. Conscripts after that are grouped in accordance with their specialisations and competence to retrain them vocationally. It, however, raised the term during the 10 years of unrest, terrorism and chaos that Algeria experienced through during the 1990s to 24 months without ignoring vocational training.
In light of all this the service of the flag is an important activity. However, we should not look at it only as a military or behavioural training. It is that, and also a vocational and professional preparation. If this notion is not part of the process, the whole activity can be in vain.
RA'ID FOUZI EHMOOD Researcher and General Manager Third World Institute for Researches and Studies, Jordan