Did you ever wonder how landlocked and wealthy Switzerland escaped the wars that plagued Europe in the past century? In fact, the last war that Switzerland entered was in 1812, which happened to be the very year it instigated mandatory military conscription for its citizens.
After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 the Gulf states briefly understood their precarious position in a difficult neighbourhood. But even though these states lie in a volatile region of the world and are surrounded by countries that enforce mandatory military conscription such as Israel, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iran, they have yet to introduce the same.
In Kuwait, the procrastinating parliament, when not in self-destruct mode, skirted the issue of military service for 18 years with a draft law that was proposed only last autumn. When Kuwait’s flags were pulled down in 1990 and replaced with Iraq’s it sent a shiver down the spine of every GCC citizen and our governments promptly acted by seeking western assistance to expel Saddam’s forces. But what did we do next to protect ourselves?
Not much. Did we introduce mandatory military service to defend our sovereignty? No. Did we teach emergency rescue education in schools? Not a chance. Did we train our citizens how to respond to disasters both natural and man-made? Not in the least.
Apparently, what we did do was gain weight, lots of it in fact. We now have one of the world’s highest rates of diabetes; obesity in adults, obesity in children, high blood pressure, and cardiac and artery illnesses – an impressive list of killer diseases by any standard and all related to lack of mobility.
One idea for tackling these diseases is a proper military indoctrination – push-ups and all. Lavish wealth in the region has bred complacency and a culture of outsourcing work and activity to others.
Mandatory military service offers another, more important advantage, too: it instils a sense of patriotism, which in the Gulf, mostly manifests itself during the occasional football game. For instance, few Emiratis know the lyrics to the national anthem that were written by the Emirati poet Aref Al Sheikh Abdullah Al Hassan. Fewer still even know that these lyrics aren’t actually recognised as official.
Saudi Arabia celebrated its National Day for the first time in 2005, after King Abdullah ascended to the throne; previously it came and went without much notice.
Military service in which all citizens are treated as equal would also cement a sense of egalitarianism within the country, requiring the sons and daughters of leaders and prominent families to train with their countrymen from across the societal spectrum. Gulf rulers have a tradition of sending their sons to military academies abroad. In fact, several current rulers in the Gulf have been trained at top schools such as Sandhurst in Britain including the Abu Dhabi and Dubai crown princes, Bahrain’s king and crown prince, the Sultan of Oman, Qatar’s Emir, and the late Kuwaiti hero Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmed, who tragically died defending the gates of the Emir’s home in 1990. If military training was beneficial for so many of them, than its benefits should be applicable for all GCC citizens.
Israel is an example of a country that was able to unite people of a diverse ethnic and religious background together using the military. Many people in the Arab world aren’t aware that Arabs – Muslims, Druze and Christians – served in the Israeli army including Abdel Majid Hamed, a decorated Arab lieutenant colonel.
Scores of Arabs have served in the Israeli army and some have died fighting for it. They are heroes in Israel, traitors in the Arab world, but ultimately they are an extreme example of how a secular military service can unite natural adversaries let alone people who share the same aspirations such as those in the Gulf.
A mandatory military service would also result in trained citizens who are able to protect our borders, assist in international peace efforts and operate the ultra-expensive weapons our governments continue to purchase.
Dr Mustafa Alani, the director of security at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, was quoted by The National recently as saying that Israel “relies on hi-tech to replace the shortage in manpower”, a challenge that is also evident in the Arab Gulf nations. However there is no doubt that the Jewish state can rely on a larger pool of citizens to operate these mighty military gadgets than the Gulf states due to its systematic mandatory military service.
After all, Switzerland didn’t protect itself with 200 years of pampering its citizens; a rigorous, secular and egalitarian military service can secure the Gulf’s future like it secured Switzerland’s past.
*This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday, March 29th 2009.