The Gulf War of 2003 and the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 unleashed widespread instability across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In various ways, both led to a growing threat of terrorism, increased Iranian influence in certain Arab states, and domestic unrest in countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Consequently, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states mostly perceived the consequences of both Saddam Hussein’s fall and the Arab Spring revolts as dangerous developments, leading to the deep-pocketed Gulf monarchies making significant increases in arms purchases—a trend that is set to continue. According to Jane’s Defence Budgets data, the GCC members’ defense spending will reach approximately $117 billion USD by 2023.
Although the need for security against regional instability and military threats largely explains this rise in military expenditures, the GCC members’ promotion of a “new nationalism” is also part of the picture. Eleonora Ardemagni, research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), defines “militarized nationalism” as a “system of military-related values promoted ‘from above,’ including symbols, collective experiences, role models and memoirs, aimed to foster a sense of national belonging and cohesion ‘from below.’” It is worth asking if this shift toward “militarized nationalism” represents a turning point or merely a continuity of the past state-building strategies in the MENA region.
The growing militarization of the Gulf has occurred at both the state level and within the population through the diverse arms race and the introduction of conscription for male citizens.
The growing militarization of the Gulf has occurred at both the state level and within the population through the diverse arms race and the introduction of conscription for male citizens. These initiatives demonstrate a shared strategy on the part of GCC states to create a defined identity while promoting a homogenous national unity. Throughout the Arab Gulf monarchies, many exhibitions, museums, and festivals that reinforce a sense of communal values complement such efforts.
In the UAE, the Union Fortress military demonstration has become a patriotic event through the various representations of each emirate’s leaders and military exercises presented to the public. In Qatar, the 2018 military parade accompanied by patriotic songs was three times larger than in 2017, according to Ardemagni. Last year, Saudi Arabia had the world’s highest military burden, devoting 8 percent of its GDP to military expenditure, which resonates with the hyper-nationalist surge brought by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), intended to strengthen his rule.
To effectively instill the values of “militarized nationalism” in the population, GCC leaders have turned to political narratives. In late 2017, Qatar’s Minister of State for Defense, Hamad Binali Al-Attiyah, publicly announced that conscription helps Qataris to become exemplary citizens who protect the homeland and “raise its name high among the nations.” The UAE’s leadership has associated Emirati soldiers to heroes who represent important values of patriotism and sacrifice. Although public discourse has proved to be one of the primary tools used by governments to encourage “militarized nationalism,” Saudi Arabia has also opted for more subtle yet powerful messages that can resonate across the Kingdom as hyper-nationalism. That trend is growing stronger. For example, during the National Day in 2016, the slogan “Our Heroes are in our hearts” was about calling attention to the Saudi soldiers fighting in Yemen.
The promotion of “militarized nationalism” should be seen as problematic for two important reasons.
“The Gulf is the most militarized place on earth, and despite that we have not seen security or stability.”
First, the more a country has arms, the more likely it will use them. “The Gulf is the most militarized place on earth, and despite that we have not seen security or stability,” explained Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a renowned Emirati political scientist. “The more you militarize, the less secure the region becomes.” Arguably, the Saudis and Emiratis made their decisions about entering the fray in Yemen in 2015 in no small part due to the high levels of investment in their militaries that began in the 2000s and drastically up ticked after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Yet as underscored by Houthi drone and missile attacks which have exposed Saudi vulnerabilities in recent years, Riyadh’s large spending on its military and the five-year-old Saudi war against the Houthis have failed to keep the Kingdom safe or secure.
Second, every dollar spent on the military takes a dollar away from other forms of spending that can help with social and human development. In the Gulf region, where hydrocarbon resources cannot indefinitely sustain current lifestyles, all governments realize that economic diversification to achieve knowledge-based economies is essential. Achieving these visions requires substantial amounts of money for investment in the growth of non-energy sectors.
With some GCC members continuing to perceive threats from more traditional military heavyweights in the MENA region—chiefly Iran and Turkey—along with unresolved conflicts fueling chaos throughout Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Gulf regimes are unlikely to substantially decrease military spending in the near future. The GCC crisis has also given Qatar reasons to view increased defense spending as necessary given that the Bahrainis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and Saudis are continuing to pressure Qatar through diplomatic and economic measures, and even occasional military threats.
Yet, amid a period of low oil prices, the costs of “militarized nationalism” will be more difficult for GCC states to assume. It remains to be seen how leaders in the Gulf are set to pursue their goals of cutting down government spending, investing in economic diversification agendas, while also instilling a stronger sense of national identity in ways that are increasingly militarized.