Military Officers in the Gulf: Career Trajectories and Determinants

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Relatively little is known about officer corps of the six GCC states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – even though thousands of Western military advisors and instructors have worked with them since they gained independence. The aim of this Burke Chair Report is to analyze the officer corps of the armies of Arabia with special attention to socio-cultural factors.

The report demonstrates that the disparities between wealthy – as measured by per capita GDP – Gulf states (Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) and less affluent ones (Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia) manifest themselves in the divergent socio-economic background and career prospects of their professional military personnel. In the wealthier states individuals from (comparatively) lower income and social-status backgrounds tend to find the military career appealing while their colleagues in the more modestly endowed GCC countries usually come from more prominent socioeconomic environments. Shia Muslim communities are essentially banished from the Bahraini and Saudi armed forces while in Kuwait they suffer no such discrimination. Although there are few female officers in the Gulf armies – women have been increasingly accepted for the enlisted ranks, most recently (October 2019), in Saudi Arabia – they have been present in the Bahraini, Emirati, and Omani forces.

The career sketch of Gulf military officers shares a number of basic features of Western militaries – after all, Western advisers and trainers have played an indispensable role in these institutions – in terms of the sequencing of professional subjects, some promotion criteria, and rank structure – but there are also some important differences. First, graduates of GCC military academies are virtually assured to advance to the rank of full colonel, unless they are egregiously incompetent or undisciplined. Second, the striving for excellence and the competitive environment that exemplify the officer’s experience in the world’s top militaries is mostly absent from Gulf militaries. In fact, the GCC officer will advance in his career not by striving to outdo his colleagues but to toe the line, not to rock the boat, and by suppressing whatever creative or imaginative impulses the educational system, based on rote learning and memorization, has failed to quash in him. Third, while most Gulf officers participate in training and education abroad, once they return home they need to conform to that environment which, in turn, soon wears down the competitive edge he might have acquired in Western programs in terms of critical thinking and professional mentality.

Especially in the less prosperous countries of the Gulf, the job of the military officers – and, it is important to note, that it is generally considered a public sector job, like many other, rather than a “profession,” let alone a “calling” – commands high prestige. The job has security and wide-ranging benefits that often include, depending on one’s assignment, the opportunity to accrue wasta (influence, pull, clout) that is a highly valued commodity in GCC societies. As elsewhere, service in different branches of the armed forces has varying levels of prestige attached to them but people may disagree whether a position in the National Guard or the regular armed forces is more desirable. Unlike in the top armies of the world, in the Gulf militaries an administrative slot is generally far more preferable than service in a combat zone.

As in most armies the position of a fighter-pilot is widely considered the apex of the military career. The report pays special attention to pilot training in the Gulf and explains why GCC pilots still have a long way to go to approximate the skill level and professionalism of their colleagues in Western air forces. Because being a fighter-pilot – or, in some respect, any kind of pilot at all – is so prestigious, the princes of the large ruling families often aspire to these positions. As from the general application pool, only a small proportion of them are suited for pilot assignment but, because these armies are anything but meritocracies, those princes who want to, usually end up flying. Pilot performance is continued to be influenced by cultural factors: flyers perform adequately in good conditions with no surprises; once something unexpected occurs, they tend to freeze and make mistakes. Attrition rates in pilot training tend to be far lower in Gulf armies than in, say the Israeli Defense Force or the US Air Force.

Gulf societies remain predominantly tribal societies and tribalism is directly responsible for the enduring weakness of formal institutions, including the armed forces. Tribalism has undermined meritocracy and has sapped the militaries’ effectiveness. The report mentions actual recent examples how the interference of tribal leaders has undercut military reform initiatives and contributed to the assignment of individuals with questionable competence to important positions.

In spite of massive financial investment in these armed forces, from a professional standpoint they remain at best mediocre as their performance in the on-going war in Yemen reminds analysts daily. The lack of meritocracy and the continued weaknesses of the education system (on every level) are just two of the main reasons for this assessment. The UAE has done the most to escape from the long-standing mediocrity of Gulf (and Arab) armies, but despite some advances it has undoubtedly made, it is still affected by the built-in politico-structural and socio-cultural limitations of absolute monarchies.

Zoltan Barany is a (non-resident) Senior Associate of the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas. His recent books include How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why(Princeton, 2016), The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton, 2012), and, as co-editor, Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge, 2009) – all of which have been translated into Arabic.