National service for Emirati men between the ages of 18 to 30 is mandatory but Taryam al-Subaihi had to jump through hoops to serve his country.
The 37-year-old father of six said he was motivated because he wanted to inspire his son, who would soon be required to fulfil his own national commitment.
“The major reason I wanted to join is because my son has two years left before he has to serve. I realised that he didn’t want to,” Subaihi said. “He was already trying to find excuses or loopholes to get out of it. If there was a way I could do it, even if it was for just a few months, at least I could encourage him, show him the positive side of military service.”
Subaihi said he also wanted to develop skills to help him contribute in a more tangible way.
“I wanted to do something to prepare myself, something to train myself, God forbid, if something should happen, at least I would know a couple of basic skills to be able to protect my family and defend my country,” he said.
“So, back in 2014, as soon as the news came out that men 18 to 30 would have to serve, I went to find out if older men could volunteer. I was with my youngest daughter at the time. I went to the Al Nahyan Military Camp in Abu Dhabi, which is the main branch where you sign up for national military service.
“At the reception area, there was a soldier. I guess his main job was to belittle all the cadets who came in. He started trying that with me but realised this is an older man so he was stuck. He didn’t know what to do. First, he told me they didn’t need older men, then he asked me if I could go in and speak to the captain in charge.
“The captain was very polite,” Subaihi said. “He told me that I wasn’t the first man over 30 to ask about volunteering. He said that since the news came out about national military service, many had approached about trying to sign up. Unfortunately, there was no way to do it. I got my thanks, a pat on the back and was asked to leave.”
In June 2014, several months after Subaihi was told thanks but no thanks, Major-General Salem Al Kaabi, the United Arab Emirates’ director of military justice, said that “if enough people over the age of 30 wish to volunteer, we can arrange a programme for them as well.”
In February 2016, Subaihi got his wish.
UAE Brigadier-General Mohammed al-Neyadi, the director of strategic planning at the National Service and Reserve Authority (NSRA), announced the decision to accept men older than 30. He said the proposal was based on “the desire expressed by a number of citizens” who are older than 30 who wanted to serve.
Making a decision legal, however, does not mean it is universally accepted. The law might have been on Subaihi’s side but this was not enough.
His employer, a multinational company with headquarters in Abu Dhabi, did not want to cooperate.
“I was one of the first to sign up when it was announced that men over 30 could volunteer and serve,” Subaihi said, “but one of the regulations is that your work has to give approval for you to serve if it’s voluntary military service. Unfortunately, it was my company that stopped me.
“As it turned out, I ended up in the second batch of men over 30 and I discovered that a lot of people I met said the same thing: Their work was the only reason they didn’t serve in the first batch.”
The UAE law stipulates companies must allow Emirati employees to complete national service without risking their jobs.
Since the government made national service mandatory, it also announced benefits for men who comply as well as severe consequences for those who refuse to fulfil their commitment.
In April 2016, Emarat Al Youm, a Dubai-based Arabic newspaper, reported that no Emirati man would be hired by government departments or private sector companies unless he first completed his national service or applied for a postponement or exemption to the NSRA.
The NSRA said employers have the right to reject Emiratis who haven’t completed national service.
The irony, however, is that, because he was an overage volunteer, Subaihi was not accorded the same rights as an Emirati who is forced by law to serve.
“I was having issues with my workplace. After four years of serving with my company, I had some issues with my line manager, Subaihi said.
“He and [Human Resources] were legally in the right to block my service. They wouldn’t reject my military service — nobody can reject any Emirati from serving in the military, which is a wonderful thing — but they can delay the permission until it’s too late. This is exactly what happened with me.”
Subaihi, however, isn’t one to stand by while being ignored.
“I caused quite a stir,” he said. “I contacted the chairman of my company. I sent him an e-mail and he responded and we had a conversation. I told him that this was a crisis. Someone in his company was stopping an Emirati from serving in the military simply because of personal issues. I know the chairman contacted the executive team and there was a conversation about it, so I think this is pretty much why they didn’t cause me any issues the second time.
“They gave me permission to serve exactly one day before the deadline to sign up for military service, which is how I ended up in the second batch of men over 30 as opposed to the first batch.”
Subaihi said he believes employers have stood in the way of other men chasing their dreams.
“I do hope that the military and the government revisit this issue because I feel that a lot of volunteers have been held back from serving their country,” he said.
Despite the hurdles to complete his four months of service this year, Subaihi said it was worth it.
“After I did it, my son was inspired,” he said. “He went and bought his own uniform, his own army T-shirts, his boots. All of my children asked me to buy them military uniforms. I would explain everything that happened every time I came home. My son is looking forward to using a weapon, to building friendships.”
Subaihi said volunteers have done well for the overall national military service. “They are bringing it home to their families, they are teaching it — like I am — to their children and they are spreading the stories so their children will be more encouraged to serve,” he said.
“For anyone considering, I would say do it. Sign up. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had in my life. You build bonds with every single person of that team because you become a family.”
Michael Jabri-Pickett is an Arab Weekly contributor in Abu Dhabi.