The United Arab Emirates (UAE) captured global attention when Major Mariam al-Mansouri, a female pilot, flew a combat mission against Islamic State fighters in Syria in 2014. The visibility of female soldiers protecting international gatherings at Emirati venues has also helped confirm the country as a poster child for recruitment of women in an Arab military that is both competent and modern in outlook.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE and emir of Abu Dhabi, launched the trajectory by creating the Khawla bint al-Azwar Military School for women in 1990. His son Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was appointed deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces in 2005 and acquired supreme command on becoming president of the UAE on May 14, 2022, has extolled the role of Emirati women, who have “prove[n] themselves within one of the most important areas of national work, which is the military field.” It was under his leadership that the national military service program launched in 2014, which is compulsory for males, was also opened to female volunteers.

The significance of royal endorsement of the role of women in the military should not be underestimated. It is reflected in repeated references made in media outlets by senior members of the ruling family and government to the “heroism and sacrifice” of women in the armed forces and to their “achievements,” many of which are carried by the official news agency WAM and in the military’s own monthly journal, Nation’s Shield. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s mother, Sheikha Fatima bin Mubarak, has been personally involved in setting up the armed forces’ program to train Arab and non-Arab female peacekeepers.

However, there is a visible disconnect between lofty rhetoric and specific practices and policies. The detailed attention paid by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to force-building, which has propelled the UAE’s armed forces to the forefront of Arab militaries over the past two decades or so, contrasts with the vagueness of plans to expand the recruitment of women into the military and, especially, to enhance their integration across the branches of service and promotion to field command. In short, the recruitment of women does not so far reflect a coherent strategy for gender mainstreaming in the armed forces.

Official statements are noticeably vague on facts and figures regarding female service, but when data is provided it tends to bring the shortcomings into greater relief. Even in the high-profile case of female pilots, the UAE Air Force currently has four according to a factsheet posted by the UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C. Assuming a highly conservative 1:1 ratio of pilots to fixed- and rotary-wing combat aircraft, 2.25 percent of pilots are women. However, this percentage drops sharply when more realistic ratios are applied. For a sense of the true scale, the class photo of a single graduating cohort at the Khalifah bin Zayed Air College in March 2020 showed nearly 200 cadets. The same embassy factsheet stated there are 30 servicewomen in the Special Forces, which is part of the UAE’s Presidential Guard.

Generally, women do not appear to have extended significantly beyond traditional support roles in medical and administrative services. A 2008 study by sociologist Suaad Zayed al-Oraimi found that most trainees leaving the Khawla bint al-Azwar Military School went on to become soldiers or office workers, whether at the military school or in other military facilities. Eight years later, a study by Jon Alterman and Margo Balboni, who had direct access to the armed forces, noted that women were still being prepared for noncombat roles as medics, drivers, and logisticians. They concluded that “even among senior females in the NSRA [national service and reserve authority] hierarchy, the path forward is to create opportunities for women to do ‘women’s work’ within the military rather than create greater acceptance for women taking on non-traditional roles.” The inclusion of optional national service for women in 2014 does not appear to have improved the armed forces’ ability to attract and retain female personnel. Indeed, the annual intake of female conscripts dwindled from 150 in 2014 to 50–70 by 2016, and 30–60 since (judging from media footage of induction and graduation parades).

There are several impediments to effective integration of women into the armed forces. The legal requirement for female volunteers—whether for career or national service—to have the consent of their male guardians is one. More broadly, gender mainstreaming policy is not aligned systematically with coherent implementation plans. To cite Alterman and Balboni again, the UAE’s military “seeks to do several big things without consistently articulating priorities among them. Some goals may be more achievable than others—and not all goals are mutually reinforcing. Further complicating the matter, many are difficult to measure.” This also suggests that, notwithstanding public support from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed or Minister of State for Defense Affairs Mohammad bin Ahmad al-Bawaridi, male championship of female participation within the UAE’s armed forces of the kind seen in the Lebanese and Jordanian counterparts is absent.

The integration of women into the UAE’s military appears to have hit a barrier. Women constitute an estimated 3 percent of its personnel, but a large majority are in administrative or support roles. To change this, the armed forces need a clear path for women to become commissioned officers and take command positions, so as to provide stronger top-down support for transformation. This is a sine qua non for a fundamental shift in perceptions and attitudes among male personnel. A coherent policy would see the establishment of a directorate for women’s affairs, close coordination with central departments and commands of the main branches of service in assessing needs and means that female personnel can meet, and attainment targets in terms of numbers or percentages of uniformed female personnel across the armed forces and Ministry of Defense, as well as clear milestones and timelines. Last but not least, laws and regulations governing the defense sector need to be modified methodically to reflect and enable the integration of women. This would seek to affect criteria for recruitment and promotion, pay and pensions, maternity leave, disciplinary matters, sexual harassment and abuse, and termination.

The UAE has considerable potential to offer a leading model for the integration of women into the armed forces that is commensurate with the status it claims for itself as one of the Middle East and North Africa’s frontrunners in gender equality. But in the absence of a clear, coherent, and consistent strategy for gender mainstreaming in the armed forces, the country’s political leadership risks creating the impression that statements about the role of women in the military are more a public relations exercise targeting Western audiences than a sustained effort to address operational needs.