In recent years, Abu-Dhabi has led increased efforts to create a national military ethos in Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) and the other northern emirates as a way to strengthen center–periphery ties. This identity project is part of a wider trend of militarized nationalism among Gulf monarchies. In RAK, it serves also to forge greater national bonds and networks of loyalty to Abu Dhabi’s leadership, especially among Emirati youth. Central to this model is the duty to defend the nation, as opposed to the social reform message conveyed by Islah, the Emirates’ branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had traditionally been influential in RAK and other northern emirates.
RAK is the home of the Islah movement, which had been a prominent player for decades. The Brotherhood’s role in the UAE—and political Islam more broadly—has long been a point of contention between Abu Dhabi and RAK. Local branches of Islah in RAK and Fujairah were founded in the 1970s with the support of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, then emir of Dubai, to counter Arab nationalism. These groups received protection and support from the al-Qassemi dynasty of Sharjah and RAK, who enabled their members to gain prominent political positions in the 1970s and the 1980s. One of its founders, Sheikh Said Abdullah Salman, became Minister of Housing, and other Islah members later held the ministries of education, justice and religious affairs, and labor and social affairs.
However, Islah’s members became too powerful within Emirati institutions. Combined with the rise of Muslim-Brotherhood-inspired movements across the region, this generated wariness of the group. In the 1990s, and then again after 2001 and 2011, the federal government carried out a crackdown against Islah. The Dubai branch was dissolved in 1994, but Sheikh Saqr bin Muhammad al-Qassemi, then emir of RAK, defended the group, and the RAK branch was allowed to continue operating. According to Khalid al-Roken (brother of a prominent human rights lawyer sympathetic to Islah who was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2013 for “plotting an Islamist coup”), Sheikh al-Qassemi claimed that Islah “played a role in preserving the youth” and did not represent a direct threat to local balances in RAK.
The implication of two Emirati nationals (one from RAK and another from Fujairah) in the September 11, 2001 attacks generated a new wave of arrests targeting Islah. Then again in the aftermath of the 2011 protests, the UAE banned Islah at a federal level. As part of their growing crackdown on associations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, authorities even arrested a member of the al-Qassemi royal family, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassemi, first cousin of the emir of RAK and leader of the Emirate’s branch of Islah, who was sentenced in 2013 to ten years in prison. The final nail in Islah’s coffin was in 2014, when the government designated both Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly as terrorist organizations. While Islah’s popularity is difficult to gauge given fears of expressing support for it openly, repeated crackdowns belie the Emirati security services’ 2004 estimate that there were only about 700 Islah members in the UAE.
In addition to their different approaches to Islah, Abu Dhabi and its “unequal brothers” in the northern emirates also differ in terms of tribal affiliations1, population, percentage of nationals, economic output, and influence over federal decisionmaking. For instance, Emirati nationals made up 40 percent of RAK’s population in 2009, the highest density of nationals in the UAE, though data from 2012 estimated this at 24 percent. Fujairah similarly has about 40 percent nationals. Abu Dhabi’s residents, by contrast, were only 26 percent Emirati nationals in 2005, down to 19 percent in 2016. The Emirates’ GDP per capita also varies significantly, with Abu Dhabi at $71,600 in 2017 and RAK at $28,500 in 2018, although RAK and other northern emirates have started to experience significant economic growth in the last decade due to federal and international investments. Economically, RAK relies more on nonoil sectors—such as agriculture, fishing, cement, ceramics, pharmaceuticals, and tourism—as its proven reserves account only for 0.1 percent of the UAE’s total. According to the UAE National Bureau of Statistics, unemployment was higher in northern emirates in 2009 (the last year for which data are available), reaching 16.2 percent in RAK and 20.6 percent in Fujairah, compared to 14 percent nationwide.
Reflecting such differences, RAK has resisted the political and cultural centralization process triggered by the 1971 unification under Abu Dhabi. RAK did not join the federation until 1972, when its oil resources were determined to be meager and Iran occupied Abu Musa (in Sharjah) and the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands (in RAK). While Dubai also resisted centralization at first, it opted to integrate its military forces within the federal structure in 1997, judging that its growing economic development and role on the international stage gave it better federal leverage than before. At this point, RAK lost its main ally against Abu Dhabi’s centralization, and RAK’s Northern Regional Command was also integrated within the federal military. The small emirate gradually accepted the Al Nahyan-driven patronage system, especially since Saud bin Saqr al-Qassemi became emir of RAK in 2003.
Despite these steps toward integration, internal gaps remain. In RAK and other northern emirates, residents often complain of unreliable public services, with fuel and power shortages, water cuts, and lack of infrastructure. Since 2011, limited protests have sporadically erupted, but security forces have generally quelled them easily. In 2011, Abu Dhabi delivered a 1.6 billion dollar development package to RAK and northern emirates to prevent further dissent. The bulk of the funding went toward financial investments, infrastructural projects, housing loans, food subsidies, and increased pensions for soldiers.
In the context of such economic, demographic, and ideological disparities, the military represents not only a way for residents of northern emirates to improve their socioeconomic status but also for Abu Dhabi to engineer more social cohesion. These emirates, poorer than Abu Dhabi or Dubai and with fewer expatriates, have traditionally been the backbone of UAE’s armed forces. The two first Emirati servicemen to die serving the nation were from RAK: the first during Iran’s invasion of Greater Tunb in November 1971 and the second in 2014 in a terrorist attack in Manama, Bahrain. The introduction of compulsory military service in 2014 and the UAE’s participation in the war in Yemen since 2015 have further developed this trend.
Even though the majority of the more than 200 Emirati nationals who died in Yemen were from the northern emirates, local support for this intervention has not yet significantly dwindled, despite some denunciations of the Emirati presence in Yemen. Even a September 4, 2015 attack that killed 45 Emirati soldiers and injured Sheikh Ahmed bin Saud bin Saqr al-Qassemi, the son of the emir of RAK, has not dampened support. This is in part due to RAK’s historical enmity with Tehran since Iran invaded the Tunb islands. RAK, which borders Oman’s governorate of Musandam on the Strait of Hormuz, is the nearest emirate to Iran. RAK largely continues to support the UAE’s entanglement in Yemen because Abu Dhabi has skillfully depicted the conflict as a matter of national defense even though the two countries do not share a border.
The official narrative of the war in Yemen emphasizes the necessity to answer “the call of duty in defense of Arab dignity.” The emir of RAK has defined soldiers who died in service as the “true embodiment of the UAE’s pulsing beat of the Arab and Islamic identity.” Official media strengthen this narrative of sacrifice, with public authorities commonly defining soldiers who have lost their lives as “martyrs.” Observers have noted, “Martyrdom has strengthened UAE society.”
While the official number of casualties is not released by the UAE, royals attend soldiers’ funerals and visit their families across the federation. The names and stories of the martyrs have entered the daily life of Emiratis, especially in the northern emirates. Roads, streets, and mosques take their names—for instance, the road linking RAK and Fujairah was renamed “Martyrs Street” in 2015. During public holidays, such as National Day and Commemoration Day (established in 2015 as Martyrs’ Day), Emirati boys wear combat uniforms to attend military parades and state-sponsored concerts. For these occasions, some schools make uniforms mandatory for boys.
While the war in Yemen is far from being resolved, the UAE’s military and infrastructural interests in southern Yemen are on the rise. The UAE’s ambitious and military-driven foreign policy will require military manpower to protect these interests for the foreseeable future. This manpower—at least the part made up of Emirati nationals—comes from RAK and other northern emirates, while crucial decisions are made in Abu Dhabi. So far, northern Emiratis have publicly rallied around the UAE flag. Yet the imbalances persist, Al Nahyan’s leadership has been trying to defuse the risky combination of economic inequalities and political Islam by replacing the social reform message with a boosted national military ethos. Abu Dhabi has also aimed to strengthen federal cohesion by ensuring that RAK and the northern emirates are financially dependent on Abu Dhabi, which covers 90 percent of the federal government’s budget. However, at a certain point, RAK and the northern emirates might begin to consider the “funds for soldiers” tradeoff to be unsustainable. In the meantime, Abu Dhabi is leading the effort to boost nationalist feelings and avert such a breaking point.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation and Aspen Institute Italia.
1. The Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi belong to the Bani Yas tribe, part of the same Annazah confederation to which the Al Saud belong, while the al-Qassemi family were coastal merchants with power centers on both the Arab and Persian shores of the Gulf.