Anti-COVID Volunteers are the New Soldiers: Revisiting UAE’s Militarized Nationalism during the Pandemic

Eleonora Ardemagni, Italian Institute for International Political Studies & Catholic University of Milan

The COVID-19 pandemic, together with a recalibration of the Emirati foreign policy, has impacted on nation-building strategies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For over a decade, the Emirati leadership has promoted values such as community belonging, sense of duty, pride and patriotism through soldiers, conscription and military-related symbols (“militarized nationalism”).[1] Since the outbreak of the pandemic, those values are now daily conveyed and praised through anti-COVID-19 volunteers, who embody community responsibility.

The number of UAE’s nationals and residents involved in state-promoted volunteerism has grown during the pandemic. According to the government, more than 50,000 youth volunteers, both nationals and residents, helped the Emirati community during the coronavirus pandemic, working in hospitals, quarantines, testing centres, airports, ports, malls and also remotely as part of information campaigns. The efforts of this “army of volunteers” are celebrated by local public officials and media, stressing values and words which are usually adopted to celebrate the Emirati armed forces.[2] This also occurs as the UAE recalibrates its foreign policy. Since 2019, the Emirati leadership has been stressing regional de-escalation and humanitarian diplomacy, thus nuancing the assertive and military-oriented stance displayed over the previous decade.

This article develops at the interplay of nation-building studies, civil-military relations, foreign policy analysis and media analysis. It explores how the UAE’s leadership has revisited militarized nationalism during the pandemic, pursuing the same goal (nation-building) and mobilizing the same values (ex. pride, community-belonging, sense of duty, patriotism) as before, but through different actors (volunteers instead of soldiers and conscripts). In many parts of the world, the fight against COVID has been often compared to a ‘war.’ But the Emirati case is unique due to the previous use of militarized nationalism as an identity-maker tool. As a result, pandemic volunteers in the UAE are now playing the nation-builders role soldiers have performed since the 2010s. This reveals how much the Emirati nation-building strategy is adaptable to shifting contexts.

Making Sense of Nation-Building: Framing Militarized Nationalism in the 2010s

The UAE has fostered top-down projects of nation-building.[3] In uncertain times marked by deep economic transformation and regional turmoil, national identity plays a support role. This is especially salient in young states with a young and varied society, like the UAE: national identity strengthens social cohesion, fostering ′rally around the flag’ feelings. In the Gulf region, this trend is not exclusively linked to the UAE; it has also emerged in Qatar, where nationalist feelings and a certain militaristic rhetoric reached the apex due to the 2017-2021 diplomatic crisis with some Gulf neighbours. After the 2011 Arab uprisings, the Gulf monarchies have widely resorted to military-related initiatives and symbols to strengthen national identities as a method for coping with regional threats and post-oil diversification. For instance, the UAE introduced unprecedented conscription for male nationals in 2014. Its main intent was cultural, not strictly military, thus turning compulsory military service into a tool of nation-building.[4] The Emirati choice is part of a broader post-rentier strategy increasingly relying on a military dimension to drive national identity projects: the emphasis on the military dimension has also displayed a nationalist trend,[5] in a context marked by intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power competition.

Militarized nationalism can be defined as “a system of military-related values promoted ‘from above,’ including symbols, collective experiences, role models and memoirs, aimed to foster sense of national belonging and cohesion ‘from below.’”[6] With particular regard to the UAE, examples of militarized nationalism include conscription, military museums and exhibitions, military parades and uniformed displays during the Emirati National Day, the commemoration of the “martyrs” (the Emirati soldiers killed while deployed in Yemen war), patriotic songs and poetry. Public speech, by royals, politicians, religious figures and media, is also part of the nation-building effort, underlying the correlation between patriotic commitment and national strength. As the Emirati ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba stated in an interview, “building our military is not just about buying fancy equipment. It is about building a culture, building a national identity, building a bond between leadership and the people, and building the kind of society where a soldier would be proud to die for his country.”[7] This encapsulates the kind of approach to nation-building the Emirati leadership has pursued since the 2010s.

Volunteers in Action. The Civic Face of the Emirati Nation-Building in 2020s: From Community Policing to COVID-19

In the UAE, state-sponsored volunteerism has often played a role in supporting broader national goals. In the Emirates, this phenomenon can be explained through a combination between state capacity and high levels of trust vis-à-vis public authorities: as Schulhofer-Wohl and Koehler demonstrate in this volume, the level of compliance to authorities is driven by the level of trust in governments. The Takatof volunteer program, established in 2007 and run by the government affiliated Emirates Foundation, aims to “promote and foster a sense of citizenship and national solidarity.”[8] Against this backdrop, the pandemic has not only confirmed this purpose: it has also intertwined with volunteer initiatives building upon the values and language of militarized nationalism to support nation-building.

In April 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan launched the Higher National Committee for Regulating Volunteering during Crisis. The Committee was tasked to coordinate the activities of different volunteer groups, involving citizens as well as residents. It established a clear framework to regulate volunteering. The UAE Volunteers platform benefitted from the collaboration with governmental and semi-governmental entities, private sector and public benefit associations. In the first month of its launch, the campaign attracted a total of 16,502 individuals, including 9.828 field volunteers and 5.306 medical volunteers, representing more than 126 nationalities residing in the UAE.[9] In the first six months of 2020, 29,661 volunteers of all ages and nationalities joined state-sponsored volunteerism and about 2,200 were at their first volunteer experience.[10]

Since the beginning, the UAE authorities and state-led media have widely used military-related words to praise healthcare workers and present the volunteering initiative against COVID-19, especially to promote the campaign to UAE’s nationals and residents. On late March 2020, the ruler of Dubai and UAE’s vice president and prime minister Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the #ThankYouHeroes campaign on Twitter writing that “Our medical teams today are the nation’s custodians and the first line of defence against humanity’s biggest enemy.”[11] “New recruits are needed to help build an army of volunteers to lead the national fight against #coronavirus” tweeted the Emirati media platform UAE Forsan.[12] The National, the leading Emirati newspaper in English, repeatedly echoed military-style language in its headlines such as “Army of volunteers join the fight against COVID 19”[13] and, again, “New recruits are needed to help build an army of volunteers to lead the national fight against coronavirus.”[14]

Same Values, New Actors

With regard to state-sponsored volunteerism, cohesion and community responsibility are the most cited values by officials and media, as it was for previous initiatives in the military and police domain: in all the cases, nation-building is the scope. Launching the UAE Volunteers platform in April 2020, Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan stated “we are able to address any challenges we face with cohesion and co-operation,”[15] since the vision of the initiative is “to enhance community participation to highlight cohesion and cooperation in the UAE.”[16] The same message was conveyed by leading national media when conscription was introduced in 2014. At that time, opinion articles stressed that “one of the most important things to any country is to ensure that it has a cohesive society that will remain resilient against the challenges and the threats that could affect it.”[17]

Similarities between the discourse on soldiers and COVID volunteers are quite striking. In 2015, for instance, UAE’s President Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan stated that “nations only grow by the heroic acts of their valiant servicemen, who are recorded in the annals of history for their ultimate sacrifices” during the first Commemoration Day to celebrate the Emirati soldiers died while performing service abroad.[18] Commenting on the role of volunteers against the pandemic, Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan declared in 2020 that “history will remember the exceptional role of various organisations, personnel, and volunteers for their sacrifices and efforts to overcome the current situation.”[19]Later, he also stressed that “our volunteers, from Emiratis and residents, have embodied an epic of human giving.”[20]Inviting Emiratis and residents to volunteer in the anti-pandemic campaign “Your City Needs You,” the Crown Prince of Dubai, Shaykh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, stated “this is part of our social responsibility and our duty to help safeguard the welfare of society.”[21] Similarly, Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan called the protection of the nation “a sacred national duty” when conscription was introduced in 2014.[22] There are other values which often recur in the Emirati public speech on COVID-19 volunteers, such as sacrifice and duty. Since the 2010s, these values have been at the core of UAE’s militarized nationalism, as they are connected to the narrative of the Emirati soldiers unprecedentedly deployed abroad in the Yemen war.

State-sponsored volunteerism against COVID-19 and its nation-building rhetoric resemble previous initiatives in the security field. This is the case of the “We are all police” campaign on community policing in the Abu Dhabi emirate. Under the slogan “The police are our community and our community is the police,”[23] this voluntary program involved nearly 20,000 participants: selected volunteers, after training courses, became ‘linking rings’ between police officers and the general public, supporting the Abu Dhabi Police to identify and address a variety of community challenges.[24] The program was open to applicants from all backgrounds and nationalities residing in Abu Dhabi, as in the case of anti-COVID-19 volunteering. The campaign aimed to trigger the values of social responsibility, cohesion and community engagement too. According to the authorities, its purpose was to allow nationals and residents to “give something back to [the] community.”[25]

Revisiting UAE’s Militarized Nationalism During COVID: The Foreign Policy Framework

From a political perspective, the revisitation of militarized nationalism by the Emirati leadership must be framed in–and is driven by–a subtle foreign policy recalibration. Since 2019, the UAE has gradually shifted from a “power projection” posture in the Middle Eastern region, based on military assertiveness and open competition for influence, to a “power protection” policy, aimed to consolidate the geopolitical gains acquired after 2011.[26] This foreign policy recalibration puts economy first: it still pursues ambitious geostrategic goals although stressing regional de-escalation and diplomacy. In other words, the Emirati overall strategy hasn’t changed but the tactic is now different. For instance, humanitarian diplomacy is today emphasized as a leading foreign policy tool.

In this context, the pandemic provided an occasion for regional and global leadership on anti-COVID-19 aid, which fit into the recalibration of the Emirati foreign policy. Local officials and media rushed to connect this posture with the humanitarian and philanthropic initiatives of the Emirati founding father, Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The humanitarian dimension of the UAE’s policy developed at the domestic level, through the state-sponsored volunteering initiatives, as well as at the external level, through humanitarian aid and vaccine diplomacy. In both the cases, it supports nation-building, encapsulating the values activated by militarized nationalism. The internal volunteering campaign to fight COVID-19 presents some connections with foreign policy and international reputation. First, the Higher Committee was launched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; second, humanitarian volunteering initiatives for foreign countries were also organized, for instance the campaign ‘From UAE For Lebanon’ to collect supplies and help to rebuild Beirut port after the 2020 explosion[27]; third, local media stresses how UAE’s volunteers represent a “global example” and gained “global recognition.”[28]

As in a circular relation, internal volunteering initiatives against the pandemic boost community cohesion, projecting abroad the image of a united, strong nation who is also able to provide external aid. This is how the values evoked by militarized nationalism display themselves under a revisited guise. Moreover, the humanitarian and the military dimensions of the Emirati foreign policy are not at odds. In fact, humanitarian diplomacy serves “to counter-balance militaristic orientation in foreign policy.”[29] Humanitarian and ′vaccine diplomacy′ also rely on logistics infrastructures and chains to effectively deliver, as shown, for instance, by the role of DP World in vaccine distribution. In this way, humanitarian logistics – which is also a projection tool – indirectly supports the enhancement of the Emirati influence abroad. This is strengthened by the rise of an official discourse “that links a sense of national identity and civic duty to the intersection of militarism and humanitarianism.”[30] The Emirati leadership underlines the humanitarian face of the national armed forces. For instance, the exhibition Protectors of the Nation: Sacrifice and Giving, held in 2018 at the Etihad Museum in Dubai, synthetizes this concept. The official presentation focused on the role the UAE’s armed forces played abroad “to spread tolerance, brotherhood and positive values across the world through humanitarian missions.”[31]


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on nation-building strategies in the UAE, displaying how much these are adaptable to shifting contexts. During the pandemic, the Emirati leadership has revisited militarized nationalism – the main driver of UAE’s nation-building in 2010s – conveying and mobilizing its values (pride, community-belonging and responsibility, sense of duty and patriotism). It now did this mainly through anti-COVID-19 volunteers, instead of through soldiers and conscripts. State-sponsored volunteerism during the pandemic and its nation-building rhetoric echo previous, community-oriented Emirati initiatives in the security field (ex. community policing; conscription). The Emirati authorities and state-led media have widely used military-related words to communicate and praise the national initiatives of volunteering against the coronavirus. This has occurred in a broader context of foreign policy recalibration which emphasizes regional de-escalation and humanitarian diplomacy. This approach drives the revisitation of militarized nationalism in the 2020s to nuance the military-oriented posture Abu Dhabi pursued in the 2010s. In so doing, the Emirati top-down strategy also highlights political and rhetoric linkages between humanitarian and military domains in the UAE’s nation-building, thus revealing continuity in the Emirati politics.

[1] Ardemagni, Eleonora, “Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism”, Carnegie Sada, 28 February 2019; Ardemagni, Eleonora, “Militarized Nationalism in the Gulf Monarchies: Crafting the Heritage of Tomorrow”, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, Workshop Memo, 16 May 2020 in “Heritage and National Identity Construction in the Gulf: Between State-Building and Grassroots Initiatives”, 4-5 December 2019.

[2] UAE Forsan 17/04/2020 ′New recruits are needed to help build an army of volunteers to lead the national fight against #coronavirus`; The National 05/06/2020 ′Army of volunteers join the fight against COVID 19`

The National 16/04/2020 ′Coronavirus: UAE volunteer campaign calls for more recruits to tackle COVID-19`

[3] Jones, Calvert W., Bedouins into Bourgeois. Remaking Citizens for Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). For a broader view on contemporary nation-building in the Arabian Peninsula, see Freer, Courtney and Kherfi, Yasmine (2020), “Narratives of nationalism in culture and heritage production of the Arabian Peninsula: bringing the state back in”, Middle Eastern Studies,  56:6, pp. 988-1004.

[4] Ardemagni, Eleonora (2016), “Emiratization of Identity: Conscription as a Cultural Tool of Nation-Building”, Gulf Affairs, OxGAPS-Oxford Gulf & Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum, Oxford University, St Antony’s College, 6-9.

[5] Ardemagni, “Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism”.

[6] Ardemagni, “Militarized Nationalism in the Gulf Monarchies: Crafting the Heritage of Tomorrow”.

[7] Quoted in Pollack, Kenneth M. (2020), “Sizing up Little Sparta: Understanding UAE military effectiveness”, American Enterprise Institute, Report.

[8] UN Volunteers (2011) “Drafting and Implementing Volunteerism Laws and Policies. A Guidance Note”.

[9] Ministry of Community Development 14/05/2020, “UAE Volunteers campaign has attracted 9,828 field volunteers and 5,306 specialists”.

[10] Gokulan, Dhanusha, ′KT special: How UAE is leading the way in volunteering efforts`, Khaleeji Times 11/12/2020

[11] Dubai Gazette 25/03/2020, “#ThankYouHeroes, ‘Your City Needs You’ campaigns”

[12] UAE Forsan, ′New recruits are needed to help build an army of volunteers to lead the national fight against #coronavirus`.

[13] The National, ′Army of volunteers join the fight against COVID 19`.

[14] The National, ′Coronavirus: UAE volunteer campaign calls for more recruits to tackle COVID-19`.

[15] Rizvi, Anam, ′Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed launches UAE-wide volunteer campaign`, The National 11/04/2020

[16] Ministry of Community Development, “UAE Volunteers campaign has attracted 9,828 field volunteers and 5,306 specialists”.

[17] Al Mehairbi, Mariam Rashed, ′National Service is a life-changing programme that teaches young people strong values`, The National 2018

[18] The National 29/11/2015, ′Sheikh Khalifa: ‘We are inspired by patriotism of our heroes’

[19] Rizvi, ′Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed launches UAE-wide volunteer campaign`.

[20] Weqaya 11/12/2020 ′UAE takes pride in its humanitarian volunteering during COVID crisis`

[21] Zacharias, Anna, ′Sheikh Hamdan asks Dubai to volunteer in new campaign`, The National 25/03/2020

[22] Deutsche Welle 19/01/2014, ′United Arab Emirates to introduce compulsory military service for males`

[23] Government of the UAE, We Are All Police.

[24] Ardemagni, Eleonora, “Policing the Emirati nation: The politics of community-building”, in W.Guéraiche and K.Alexander (eds.), Facets of Security in the United Arab Emirates (Abingdon: Routledge, Tailor & Francis 2022), pp.205-214.

[25] Government of the UAE, We Are All Police.

[26] Ardemagni, Eleonora (2021), “The UAE’s Military Adjustment in the Bab el-Mandeb: From Power Projection to Power Protection”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, ISPI Commentary, 19 April.

[27] Pereira, Nikhil, ′UAE launches nationwide relief effort for Lebanon`, Arabian Business 11/08/2020

[28] Gokulan, ′KT special: How UAE is leading the way in volunteering efforts`.

[29] Gokalp, Deniz (2020), “The UAE’s Humanitarian Diplomacy: Claiming State Sovereignty, Regional Leverage and International Recognition”, CMI Norway Working Paper.

[30] Ziadah, Rafeef (2019), “Circulating Power: Humanitarian Logistics, Militarism, and the United Arab Emirates: Circulating Power,” Antipode, 51: 4.

[31] Etihad Museum 12/05/2018, ′Etihad Museum celebrates the UAE Armed Forces 42nd anniversary`.