The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are supposedly winding down, Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is eroding the iron-fisted regimes that have for so long held sway over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For private military contractors (PMCs) — a polite name for professional mercenaries — such developments might be considered a harbinger of tough times. But business is better than ever in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the suppression of internal revolts throughout the MENA is presenting new opportunities for this multi-billion dollar industry.
Last month details emerged that the infamous founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, was forming an 800-strong secret army for the United Arab Emirates, for a price tag of $529 million. Prince moved to the UAE after Blackwater, later renamed Xe Services, faced legal problems in the United States, notably in a case against four Blackwater operatives accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007, which has recently been reopened.
Reflex Responses, Prince’s new venture in conjunction with a 51 percent Emirati stake, features South African and Latin American mercenaries, the latter brought into the UAE disguised as construction workers, according to the New York Times, hired to protect under-construction nuclear power plants and oil infrastructure from terrorist attacks, and to “put down internal revolts” and “unrest in crowded labor camps.”
What is curious is the UAE’s need for Prince’s firm, as the country already ranked 16th worldwide in 2010 for military expenditure, at $15.74 billion, or 7.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. If such a high cost for the conventional military cannot guarantee security, but a half billion dollar private force can, it puts into question the rationale for such a high defense budget. Furthermore, it sheds doubt on the UAE’s belief in the Gulf Cooperation Council — dominated by Saudi Arabia — to come to its aid to squash an uprising, as happened when GCC forces rolled into Bahrain this year.
The UAE is clearly worried about instability amid uprisings nearby and has taken a page out of other government manuals by resorting to guns for hire. In March, it was reported that up to 1,000 Pakistani troops had been recruited to serve in the Bahrain National Guard to put down the uprising, as local troops could not be relied upon. In Saudi Arabia, which recently signed a $60 billion arms deal with the US, Associated Press reported that a top secret project is underway with the US Central Command supervising and training a 35,000-strong Saudi force to protect oil infrastructure and, presumably, to crush any unrest. Reports also abound of Muammar al-Qadhafi using mercenaries in his ongoing war against the rebels in Libya.
Last year in Iraq, security was the second most common service provided by contractors to the US government, accounting for approximately 13,000 personnel, or 18 percent of all contractors, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. But while US troop levels have dropped in Iraq since 2008, along with support service contracts as a result, PMCs actually increased by 39 percent, or 3,500 personnel, by the end of last year.
The US Department of Defense does not give a breakdown of contractor services in Afghanistan, but contracts have soared over the past five years, from $2 billion in 2005, to $11.8 billion for some 87,000 contractors in 2010. It appears as though demand for PMCs will remain high so long as governments carry out policies unpopular in the eyes of the public. After all, mercenaries are useful assets to perform tasks that might strain the loyalty of a country’s regular armed forces. Indeed, Reflex Responses will reportedly not hire Muslim mercenaries given that, in the words of Prince, “They could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.”
The regional spike in demand for mercenaries and private armies speaks volumes about the insecurities of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. More chillingly, it raises concerns about the destiny of the ‘Arab Spring’ when governments resort to such forces to quell revolt.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East
correspondent for International News Services