The UAE Acknowledges Its Big Secret Mercenary Army

Former Blackwater head Erik Prince has a new business venture: a United Arab Emirates-incorporated company called Reflex Responses, charged with providing a variety of internal security services throughout the UAE. The reported value of the company’s contract is more than half a billion dollars for services until 2015. The force run by R2 will be extremely diverse–aerial and naval units, intelligence gathering, and a range of special mission capabilities like sniping and explosive ordinance disposal. The apparent focal point of R2’s roles will be an 800 man quick reaction force, designed to be able to protect vital centers like commercial buildings or offshore oil wells. The UAE is, like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, an extremely insecure country. It has rich financial centers, large oil fields, and a massive non-native population–only around 19% of people in the UAE are Emirati. It thus has a need for a massive defense establishment–it is estimated to be the world’s sixteenth-largest military spender. Considering that it is only 93rd in the world in population size, it leads the world in military spending per capita.

Former Blackwater head Erik Prince. (Image: Wikipedia)

The UAE simply does not have enough people to staff its military. It thus recruits citizens of other countries, like Pakistan, to fill its barracks, and keeps key positions (like the officer corps) reserved for its citizens. However, any follower of Middle Eastern military politics knows that the norm is for the military to be feared and subverted by the regime even when it is composed of the most loyal sectors of society. The UAE’s royals were thus certainly dissatisfied with their military’s composition. The usual remedy is a parallel military system like the Saudi National Guard which is outside the main chain of command and groomed for loyalty to the core of the regime. The Emirates, however, have multiple rival centers of power–like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah–that would make a national parallel force impossible. The major Emirates thus have their own local militaries, but they do not fulfill the need of protecting the national regime. Reflex Responses is likely intended to fit that role. The UAE has learned, like the Saudis and Kuwaitis, to use big checks as a policy tool. They have all but purchased R2’s loyalty by incorporating it in the UAE, giving it half a billion dollars, and hinting at billions more on the way.

The dirty reputation of R2’s predecessor Blackwater is actually an asset in this case–for the past few weeks have shown that the only way to stop the Arab Spring protests is through massive violence, and the best way to ensure that violence will actually be carried out when the regime requests it is to have a force that has no loyalties to the local population. Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia  had armies drawn from relatively united populations, and they thus refused to carry out massacres. Al Asad’s Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya exploited sectarian and tribal divisions in their societies to build militaries capable of supreme evil; the al Khalifa in Bahrain brought in foreign troops under the guise of the GCC to solidify their own iron fist.

Despite all the odd rumors that Prince is some sort of millenarian bent on Christianizing the world by force, the UAE’s rulers can trust him, and the coup fears expressed by Wired’s Danger Room blog:

Consider for a second that this is a force comprised of mercs from Christian countries operating on Islamic soil. The Executive Outcomes veterans — not exactly known for their subtlety; they were involved in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea — will staff a quick reaction force, able to seize key infrastructure and put down a protest that spins out of control. What could go wrong?

are likely unmerited. The Emirati regime has wisely tempted the mercenaries with promises of big future payoffs, payoffs that will not come if the regime falls. Reflex Responses is all-in.

An oddity of the whole affair was the reaction of the Emirati media. The story was major international news, yet received no mention in otherwise very liberal outlets. The National, for instance, made no break from its usual “trouble in paradise” theme–a typical pair of top stories would be one about a horrifying bombing in Pakistan and one about a jetski accident or gallery opening. About a day after the story broke in outside media outlets, the odd story “Military Contractors’ Role Clarified” appeared. Its content was nothing but two lengthy quotes from a leading military official–very unusual for a paper that often has in-depth and insightful coverage. The article was clearly little more than a press release from the regime–and the fact that it was published in a form that made this obvious may show that the National’s staff resented the censorship that kept them from covering the story on their own. The story, indeed, is eerily reminiscent of the content of North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. Despite its reputation for liberality, the UAE is not so different from its neighbors, or other autocracies. It is worth noting that the UAE scores a -8 on the Polity IV scale of democracy–a highly authoritarian score that makes it worse than post-Mao China, all post-Stalin Russian regimes, all postcolonial Egyptian regimes, and even Eritrea.

The story appeared nowhere on the National’s main page, yet quickly became the day’s second-most-viewed article–proof that the National’s readers had found out about the story through other outlets. This highlights the double-edged sword of the Internet. The Gulf states, with their higher levels of education and technology access, are finding censorship harder and harder to sustain, yet the high quality of life that they provide creates a complacency in their people that made many think–prior to the Bahrain protests–that the Arab Spring would leave the Gulf untouched. Now that the word is out about the UAE’s new janissaries, Abu Dhabi and Dubai will remain in the Arab Winter.

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