Guns-for-hire, many of them Colombian, bolster the region’s small armies
In an attempt to bolster its ground operations in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has contracted 800 former Colombian soldiers as part of the fight for Aden against militant factions linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State.
It is unclear which state contracted the fighters, but reports suggest they are fighting under UAE command while wearing Saudi uniforms on the ground.
The first 100 soldiers arrived in Yemen in early October, drawn to the desert war by the promise of better salaries — each fighter will be paid $1,000 a week more than at home. The promise of instant citizenship to the UAE if they survive their three-month contract is an obvious draw.
“We are called mercenaries, traitors, cowards and opportunists,” one retired officer told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. “We are nothing like that. We are men who made a decision in response to a lack of [financial] guarantees [at home].”
The Gulf states’ ruling families have a long history of relying on experienced foreign fighters to bolster their security forces — often at the expense of their own populations — and to help ensure stability.
Even after the former British dependencies in the Gulf region became independent, they continued to rely on British security officers and ex-soldiers to run operations. These men included Timothy Creasey, the commander and then deputy commander-in-chief of Oman’s armed forces in the 1970s and ’80s, and Ian Henderson — known as the Butcher of Bahrain — who headed that country’s General Directorate for State Security Investigations from 1966 to 1998.
The recruitment of trained, experienced British personnel allowed the Gulf states to quickly build professional security forces, while having foregone the experience of fighting modern wars. During the pre-independence era, the United Kingdom guaranteed the security of these states from outside aggressors, while actual conflicts were characterized by local raiding parties and nomadic expeditions.
In moments of crisis, the use of mercenaries have allowed Gulf armies to bolster their forces when necessary, a cheaper option than maintaining large national armies. As a result, the Gulf states have some of the smallest standing armies in the world, with only Saudi Arabia’s military being of substance.
During the crisis in Oman in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, the Sultan hired mercenaries from Australia with experience fighting in Vietnam to help tackle the Marxist Dhofar Rebellion on the ground.
In recent years, Western mercenaries have given way to a cheaper mix of South American — mostly Colombian — fighters with experience battling insurgents, and Muslims from the surrounding Arab countries, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Somalia.
In 2010, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayad Al Nahyah of Abu Dhabi secretly contracted Erik Prince — founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater — to build a special operations unit tasked with anti-terrorism operations, defending pipelines and skyscrapers and suppressing international revolts.
A White House spokesperson claimed the sheikh’s reasoning derived from the UAE military’s lack of experience and “to show that they are not to be messed with.” These recruits came mainly from Colombia but also South Africa, sparing the sheikh the need to recruit locals.
Hiring mercenaries also lets the Gulf states conduct sensitive security operations without embroiling the military in the socio-political and sectarian conflicts of the state. This is important for a region with a historical legacy of military coups that overthrow unpopular monarchies. These same regimes also cannot guarantee that their populations would remain loyal in the event of a crisis.
The monarchical states of the Gulf are not immune to these problems. U.S. Pres. Barack Obama warned as recently as April that these regimes were at risk from “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
By keeping small armies mostly staffed by outsiders, the monarchies can more greatly assure their own survival in the long term, the soldiers themselves having no loyalty except to their paychecks. They have few qualms about suppressing political uprisings or opponents of the ruling power, sometimes in violation of international norms of human rights.
In March 2011, a month after the Bahraini uprising began, advertisements appeared in Pakistani media calling for “manpower for Bahrain National Guard” with “previous experience” in the army or police. Bahrain reportedly recruited as many as 2,500 Pakistani servicemen to help suppress the rebellion, although official numbers are hard to come by.
Other mercenaries recruited from Malaysia and Sudan often had little to no knowledge of Arabic or local customs.
State officials refute these reports, claiming that Bahraini citizens comprise the security forces. This is technically true, but misleading, as it’s common practice for Bahrain to grant these recruits citizenship. Critics claim that this is an attempt by Bahrain’s rulers to reduce the majority Shia population — a criticism further confirmed by the de-nationalisation of Shia dissidents in recent years — and shape the voter base in favor of the ruling Sunni monarchy.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission have called these tactics part of an “ongoing project of demographic sectarian change to marginalize the Shia Muslim citizens in Bahrain.”
The recruitment of mercenaries by the Gulf monarchies is only possible due to the immense oil wealth these countries enjoy. The money they can promise these fighters acts as a clear draw, and their indifference to the political reality on the ground makes them less resistant to suppressing opponents of the ruling families.