A Look at Contract Foreign Soldiers Among Gulf States

A number of stories have recently surfaced on how the UAE is coercing Sudanese recruits to fight as mercenaries in Yemen.

This appears to be part of a wider practice for heavy reliance on foreign contract soldiers in the region. In this post, Zoltan Barany provides an insightful summary of the scale of this practice. I must admit I was surprised by some of the stats:

In 2009, 64 percent of the staff at Bahrain’s National Security Agency were non-Bahrainis. Abdulhadi Khalaf, the eminent Bahraini sociologist in exile, claims that “the rank and file in the Bahraini military, police, and security forces consist almost entirelyof foreign recruits,” but he does not name his source. Pakistani personnel make up 18 percent of the Bahraini air force, and altogether 10,000 Pakistani nationals are employed by Bahrain’s coercive apparatus. Problems of conduct among Pakistanis serving in the Bahrain Defense Force are not unknown: in March 2013, for instance, 180 were sacked and deported for violating disciplinary norms.

In Kuwait the number is anywhere between 25-80% of the regular armed forces. In Qatar contract soldiers add up to about 85%. 70% of enlisted men in the UAE are either from Oman or Yemen.

There’s also this angle to the story:

The UAE has employed U.S. companies such as Reflex Responses (founded and operated by Erik Prince, of Blackwater notoriety), which received a $529 million contract to beef up the Emirati military. The forces fighting for the UAE in Yemen include Chadian, Chilean, Colombian, Libyan, Panamanian, Nigerien (from Niger), Somali, Salvadoran, Sudanese, and Ugandan contract soldiers, among others.

Why are Middle Eastern rulers wary of citizen soldiers? You guessed right:

Contract soldiers and foreign advisers play an indispensable role in Gulf armed forces. They have given few headaches to the rulers of the Gulf states—although they have not been problem free, as the Pakistani contingent in Bahrain has demonstrated—and have made essential contributions to their militaries. For civil-military relations in GCC states, reliance on contract soldiers has been generally advantageous, fostering the buildup and professionalization of local armies, allowing the military leadership to shift tasks to contractors that no citizens would want to perform, and recruiting foreigners to complement the fighting forces in Yemen. The recently introduced conscription in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE is only marginally germane to the practice of hiring foreign contract soldiers: this policy was implemented primarily for socioeconomic and political, not military, reasons.

Hundreds of South African Mercenaries Fighting Boko Haram

The New York Times reports:

Hundreds of South African mercenaries and hired fighters of other nationalities are playing a decisive role in Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.

The Nigerian government has not acknowledged the presence of the mercenaries, but a senior government official in northern Nigeria said the South Africans — camped out in a remote portion of the airport in Maiduguri, the city at the heart of Boko Haram’s uprising — conduct most of their operations at night because “they really don’t want to let people know what is going on.”

This does not look good for the $2.3-billion-per-year Nigerian military. It also shows a complete lack of tact on the part of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. I mean, how hard could it have been to launder the South African mercenary involvement through some AU joint task force?

The way I see it, the problem here is not that Nigeria is using foreign fighters (even the mighty U.S. uses mercenaries, and as Tolu Ogunlesi writes in FT, the tide is turning against Boko Haram). The problem is in how they are being used. Is their use short-circuiting accountability chains between Nigerians affected and their government? How is it affecting civilian-military relations? And what will be the long-run consequences on the professionalization of the Nigerian military?