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.

A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

Over at the Bank’s Future Development blog, Princeton Economist Jeffrey Hammer writes:

The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.

Almost all of the cases analyzed were  single, simple policy “tweaks” that were, first of all, isolated from the broader market context in which they occurred and, second, had no conception of opportunity cost – what we would have to give up to pursue these things? We had an answer to “how to improve a public food distribution system” but even with a precise answer (to whether a tweak would work) we had no idea whether the substantial amount of money funding such a system is a good idea. Maybe the Chief Minister would be better off improving education or road networks or police or rural electricity. Some of these alternative policies could have more impact on food consumption than food distribution if we thought about how the world worked. Getting food to market securely (roads, better cold storage, trustworthy police and safe roads – this is Pakistan, which no one seemed to notice) may increase food availability much more than any tunnel-visioned food program Or not – maybe the food distribution system is better. We just don’t know. And none of us “experts” are trying to find out.

When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest? My hobby horse these days is more sanitation in South Asia. I should have to defend it against (at least) a few alternatives.

What’s your justification for your latest hobby horse?

My take on the gap highlighted by Hammer is that what is good for reviewers is seldom useful to policymakers. The incentive for academics is to publish. And this will always be reflected in the design and implementation of interventions headed by academics. This is not necessarily a bad thing [For obvious reasons we should firewall academic research from the actual process of policymaking. The latter should be the political process that it is, albeit informed by the former]. I think the widespread acceptance of rigorous evidence-based policymaking has been a net benefit for the developing world. What it means though, is that the “public sector” development research community — i.e. the IMF, the World Bank, & host country research institutes — should do more to ensure that funding for hyper-targeted interventions do not detract from broader macro research (like, when and why did the rain start beating Ghana?)

However, in the long run, developing countries will be better served by having more and more of their own/country-based politically relevant macroeconomists.

This is because answering the types of questions posed by Hammer requires one to also take a political stand (on account of a lack of consensus among economists). Economists who can’t do this will invariably resort to “technical” solutions that can be perceived as “apolitical” by both host governments and the sponsoring foreign development agencies. Again not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the politics of knowledge production.

H/T William Easterly.