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.

Turns out oil prices are so low it’s cheaper to sail 9,000km around Africa than cross the newly expanded Suez Canal

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This from the Mail & Guardian:

Essentially, it makes more business sense to sail the longer distance – even though the Suez Canal shortens the Europe Asia trade route by at least 9,000 km – and burn more fuel by increasing speeds.

With oil touching $30 a barrel, a recent analysis by SeaIntel, a maritime monitoring group suggests that if shippers can accept an extra week of transit time by sailing south of Africa, it would save them an average of $17.7 million a year per vessel, in transit fees.

According to the analysts the Suez Canal would need to reduce fees by around 50% – and the Panama Canal which similarly affected by 30% – for crossing to be commercially viable for long-haul ships.

Also:

That’s bad news for Egypt, which spent $8 billion on expanding the Suez Canal, opened with much fanfare last year. The expansion, accomplished in a record one year, was intended to reduce waiting times from 18 hours to 11 hours. Authorities said they expected canal revenues to more than double from the annual $5.5 billion in 2014 to $13 billion by 2023.

On a related note, if you are interested in shipping and global trade be sure to read Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. I recently picked it up and really like it so far.

H/T Charles Onyango-Obbo