The New York Times breaks a major story: The UAE hired a foreign contractor that is building a force of 800 mercenaries to address not only only external threats, but to put down internal threats as well. The story spans five pages; here it is in a single-page view
...a secret American-led mercenary army [is] being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.
Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times.
The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest or were challenged by pro-democracy demonstrations in its crowded labor camps or democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.
The U.A.E.’s rulers, viewing their own military as inadequate, also hope that the troops could blunt the regional aggression of Iran, the country’s biggest foe, the former employees said. ... The Colombians, along with South African and other foreign troops, are trained by retired American soldiers and veterans of the German and British special operations units and the French Foreign Legion, according to the former employees and American officials.
The United Arab Emirates — an autocracy with the sheen of a progressive, modern state — are closely allied with the United States, and American officials indicated that the battalion program had some support in Washington.
People involved in the project and American officials said that the Emiratis were interested in deploying the battalion to respond to terrorist attacks and put down uprisings inside the country’s sprawling labor camps, which house the Pakistanis, Filipinos and other foreigners who make up the bulk of the country’s work force. The foreign military force was planned months before the so-called Arab Spring revolts that many experts believe are unlikely to spread to the U.A.E. Iran was a particular concern.
For all the money that's been spent, the project is behind schedule and many of the troops recruited have little or no training -- the UAE was promised troops with experience.
What's the need for such a force?
First, the threats:
1. External. Mostly, Iran
2. Internal - foreign migrants (4/5ths of the population, mostly men), specifically the low-wage workers from Asia (and, less so, precisely because they pose more of a threat, from Arab countries with large underclass).
3. Internal - Emiratis.
Second, what was changing before November that might have increased the demand for mercenaries:
1. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and with that its draw down of forces in the Gulf. This would make the UAE more vulnerable to external threats, presumably Iran, but perhaps a not so stable Iraq, or perhaps from Islamist terrorists.
2. The West appeared to be gaining the upperhand in hardening targets. Terrorists might turn their attention to soft targets in elsewhere in the world.
3. Oil revenues were up. Rather than buy more weaponry, buy mercenaries too?
4. Increased oil prices puts further strain on Iran via the highly subsidized price at which it sells gasoline to its population.
5. War-weariness, and focus on the economy in the U.S. reduced the odds the U.S. would intervene if the UAE faced an external attack. Yet, such an attack would in all likelihood be about oil -- it's doubtful the U.S. would not come to the aid of such economically crucial ally.
6. The labor movement in the UAE was gaining traction, becoming more activist.
In the context of the events since the Arab Spring, the UAE government is acting to snuff out any internal dissent. Why little or no dissent is allowed is a question mark -- it doesn't appear to be a threat, a little venting could even be useful. I wonder whether the UAE locals will be offended by the presence of mercenaries. They weren't much bothered by U.S. air bases in the UAE flying missions to Iraq.
- By Richard Spencer in Dubai. Story based on NYT's but some local insight.