By David Isenberg
In 2014, retired Gen. James Mattis, now secretary of defense, reportedly referred to the United Arab Emirates as “Little Sparta.” He was favorably comparing the UAE to the historic Greek city-state, known for its military prowess, especially against the Persians during the Greco-Persian Wars.
Mattis presumably did so not only because of a strong politico-military alliance between the United States and the UAE, but also because the UAE has for years been working on strengthening its military capabilities.
But in a fundamental sense Mattis’s comparison is wrong. The Spartans were unique for, among other things, the military training and excellence it required of its own citizens. That is not the route the UAE has chosen.
Despite their recent entries into dirty wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, Persian Gulf states have had very little in the way of their own effective, military forces. They traditionally have had to depend on outside states for weapons, training, and manpower.
The Emiratis went a step further and brought in none other than Erik Prince to train Christian mercenaries to go after Islamic enemies. The UAE has not only utilized private security contractors to bolster its own ability for self-defense but has used them to engage in foreign wars and, potentially, domestic repression.
Gone are the days when tiny kingdoms worked clandestinely with the CIA to fund people like Osama bin Laden or negotiate tricky hostage deals. Now only a handful of Emiratis on the front lines are dying alongside their hired guns.
None of this should come as a surprise. In 2011, The New York Times broke the story that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi hired Erik Prince, co-founder of the Blackwater private security firm, to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops. Reflex Reponses (R2), the private army that Prince put together, was to train the force to “conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolt.” But, as time has shown, its role has been far greater.
In April, The Washington Post reported that “the United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in the Seychelles this January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”
When Prince appears in high level meetings, you can be sure an army of contractors and trainers aren’t far off. Foreigners working for the UAE, as part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, have played a prominent role.
On the Ground in Yemen
Although some dispute that those foreigners now serving in the UAE military are mercenaries in the Geneva Conventions sense of the word, those hired by the UAE are clearly nothing like private security contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
In late 2015 the Middle East Eye reported that Mike Hindmarsh, a former senior Australian army officer, is publicly listed as commander of the UAE’s Presidential Guard. The Presidential Guard is a unit of marines, reconnaissance, aviation, special forces, and mechanized brigades.
According to the Eye, Hindmarsh oversaw the guard’s formation in early 2010 shortly after he took up his estimated $500,000-a-year, tax-free job in Abu Dhabi, where he reports directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Foreigners have been taking casualties on behalf of the UAE. The Eye reported that:
Some mercenaries have been killed in Yemen. The Houthi-run Saba News reported on 8 December that six Colombians and their Australian commander were killed in fighting around the flashpoint southeast province of Taiz.
Saba News updated their report on 9 December to say 14 foreign mercenaries had been killed—including two Britons and one French citizen on top of the Australian and Colombians—although this claim is unconfirmed.
Colombian mercenaries were first reported to have been fighting to Yemen in October, when about 100 former Colombian soldiers were said to have joined coalition troops, with about 800 in total planned to be sent in to back up pro-Hadi forces.
Reportedly, the Colombians fighting for the UAE can look forward to some benefits. CounterPunch previously reported that they “will receive a pension and also UAE citizenship, along with family members. If they die in combat, their children will go to university free.”
Although it is not clear whether the casualties thus far come from members of the Presidential Guard or from what is known as R2, both forces report to Prince bin Zayed.
Regardless of the unit, hundreds of foreigners are fighting for the UAE in Yemen. The New York Times reported in December 2015 that, “It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years…The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops—among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers—adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country.”
Foreign soldiers are far from the only kind of foreign contractors the UAE uses. Knowledge International LLC, which operates near Washington, DC’s Reagan National airport, reportedly facilitates $500 million a year in sales of military training and equipment to the UAE
Licensed as an arms dealer and broker, the company sends American trainers and arms to the UAE, arranging the necessary licenses and agreements with the State Department and the Defense Department.
The company’s strategic advisory board consists of some of the past decade’s brightest names in American land warfare: retired Army Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, who headed the U.S. Special Operations Command; retired Gen. James Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps and a charismatic figure during the 2003 Iraq invasion; and retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s Afghanistan command.
Nor is Yemen the only country where the UAE is relying on contractors. The New York Times reported in 2012, in an article that was bizarre, even by private military and security world standards:
It seemed like a simple idea: In the chaos that is Somalia, create a sophisticated, highly trained fighting force that could finally defeat the pirates terrorizing the shipping lanes off the Somali coast.
But the creation of the Puntland Maritime Police Force was anything but simple. It involved dozens of South African mercenaries and the shadowy security firm that employed them, millions of dollars in secret payments by the United Arab Emirates, a former clandestine officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, and Erik Prince, the billionaire former head of Blackwater Worldwide who was residing at the time in the emirates.
And its fate makes the story of the pirate hunters for hire a case study in the inherent dangers in the outsourced wars in Somalia, where the United States and other countries have relied on proxy forces and armed private contractors to battle pirates and, increasingly, Islamic militants.
It was thought that Erik Prince fell out of love with the Emirates after two major exposes in The New York Times and decided to fall in love with the Chinese government to develop Africa.
But Erik Prince is back. He’s not only pitching colonial capitalism in DC. He’s huckstering ex-SF-led armies of sepoys to wrest Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and perhaps, if he is ever able to influence likeminded hawks in the Trump administration, even Iran back from the infidels.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues.