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mohammed bin salman
Mohammed bin Salman

King Salman’s Saudi Arabia is a country that, after decades of moderate policies and diplomacy, has suddenly become aggressive and belligerent. Pushed by his own son, the 30 year old Mohamed bin Salman, who has replaced his cousin, Mohamed bin Nayef, as crown prince, the Saudis want to lead Sunni Muslims against the Shia and fight against terrorism. The conflicts they are waging are part of that strategy, as are the creation of the so-called “Islamic NATO”, the war in Yemen, the sanctions against Qatar and the threats against Iran.

Hence the question: does Saudi Arabia, and its allies from the UAE and Bahrain, have the military strength to wage all these conflicts and win them?

The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi deployment of 150 thousand men and a hundred or so fighter jets has strained the kingdom’s military capabilities and produced little or no results. Yet, the Saudis are not alone, as they rely on thousands of mercenaries. The first batch is made up of Yemeni volunteers currently protecting the frontier between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They come face to face with the Houthi rebels and are the ones suffering the most casualties in place of an army not willing to fight. Poverty and decent wages are a good enough reason to work for a well-off employer unlikely to sacrifice his own life. Three thousand Yemenis have already lost their lives fighting for the Saudis.

Then come the professionals from the private security companies and who deal with the most dangerous tasks. Guns for hire from the likes of Blackwater – whose name has now changed to Academi – alongside mercenaries from Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Chechnya willing to risk their lives for a few thousand dollars. The toll stands at around 6 thousand contractors so far, although these are just estimates because no official figures are available.

Most of Saudi Arabia’s military adventure in Yemen relies on “external” aid. The US provide logistical support, refuel Saudi fighter jets in mid-air and take care of the naval blockade in the Red Sea. The British have a strong presence in the intelligence sector. While a number of countries sell sophisticated weaponry to the kingdom: USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, China and Italy.

Furthermore, crown prince Mohamed bin Salman also relies on the military aid from countries such as Pakistan, Senegal, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. It is difficult to draw a line to distinguish whether these contributions are mercenaries paid by the Saudis or by their countries of origin.

However, if we look at this large deployment of forces, the massive presence of foreign volunteers and the technical assistance from the West and compare it to the scarce results on the ground against a badly equipped rag-tag rebel army, it is legitimate to wonder what Saudi Arabia’s true military strength is. Given this background, a future conflict against Iran could never be fought without the help of some superpower as Saudi Arabia seems to have overstated its military capabilities.

Members of Blackwater

The Emirates and the mercenaries

Most of the countries in the Persian Gulf rely on mercenaries. The UAE, who shares the Saudis’ warmongering attitude, also rely on Private Security Companies such as the heirs of Blackwater or Global Enterprises to fight in their stead. The Emirates sent a brigade of Latin American contractors in Yemen. Soldiers of fortune from El Salvador, Panama, Chile and Colombia (chosen for their experience against the FARC) have been sent to the frontline by Abu Dhabi. Some 2 thousand men who are not on the official death toll or accountable for the systematic violations of human rights that regularly surface on the media. The United Arab Emirates have also deployed hundreds of Eritreans. It is unclear whether they are mercenaries or were sent in by Isaias Afewerki. The only difference being who pays the price for their safety.

The UAE also need foreign manpower to deal with their security back home. With a population of 9.2 million people, foreign workers amount to 7.8 million. The demographic threat can only be fought with the repression of any form of dissent, systematic human rights violations and discrimination. This takes the form of indiscriminate arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, kangaroo courts and no freedom of association or of the press.

The intelligence agencies in the Emirates are flooded with British experts, both as trainers and on the ground. The MI-6 feels at home in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as do the French from the DGSE and the Americans from the CIA. Partnerships in the defense sector rely on government-to-government deals with the UK and the US. The Emirates purchase anglo-american weapons, French fighter jets and hire British experts for cyber security. British and American Private Security Companies carry out the dirty work on behalf of the Emirates’ security forces.

bin isa al khalifa
The king of Bahrein Bin Isa al Khalifa

The other countries in the Gulf

Another country that relies on mercenaries is Bahrain, the Sunni regime ruling over a Shia majority. In 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, the Emir al Khalifa survived the protests with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the long term, the regime is trying to alter the country’s demographics, by favoring the influx of Sunnis and giving them a passport. The same goes for the security forces: while the intelligence agencies are under the MI-6’s wing, several Pakistanis have been recruited alongside Jordanians, Syrians and even Iraqis who used to work for Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat.

The same can be said for Kuwait. With 4 million inhabitants, 2.3 million are expats coming from India, Egypt, Pakistan, Syrian, Palestine-Jordan or Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. With these demographics, there is no national army that can withstand a threat without a foreign support. This is where the US have stepped in, with the CIA training the local anti-terrorism intelligence agency and also supplying weapons and training to the air forces.

Idem in Oman, where the British control the security forces, and in Qatar, where a large US military base and a Turkish contingent protect the Emir Tamin bin Hamad al Thani.

A Gulf without mercenaries?

It is pretty clear that without foreign assistance, or foreign manpower to wage wars or grant security at home, all of the countries in the Persian Gulf would have a hard time surviving a turbulent region. None of these anti-democratic monarchies that still benefit from the post-colonial partition and spheres of influence would not resist a single minute in case of a popular uprising. Their power lies on the persuasive sound of money, until oil has a value that is. Money can buy them weapons, soldiers for hire, training and security. But to think that they can use it to wage wars abroad against foreign enemies is definitely a risky gamble.

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