Despite flagging oil revenues and the introduction of conscription in the Gulf, the use of foreign contract soldiers, sometimes called mercenaries, is here to stay.
States with ample financial resources but an insufficient number of citizens willing to enlist in their armed forces have employed foreign soldiers since time immemorial. Such non-native soldiers served in Arabia long before British involvement in the region. Aside from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies have small citizen populations that limit their ability to strengthen their defense sectors with the available pool of citizens. That pool itself is constrained because, as elsewhere in the world, prosperous young men do not find the rigors of military life appealing and have little economic incentive to join. Even though the Gulf is rife with change—from universal male conscription and activist foreign policies to dwindling oil revenues and ballooning defense budgets—basic demographic and political realities dictate that foreign contract soldiers are in the Gulf to stay.
THE POLITICS OF USING CONTRACT SOLDIERS
Employing noncitizen contract soldiers coincides with the political dynamics of the Gulf. The six states on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are monarchies where, with the partial exception of Kuwait, citizens enjoy scant political rights and have no oversight, let alone say, in military affairs. Gulf monarchies thus benefit politically from using foreign contract soldiers because these soldiers generally have no political interests to pursue and seldom participate in attempts to overthrow the regime. Furthermore, because they tend to have no social links to the native population, the state can deploy them with confidence against citizens in domestic contingencies. Foreign contract soldiers can also be dismissed with no political liability. While citizen-soldiers are expensive to maintain, especially in rich countries, contract soldiers are relatively cheap and there is no social condemnation to deal with should they become casualties in domestic or foreign deployments.
Based on these political dynamics, contract soldiers in the Gulf overwhelmingly fill enlisted positions, that is, most of them are in the lowest ranks. A far smaller proportion of them are noncommissioned officers (NCOs). The number of noncitizens in the regular officer corps, as distinct from short-term appointments, is negligible, as officer status is generally tied to citizenship. Foreign contract soldiers generally serve in all branches of the regular armed forces (army, navy, air force) but their ratio is the highest in the army, the largest service in all GCC military establishments. Certain segments of the coercive apparatus of some Gulf states, however—the National Guard in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for instance—are restricted to citizens. Language problems occasionally occur with non-Arabic speakers from the Indian subcontinent, especially if they lack a rudimentary familiarity with English, which is often the main language of officer training, especially if it is led by instructors from the UK or the United States.
Societal labor dynamics, related to demographics, also bear on the use of contract soldiers. The types of tasks that low-skilled contract soldiers discharge mirror the employment landscape of the Gulf states. Just as it is hard to find a citizen of Kuwait, Qatar, or the UAE who is willing to work as a construction laborer, dishwasher, or janitor, it is equally difficult to recruit citizens of prosperous GCC states to fulfill indispensable but unglamorous positions in the armed forces. Not surprisingly, less affluent nationals of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and especially Oman cannot afford to be as selective when seeking employment, though even in these countries they tend to steer clear of the dirtiest and most strenuous jobs. In the same vein, among the Gulf armies, only Oman’s military features citizens in virtually all jobs.
Not surprisingly, the highest proportion of foreign contract soldiers serve in the Gulf’s three richest states, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, where few young men have a strong economic incentive to sign up. Although these three countries instituted mandatory military service for male citizens between 2013 and 2017, the role of contract soldiers has changed little. This is not surprising, given that the main reasons for starting conscription was not to replace contract soldiers with citizens. Even though conscription allows these states to build a reserve force and play a more robust role in the defense and security of the region, the dominant justifications were socioeconomic and political, to instill discipline and build character, encourage healthier lifestyles, prepare young men for the labor market, engage the citizenry in the service of their homeland, and deepen patriotism. Conscription, Gulf analyst Kristin Smith Diwan writes, embraces “more robust conceptions of nation, and . . . impose[s] more expansive demands on nationals. . . . The initiation of national service sits squarely at the intersection of regional ambition and national integration.”
The use of contract soldiers also reflects issues of identity and citizenship, an important element of the Gulf’s sociopolitical dynamics. Foreign officers and NCOs, most involved in advising and training activities, are hired through two different arrangements. Seconded personnel are members of foreign armed forces and are loaned to the given GCC military to provide expertise, experience, and leadership. They remain under home-country rules and regulations but are funded by the host state and wear the uniform of the unit in which they work. Their number in recent years has tended to be small; in the UAE, for instance, there were five seconded British individuals serving in 2015. Contract personnel, on the other hand, have left their home country’s service. Over 99 percent of foreign soldiers in the Gulf belong in this category.
The vast majority of contract soldiers serving in the Gulf are Sunni Muslims from the Arab world and South Asia. From the former, GCC armies tend to hold Jordanian soldiers in the highest regard owing to their solid training, professionalism, and discipline. There are also many Moroccans and Yemenis and, especially since 2011, a growing contingent of Syrians. Most of them fill ordinary enlisted slots while highly trained soldiers, often Jordanians, are NCOs. Typically, only citizens can become officers in the Gulf though there are some exceptions: in rare cases after long (ten to fifteen years) and distinguished service, contract soldiers can become citizens. Bahrain, especially, has conferred citizenship to boost the Sunni proportion of the citizenry.
Most South Asian soldiers hail from Pakistan, especially from Balochistan Province. There are also a large number of Bangladeshi contract soldiers in the Gulf. For instance, Kuwait’s army has a contracted Bangladeshi brigade exclusively to fill support roles (services, logistics, maintenance). Bangladeshis also accompany the UAE forces in Yemen; they set up their tents, carry their water, and perform other menial, low-skilled tasks. Incidentally, the Saudi-UAE side of the war in Yemen has become a veritable bazaar of contract soldiers, from Colombia and the United States to Somalia and Sudan.
CONTRACT SOLDIERS, BY COUNTRY
The results of over 150 interviews in the region suggest that this bazaar is not unique to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.1 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. Most Pakistanis serving in the security sector rarely speak more than the most basic Arabic, which makes their interaction with the public difficult. During the 2011 uprising, the regime deployed primarily Pakistani personnel against the protesters.
According to some sources, in 2016 contract soldiers made up between 25 percent and 50 percent of Kuwait’s regular armed forces, but all National Guard personnel were citizens. (This ratio includes the stateless bidun, who are not foreigners but locals descended from nomadic people that did not apply for citizenship.) Some experts insist, however, that the proportion of foreigners among the rank-and-file remains closer to 80 percent. Contract soldiers in Kuwait have traditionally included a large number of Saudis, some of whom apply for Kuwaiti citizenship as soon as regulations allow. Owing to demographic and economic pressures and the reintroduction of mandatory military service, many foreign soldiers’ contracts have not been renewed in recent years.
It is hardly coincidental that Oman has the smallest number of contracted foreign soldiers in its coercive apparatus. Oman is less prosperous than other Gulf states; unsurprisingly, then, Omanis view service in the Sultan’s Armed Forces as prestigious and relatively lucrative. Beginning in the 1980s, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said emphasized the Omanization of his force, which has become by far the most “national” in the Gulf. A significant proportion of Omani soldiers and officers are citizens of Balochi background and, in the 1970s and 1980s, many Omanis from East Africa (the ancient Omani province of Zanzibar) joined up.
The number of Gulf nationals serving as contract soldiers in other GCC states is far too uncertain to speculate about, but it is safe to say that Omanis—who enjoy a solid reputation for their training and discipline—are the most numerous. They are known to serve as contract soldiers in every Gulf military, but the Omani contingent is largest in its neighbor, the UAE, where Omani soldiers used to make up at least 60 percent of the military personnel as late as the 1990s.
Aside from the officer corps and conscripts, Qatar’s armed forces are staffed overwhelmingly (up to 85 percent) with contract soldiers, many from Pakistan and Sudan and, more recently, also from Colombia. In 2016, Doha recruited 6,000 Somali soldiers and at least 360 Sudanese personnel into its security forces. Virtually all the low-skilled, low-prestige military jobs—cooks, cleaners,
gatekeepers, facilities maintenance personnel, and so forth—in Qatar, as in the UAE and Kuwait, are performed by foreigners. U.S. contractors have been training foreign soldiers for the Qataris, recruited in Turkey and Jordan for deployment in various theaters, including Libya and, in 2015, Yemen. The skewed balance between citizens and expatriates in Qatar’s armed forces has become a pressing concern since 2017. Doha launched a major force buildup in response to Saudi-UAE threats, but it was unclear who would operate all the sophisticated weaponry it was acquiring.
Saudi Arabia, owing to its large population, hosts a comparatively smaller proportion of contract soldiers in its forces than other GCC states, though it has employed many to fight its war in Yemen. One expert claims that Saudi ground forces in Yemen are made up almost entirely of contract soldiers, including Yemenis hired locally. Historically, many Pakistanis have served in the kingdom—in the late 1980s, for instance, tens of thousands—in a whole spectrum of military roles, from menial jobs to providing training and technical assistance. Their assignments in Saudi Arabia are said to have exposed Pakistani soldiers to radical religious (often Wahhabi) teachings. Aside from contract soldiers from Africa and Asia, Saudi Arabia also hosts well in excess of 1,000 U.S. and 300 British military personnel and contractors.
The UAE is similar to the other rich Gulf states in the large number of foreign contract soldiers it has employed. At least 70 percent of enlisted men in the Emirates hail from Oman and Yemen. More recently, UAE recruiters have displayed enthusiasm for Colombia’s top soldiers, who have amassed decades of experience fighting guerrillas. Hundreds of them have taken contracts in the UAE, where their salary is several times higher than at home. 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.
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.
Although in recent years revenues from hydrocarbon exports in the Gulf have diminished and the states’ generous social provisions have somewhat narrowed, these developments have not significantly affected their use of foreign contract soldiers. In fact, the expanded foreign policy and military activism of some GCC states—coupled with the tremendous increase in defense budgets, weapons acquisition, and investment in indigenous defense industries—suggest that there is no reason to anticipate any major change in the employment of foreign soldiers in the region in the foreseeable future. Their long presence in Arabia is likely to continue.
1 There is no publicly available data on how many contract soldiers serve in Gulf countries. From 2011 to 2019, the author conducted over 150 interviews in the region with academics, military officers, politicians, and security experts, on this and related topics. These interviews indicate that foreign contract soldiers play an extensive and indispensable role in the civil-military relations throughout the Gulf Arab states.