A mercenary army formed by Erik Prince, the former chief of the Blackwater private security company, at the behest of an Arab prince is causing concern in the Persian Gulf and raising uncomfortable questions in the US.
International mercenaries have been hired by the UAE's ruler
As the Arab Spring turns tentatively to summer, pressure continues to build in those countries across North Africa and the Middle East which have already been rocked by revolution, those currently embroiled in uprisings and those which are bracing themselves for potential upheaval.
At such an uncertain time in an area of such heightened instability, the creation and deployment of a large mercenary force in the Persian Gulf is akin to dropping a burning match into a puddle of petroleum. But that is exactly what Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi has done by hiring the man behind Blackwater to create a private army for him.
According to a report in the New York Times, Erik Prince, the controversial former Navy SEAL who founded, then sold, the notorious private security company which now operates under the name Xe Services, has been paid $529 million (372 million euros) by the Crown Prince to form a paramilitary force of foreign mercenaries, including former members of the US Special Forces, British SAS and the French Foreign Legion.
The mercenaries, some attracted to the United Arab Emirates from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan by salaries of more than $200,000 a year, will train an army largely made up of Colombians and South Africans to assist the UAE government with intelligence gathering, security, counterterrorism and suppression of any revolts.
Estimates put the number of mercenaries recruited at between 580 and 800 but Prince's new venture, known as Reflex Responses or R2, is expected to expand into the thousands as demand for private military assistance from other governments under threat in the region increases.
Prince fled the US to the UAE as investigations heated up
It is alleged that Prince, who is keeping a low profile and who allegedly uses the codename 'Kingfish' to avoid his name being linked to documentation, is planning to expand Zayed Military City, R2's secretive compound in the desert roughly 32km (20 miles) outside Abu Dhabi, in anticipation of deals with other Gulf regimes.
While Prince is said to be the key decision maker and the man who ordered the bolstering of the Colombian contingent with the better trained and disciplined South African mercenaries, it is believed that the UAE military intelligence branch is overseeing the entire project while the UAE government is named as the supplier of hardware for the troops.
The New York Times reports that Sheik Mohamed has allegedly given R2 orders to avoid recruiting Muslims, saying that they couldn't be trusted "to kill fellow Muslims" - suggesting the mercenaries may be used in interventions similar to those in Bahrain in March involving troops from the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to violently suppress the uprising there.
"Domestically, the force would allow the ruler of the UAE to put down revolts and deal with upheavals more effectively than other Arab dictators," Dustin Dehez, an expert on the use of mercenaries and former director for North-Eastern African Studies at the Düsseldorf Institute for Foreign and Security Policy, told Deutsche Welle.
"The Tunisian and Egyptian armies disobeyed the orders they were given by their civilian leaderships which were then basically toppled in a de facto coup d'état," he added. "The reasoning behind R2 could be that a foreign force would be immune to that sort of disobedience. On the other hand, this is by no means guaranteed. It might well be that many contractors, coming from Western militaries, might also refuse to fight unarmed civilians."
The Gulf's Sunni leaders fear Iran and popular uprisings
The UAE's Sheik Mohamed is just one of the many Sunni leaders in the region who are deeply apprehensive about the popular unrest of the Arab Spring as well as the perceived threat from Shia Iran. The Crown Prince is known to be a trusted Pentagon associate and a supporter of military intervention against the Islamic Republic.
A WikiLeaks report last year revealed that he allegedly told the Americans in 2006 that he was "unwilling to wait much longer" in regard to taking military action against Iran.
There are fears that, as well as being employed to put down domestic uprisings, the force could be used beyond state borders in any conflagration should the wave of unrest exacerbate regional tensions, especially with Iran.
Proxy army against Iran
"No Arab nation is capable of dealing with a potential threat from Iran," Dehez said. "In a direct confrontation with small units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are specialized in asymmetric warfare, R2 could well be an effective force."
The UAE also have a long-standing territorial conflict with Iran over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb which Iran has occupied and on which it is currently increasing its military presence. "The mercenary force would give the Arab states more options in dealing with Iran in various military scenarios such as these," Dehez added.
Blackwater operated for the US government in war zones
The idea that R2 could be used as a proxy army by Gulf States in a confrontation with Iran has prompted a number of questions to arise over the potential role of the United States government in its creation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was challenged in a letter by a group of congressmen in Washington earlier this month to reveal any continuing connections between the US government and Erik Prince. To date there has been no official response.
Prince's Blackwater was the largest private military company on contract to the Pentagon during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite its role in the deaths of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 and on-going legal investigation into its growing list of misconduct, there is concern on Capitol Hill that the US government has retained its links to Prince.
Questions over legality
"It is very likely that the US government will be aware of the mission," Dehez said. "That doesn't necessarily indicate that they approve of it or endorse it. However, balancing Iran is largely a US interest, so some tacit approval might be considered reasonable. But more than that seems rather unlikely."
There are also concerns over the legality of R2's operations. US federal laws prohibit American citizens from training foreign troops if they did not secure a license from the State Department.
Under US law, Prince's company is exporting a defense product and therefore falls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations controlled by the US State Department. A statement from the State Department, republished by the New York Times, neither confirmed or denied that R2 had such a license to operate.
Loyalty lasts as long as a pay check for most mercenaries
"It is illegal to have Americans train and equip mercenary groups unless the State Department has specifically set a policy and agreement with the host country," Patricia DeGennaro, an adjunct professor at New York University's Department of Politics and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, told Deutsche Welle.
"The whole initiative could backfire on the US because it is not clear that the forces will be used solely for protection of the state."
DeGennaro described the creation of R2 as a "frightening" development in asymmetrical warfare, warning that armies operating with financial rather than national security interests posed a greater risk to stability due to their fluid allegiances.
"There is a reason that a military is organized through a state," she said. "It is supposed to be an entity that manages violence and protects or maintains the security of the state."
"Having organized mercenary groups sets all types of independent standards and in essence allows the creation of more groups who are out for themselves; opening doors to coups, corruption, and better planned terrorism," she added.
"It is really organizing and equipping gangs to reach a whole new level of intimidation and control of weaker individuals and states that can't protect themselves."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge