In theory I have no problem with mercenaries. In the past I have defended soldiers of fortune, and suggested they could be a worthwhile substitute for Western troops in places like Darfur where we are not willing to commit our own forces. Moreover, I have argued for the use of foreign-born troops in the U.S. military who would get citizenship in return for service. I even suggested the creation of an American Freedom Legion modeled on the French Foreign Legion.
I mention all this to make clear I am no reflexive basher of mercenaries. But I am nevertheless slightly discomfited by news that Erik Prince, the former SEAL officer and founder of Blackwater, is now in the process of assembling a mercenary battalion for the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a close American ally and by Middle Eastern standards relatively liberal. But there is no mistaking it for a democracy. It is run by a small number of ruling families which keep a tight lid on dissent—especially among the vast underclass of foreign-born workers who keep the emirates running but are denied citizenship or any of the other benefits that native Emiratis receive. Many of these workers belong to a more or less indentured class of laborers from the Indian subcontinent who live in squalid, miserable conditions. They are deported at any hint of labor organizing or any other attempt to redress their numerous grievances.
Much as I admire Dubai’s achievement in building a world-class city out of the sands, no one should labor under any illusions: power in the UAE ultimately rests on force. That has been made abundantly clear recently in Bahrain, another close American ally in the Arabian Gulf, which has been busily shooting peaceful demonstrators to preserve the power of the ruling family.
If the New York Times account of Prince’s dealings can be trusted, he is recruiting Latin Americans and other foreigners, because Arabs cannot be trusted to fire on other Arabs. This suggests that his force is designed to be used for internal repression among other, more legitimate tasks. If that is the case then this is morally dubious undertaking.
Again there is nothing inherently wrong with mercenaries but like any other military force they can be used for good or ill. It is not hard to imagine disreputable uses to which this new force could be put by the unelected rulers of the UAE.