With the exception of Yemen, the member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council range from prosperous to extremely rich—but they are also vulnerable to security threats from terrorists and from Iran. The gathering in Syria of perhaps 25,000 jihadis, the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and Iranian subversion are the major perils they face, but the risks associated with such challenges are magnified when their major outside ally, the United States, appears determined to reduce its role in the region.
The GCC states have reacted to these risks by increasing their military budgets, and this week’s news includes this story from the newspaper The National in the UAE: “Saudi Arabia becomes world’s fourth biggest military spender” after the United States, China, and Russia in 2013. Saudi expenditures now reach $67 billion, the story says. The UAE is now 15th in global expenditures on defense, at an estimated $19 billion, according to the source of all these numbers, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
But this week the GCC states took another step: they appear to have invited Jordan and Morocco to send troops to help defend them. According to a Moroccan newspaper report carried in Defense News, the GCC envisions up to 300,000 troops, in exchange for which their governments will be given additional foreign aid. This is not at all unprecedented, and there are two explanations for it: the perceived quality of their troops, especially those of Jordan, and their own population levels. After all, Qatar has only about 225,000 citizens; the rest of its 2 million inhabitants are foreign workers. The UAE has perhaps 900,000 citizens among its 6 million inhabitants. These are small bases upon which to build capable militaries.
Moreover, the practice of importing foreign workers to do jobs the local citizens cannot or will not do is well established. It works in commerce, so why not military affairs? And given that any Jordanian or Moroccan soldiers will speak Arabic and be Muslims, their presence may not present difficult cultural clashes. Because they will not be from any one of the GCC nations, they may help form a unified defense force that can serve the GCC governments without arousing the tensions among them that could result from having a neighbor’s soldiers on your territory.
Yet there are risks that the GCC governments would do well to consider. In Bahrain, the use of foreign personnel to repress domestic political protests has aroused great resentment. In part, this was because the protesters are Shia and the imported policemen are Sunni, as are the government and royal family of Bahrain. Here is a VOA story from 2011:
According to analysts and Bahraini human rights activists, Bahrain’s government has been recruiting former soldiers and policemen from Pakistan at a steady rate to bolster the security forces.
Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who has extensive experience in South Asia, says Bahrain has been recruiting Pakistani veterans for decades. But he says the eruption of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Gulf state in March has sparked a sharp increase in the recruiting.
"This winter, when the very serious demonstrations began and it looked like the regime might even be toppled at a certain point, their hiring of mercenaries went up substantially," said Riedel. "And they began sending out basically want ads in major Pakistani newspapers advertising well-paying jobs in the Bahraini police and the Bahraini National Guard for any experienced soldier or policeman in Pakistan."
Using foreign troops and policemen to control citizens who are protesting human rights violations and political repression is a formula for trouble. In any country this will stoke nationalism and resentment. Riedel’s term “mercenaries” is tough, but warranted. The GCC leaders would be smarter to use any foreign troops exclusively as soldiers present to help defend member states against foreign aggression or subversion. This could include defending borders and critical infrastructure targets, for example, but should not include police functions resulting from tensions between citizens and their governments. Using these foreign security officers as police would be a dangerous move, to be avoided at all costs.