May 22, 2011:
The mass media recently generated numerous scary headlines with the discovery that the UAE (United Arab Emirates) was forming a battalion of 800 troops composed of Western veterans. This force is being recruited from men who have combat experience. What the mass media missed was the fact that this new battalion would be but a small portion of the many foreigners already serving in the UAE armed forces. Hiring foreign mercenaries, to ensure that the rulers are protected by troops who are the most skilled and reliable, is an old custom in the region. Actually, it used to be a widespread practice worldwide. Some Western nations, like the Vatican, still retains foreign mercenaries. In this case, it's the Swiss Guards, which the popes have been using for over 500 years ago, because the locals were too often unreliable.
The UAE battalion is recruiting men who have been trained to Western standards, which means many do not come from Western countries. Gurkha veterans of British or Indian service are welcome, as are special operations troops from anywhere. Colombian veterans, who have been fighting drug gangs and leftist rebels for decades, are also sought. The battalion is unified by English (a few hundred key words needed for military operations) and similar training and military experience. Beyond that, it's a true multinational force.
The UAE armed forces are small, about 65,000 troops, and many of them (the exact number is kept secret, but is believed to be about a third) are foreigners with UAE citizenship. Most of the eight million people in the UAE are neither citizens, or even Arabs. About 20 percent of the UAE population are citizens, and only about ten percent of the total population is Arab. The majority (80 percent) are foreigners, mostly from South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India). The rest are from the West, Africa and Iran. This is not unusual in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf.
The problem is that all the oil wealth has, over the last sixty years, changed the lifestyles, and aspirations, of the citizenry. The Arab citizens of the UAE have become very picky when it comes to jobs. Most jobs available, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy. Thus most UAE citizens prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy, 99 percent of the jobs are held by foreigners. The owners are often citizens, but the workers are almost always imported foreigners. Most are male, resulting in nearly 70 percent of the UAE population being male. The unemployment rate among citizens is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. The unemployment benefits are generous, so no one has any incentive to do something crazy, like joining the army.
While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other high-tech systems UAE has bought in the last decade look impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department, the UAE has some serious problems. And it is generally very difficult to get the UAE to even discuss the situation.
Examples are widely available, and seen daily by the thousands of Western technicians, specialists and trainers hired by the UAE to keep their high-tech gear operational. Western trainers are also used to impart military skills to those that can be persuaded to enlist. That's why so many foreigners are accepted into the military, with the promise of citizenship. Standards for these foreign recruits is higher, but their loyalty is not as certain. This is where the new "mercenary battalion" comes in. In addition to having some more highly skilled troops for special operations type missions (like hostage rescue or anti-terror operations), you also have some skilled soldiers who can be depended on to protect the royal family. These guys are there for the money, and because such units have, historically, been dependable. In other words, when bought, they stay bought. That's what made the Swiss so popular as mercenaries for so long. Switzerland went neutral in the early 19th century, and that meant no more mercenaries (officially, anyway, except for the Vatican). Otherwise, the UAE might have just hired a battalion of Swiss Guards.
Many Arabs in the Persian Gulf area are aware of these problems, especially those who have studied in the West, or spent some time there. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Arabs seek ways to work around these problems. For example, the Saudi royal family established the National Guard in the 1930s, as a private, tribal army, that is now almost as large as the regular army and considered more dependable and effective than the regulars. That's because the National Guard troops follow traditional rules of military leadership, and have a personal relationship with the king. Only men from tribes that are known to be loyal to the Saud family may join, and they are expected to make their family and tribe proud. Saddam Hussein, and other Arab leaders, form similar forces. Saddam had his Republican Guard. Despots the world over tend to have a guard force recruited more for blood ties and loyalty, than for anything else. In the UAE, the Arab minority is following another traditional, and ancient, path. They are hiring foreign mercenaries, who know that their main job is to ensure that their employers are protected.
In the entire region, the regular forces (army, navy and air force) are just government jobs, run by another government bureaucracy. There are lower standards because there are none of the family or tribal ties that demand better. Only in the West do most people give the same devotion and respect to non-family/tribal institutions. So the UAE is importing another Western custom; professional, dependable, Western troops.