by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
The Arab, Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf are struggling to confront perceived Shia enemies from outside and within. Iran, which Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia accuse of urging their Shia minorities and majorities to rebel, has challenged Sunni regional powers to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Many of the Gulf monarchies lack enough manpower to contain Iran’s sphere of influence, known as the “Axis of Resistance” to its proponents and the “Shia Crescent” to its opponents. Bahrain and the Emirates have resorted to recruiting mercenaries.
Sunni mercenaries have long aided the Bahraini government in oppressing and persecuting its Shia majority. The monarchy has relied on Pakistanis in particularfor decades. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) claimed 2009 that foreigners, most from elsewhere in Asia, compose 64 percent of the National Security Apparatus, and only a ninth of the Bahrainis employed followed Shiism. “According to the international standards, the composition and role of the SSF [Special Security Forces] falls in the prohibition of the use of mercenaries”, reported the BCHR. “The non-Bahrainis recruited to the SSF can be categorized as mercenaries as they were brought selectively from outside the country, they are used for security or military purposes outside the regular security and military bodies, they are trained and prepared in a special manner, and they are provided with careers and advantages not provided to other foreign or Bahraini employees, such as housing, travel expenses and family reunifications”. Protesters during the Arab Spring demanded that the Bahraini government expand opportunities in national security to Shias. The Ministry of Interior advertised that it was offering to employ more citizens, yet these advertisements soon spread to Pakistan. The Saudi government, which has long supported the Bahraini government against apparent Shia expansionism, helped arrange the recruitment. Both governments seemed willing to ignore international law to further a religious denomination’s oppression and persecution.
As Bahraini Shias protest how their military and police have mistreated them, the Bahraini government has expanded its reliance on mercenaries and requested more. Iran argued that Pakistan was assisting the Bahraini government by agreeing to supply more mercenaries. Indonesia acknowledged that, though none of its soldiers traveled to Bahrain, several Malaysian recruits did. The supply of mercenaries signalled the Bahraini government’s desperation. It searched South and Southeast Asia for fighters to combat what protesters demanded: accountability, democracy, and security. “Especially in the Gulf, these mercenaries played a vital role in setting up the often repressive security states that now exist”, described Time, recounting the long history of mercenaries in Bahrain. “The most notorious of these hired officials was Ian Henderson, a former colonial officer who spent years trying to stamp out Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising and later became chief of Bahrain’s secret police for over three decades until his retirement in 1998. For his alleged involvement in the torture of a host of leftist and Islamist dissidents, Henderson earned the sobriquet ‘the Butcher of Bahrain'”. The Pakistanis have continued this legacy, some even torturing Bahraini prisoners. Little good can come from a government using foreigners to abuse human rights and resist nonviolent resistance by oppressed, persecuted locals.
The Peninsula Shield Force, a military coalition overseen by the Gulf Cooperation Council, has helped the Bahraini government secure its territory. While Kuwait and Oman refrained from sending soldiers, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which fear their Shia minorities, contributed to the response to protesters through the Gulf Cooperation Council. “We have repeatedly confirmed that our mission is to secure Bahrain’s vital and strategically important military infrastructure from any foreign interference”, said the Peninsula Shield Force’s commander Major General Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima. “Everybody knows that when a state becomes preoccupied with its internal security, this increases its need to secure its international borders”. Meanwhile, Saudi Shias protested the GCC’s contribution to the crackdown in Bahrain. The Peninsula Shield Force only added to the problem of the mercenaries.
The Emirati government has exported its use of mercenaries to other conflicts. Despite having an air force respected for its effectiveness in Operation Inherent Resolve (compared to the other Gulf monarchies’ air forces), the Emirati government lacks an army capable of the grueling counterinsurgency and desert warfare that has come to define the Yemeni Civil War. Instead, the Union Defence Force is importing Colombians. “The Emiratis have spent the equivalent of millions of dollars equipping the unit, from firearms and armored vehicles to communications systems and night vision technology”, wrote The New York Times. “Hundreds of Colombian troops have been trained in the Emirates since the project began in 2010—so many that the Colombian government once tried to broker an agreement with Emirati officials to stanch the flow headed to the Persian Gulf”. Sudan, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s bizarre ally, has joined the campaign against Shia rebels in Yemen — as has Senegal and as might Eritrea. These brutal foreign militaries and their violent soldiers are likely to worsen Yemen’s security and stability, not better it. According to Deutsche Welle and Forbes, mercenaries already have a suspicious history in the Persian Gulf. Their use in Bahrain and Yemen will increase their notoriety.
It should surprise few that the Bahraini and Emirati governments, dictatorships, would resort to mercenaries to fight Shias at home and abroad. Only the international community can present a challenge to their abuses of human rights, international humanitarian law, and the law of war.