Yet Another Reason We're Unpopular in the Arab World

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An American businessman and former Armed Forces members are raising a secret mercenary army for Persian Gulf autocrats

Erik Prince.jpg

In a dispatch from Dubai, writer Johann Hari once told the story of a Bangladeshi man recruited to the desert kingdom as a laborer. "As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company," Hari reported. "He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat -- where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees -- for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. 'But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,' he said. 'Well, then you'd better get to work,' they replied."

The anecdote came back to me as I read the weekend New York Times story on the United Arab Emirates, where there is a "secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, now Xe, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom." What does the soft autocracy want with such a fighting force? "People involved in the project and American officials said that the Emiratis were interested in deploying the battalion to respond to terrorist attacks and put down uprisings inside the country's sprawling labor camps, which house the Pakistanis, Filipinos and other foreigners who make up the bulk of the country's work force."

It isn't difficult to anticipate the ugly ways that this could play out among the abused guest workers of Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the UAE. Reading details of the story, that appears to be just the beginning of why this is a bad idea:

Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times.

The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.

What awful news to read as the United States tries to position itself on the right side of the Arab Spring. To be clear, this isn't an official project of the Obama Administration (the State Department won't confirm whether the US government granted a license permitting the Americans involved to work on this project, or if they are in violation of the law). It is nevertheless being run by an American businessman and managed in part by former U.S. military personnel.

The  distinctions between Americans in uniform and private security contractors like the ones that did some of our fighting in Iraq have already been blurred. At best, our use of Blackwater appears to have afforded its owner the know-how and resources to field a private army for an Arab autocracy. At worst we're complicit in his project. Can anyone doubt that American involvement in enterprises like this are one reason for our low-standing in the world, and a potential source of violent backlash, too? If you're unconvinced, delve a bit deeper into the strategic thinking involved in the project: "The former employees said that in recruiting the Colombians and others from halfway around the world, Mr. Prince's subordinates were following his strict rule: hire no Muslims. Muslim soldiers, Mr. Prince warned, could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims."  

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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