This post was originally written June 5.
It's now been three weeks since the New York Times published its story on the United Arab Emirates business doings of Erik Prince, the man that lefty critics of private security contracting love to berate. So now that the reflexive PMC und Drang, to coin a phrase, has died down a bit, it is a good time to take a step back, draw a breath, and try to consider some the pros and cons of this latest development.
Note, however, PMC und Drang is actually a useful phrase to keep in mind, as the protagonist in a typical Sturm und Drang stage work or novel is driven to action -- often violent action -- not by pursuit of noble means nor by true motives, but by revenge and greed. If you substitute free market enterprise or good old fashioned capitalism for greed -- remember, as Gordon Gecko said, greed is good -- then it seems entirely appropriate.
For those who need their memories jogged, the May 14 NYT article "Secret Desert Force Set Up by Blackwater's Founder" by Mark Mazzetti and Emily B. Hager detailed how Prince was hired by Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E. 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."
While it is impossible to say for certain since I've not seen its documentation so far, the NYT story has, factually, stood up pretty well. Apart from using words like mercenaries, the worst thing that can be said about was an incorrect and somewhat derogatory reference to the old South African based Executive Outcomes. See the details here on Eeben Barlow's blog
So Prince has formed a new company called Reflex Responses (any resemblance to a malady like acid reflux is, I'm sure, entirely coincidental), complete with a nifty logo. He has reportedly hired Colombians, along with South African and other foreign troops that are trained by retired American soldiers and veterans of the German and British special operations units and the French Foreign Legion. Hmm, trained by Legionnaires; this could be the first Legion/PSC hybrid in history as Feral Jundi noted.
What should we make of all this? Well, first, evidently Erik Prince has decided that of all the things he might or could do in the post Blackwater/Xe Services era, teaching history and economics to high school students is not one of them. Remember that was one of the things he said in early 2010 he might be doing when it was announced that he was leaving the United States and moving to the UAE. Somehow I think the UAE education establishment will weather this loss.
Second, let's consider some of the positives of this. Generally speaking, doing business in the Persian Gulf is a good thing. Why is that? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks; because it is where the money is.
Also, Erik has learned something from his past BW contracts in Iraq. BW, along with all the other PSC contractors, took a lot of PR grief for being protected by the old Coalition Provisional Authority immunity provision covering contractors. Although it was never the one hundred percent get out of jail free card critics claimed, it was enough to cast a cloud of suspicion and doubt over their activities.
But that was then, this is now. RR's contract with the UAE states:
Compliance with the Laws, Regulations and Bylaws
The Second Party undertakes to comply with all the laws, regulations and bylaws in force in the State, and all provisions of the Decision of the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces referred to hereinabove shall apply to this Contract, provided that the general legal principles in force in the State concerning contracts and contracting methods of the administration shall apply to any matter regarding which there is no specific provision in the said Decision or in this Contract.
So if something wrong does happen you will have to take it up with the UAE legal system. Although it is unclear how responsive the UAE system will be to redressing any human rights violations. The latest annual State Department human rights report notes:
Section 5 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The government generally did not permit organizations to focus on political issues. Two recognized local human rights organizations existed: the quasi-independent EHRA, which focused on human rights issues and complaints such as labor rights, stateless persons' rights, and prisoners' well-being and humane treatment; and the government-subsidized Jurists' Association Human Rights Committee, which focused on human rights education and conducted seminars and symposia subject to government approval.
And as Feral Jundi astutely noted, if things work this could be the start of a new financial empire for Prince. Call it Moycock II: Persian Gulf.
Emirati military officials had promised that if this first battalion was a success, they would pay for an entire brigade of several thousand men. The new contracts would be worth billions, and would help with Mr. Prince's next big project: a desert training complex for foreign troops patterned after Blackwater's compound in Moyock, N.C.
So will R2 be opening it's doors for training to the world, much like how BW operated in the US? If true, I could see something like this becoming a multi-billion dollar project for Prince and company. Just because it would be located in the middle east and cater to all the OPEC nations.
Furthermore, qualitatively speaking it is hard to accuse Prince of doing something new. As Strategy Page observes, just about all Persian Gulf states have, for decades, been using foreigners, either working directly for foreign governments or private sector civilians with that government's approval to equip and train their military security forces. If one wants to accuse Prince of doing something bad one has to similarly accuse firms like Vinnell which has been training the Saudi National Guard for decades.
On the negative side it is hard to see the initial force that RR is training as being for any other purpose than to deal with future internal unrest and dissent, as in cracking down on protesters.
Training a force of 800 men to deal with a threat from perennial boogeyman threat Iran is farcical. The Iranian military may have its problems but it is clearly capable of overwhelming so few.
Though as Nation reporter and perennial Erick Prince critics Jeremy Scahill noted:
In a speech Prince delivered in late 2009, a copy of which was obtained by The Nation, Prince spoke of the need to confront Iranian influence in the Middle East, charging that Iran has a "master plan to stir up and organize a Shia revolt through the whole region." At the time, Prince proposed that armed private soldiers from companies like Blackwater be deployed in countries throughout the region to target Iranian influence.
If Prince, Sheik al-Nahyan, or U.S. State or Defense Department officials think a battalion is going to help with that, they are smoking something far more potent than Bill Clinton ever inhaled. In fact, the State Department probably deserves more blame than the Pentagon on this. Even though RR is a UAE majority owned company, Prince is still a U.S. citizen and subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) the regulation, and the law is the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). As such he needs to be registered as a Broker or as an Exporter of Defense Articles or Defense Services and would need approval from the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) at the State Department.
Even commentators like military historian and foreign-policy analyst Max Boot, who has staunchly defended the use of PSC in the past, wrote:
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.
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.
Likewise 800 men are also clearly inadequate to protect the UAE's oil infrastructure.
And when one looks at the UAE's human rights record it seems, that while it is hardly the worst in the region, it is also not one inclined to tolerate things like freedom of speech and association. Thus training a force that could be used for "crowd control" doesn't sound good if the United States wants to be on the side of democratic forces in the future.
This raises an interesting potential question as the New Yorker pointed out:
A document obtained by the paper describes "crowd-control operations" where the crowd "is not armed with firearms but does pose a risk using improvised weapons (clubs and stones)."
After the Arab Spring, and what we have seen in Libya, that is an interesting business to be in.
If the U.A.E.'s R2 battalion ends up killing civilians, might we intervene? And would we do so with the support of private contractors from companies like Blackwater?
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Reflex Responses does not appear to be a signatory to the International Code of Conduct For Private Security Service Providers that came into effect last November. Perhaps it is because of provisions like this:
21. Signatory Companies will comply, and will require their Personnel to comply, with applicable law which may include international humanitarian law, and human rights law as imposed upon them by applicable national law, as well as all other applicable international and national law. Signatory Companies will exercise due diligence to ensure compliance with the law and with the principles contained in this Code, and will respect the human rights of persons they come into contact with, including, the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and against arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy or deprivation of property.
Having to comply with UAE law, which doesn't offer that much in the way of guaranteeing basic civil liberties, is one thing; having to incorporate basic international humanitarian law standards might be something else entirely.
So what kind of grade do we give this? Actually, I see three.
First, for Prince it is an A plus. Give him credit for knowing where to go to make a profit.
For the United States it is a B minus. As long as nothing goes wrong, as in using the future force for breaking up a demonstration of oppressed workers or a continuation of Arab Spring protests in the UAE, the U.S. can sit back and twiddle its geopolitical thumbs and say Erik Prince, who's that? But if and when some civilian gets killed by a RR employee it can forget about that attempt at plausible deniability.
As for the PMSC industry itself, I give it a C. In recent years the PMSC industry has invested considerable effort and some resources to depicting itself as a highly ethical peace and stability operations industry. While a lot of it is rhetorical, some of it has been very real. It is not clear that Prince and RR are doing much to bolster the image that companies and trade groups have tried so hard to cultivate.