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Why is a 'French Foreign Legion' for the UAE problematic?

Wednesday April 10, 2024

The UAE is a hub for mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East. Now the Emirates want their own version of the French Foreign Legion. That may change how secret, private armies work in a legal grey zone.

The proliferation of PMSCs started with the US, which used companies like Blackwater (pictured) in Iraq and Afghanistan / Image: Chris Curry/dpa/picture alliance

The job advertisement intrigued a lot more people than it was meant to, possibly because it sounded like the start of an action movie.

"Foreign Legion operator" wanted, it read. Must be under 50, highly disciplined, physically fit, with at least five years of military experience and able to deal with "high stress conditions." Pay would start at around $2,000 a month but would increase once deployed outside of the United Arab Emirates, to Yemen or Somalia.

The ad was first discovered by French industry publication, Intelligence Online, who said it had been circulated by former French special forces soldiers. Further investigation traced the ad back to a security consultancy, the Manar Military Company, or MMC, based in Abu Dhabi. The company is run by a former French special forces officer and is financially connected to a wealthy, politically influential Abu Dhabi family.

Everything about the ad indicated that the UAE wanted to set up its own elite foreign legion, with between 3,000 and 4,000 recruits, by middle of next year.

Media outlets that contacted MMC haven't been able to get a straight answer. Representatives of the company have said the ad wasn't real, the project was cancelled and that it was actually all an exercise in disinformation. MMC did not respond to DW's own enquiries.

But, experts told DW, there was a good chance such a project — an Emirati foreign legion — could well be real.

Intelligence Online has good connections to the French military sector and this leak is quite likely their way of saying that France is not happy with this development, said Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College in London. The French will worry that security staff are lured away to highly paid jobs in the UAE, he noted.

"It does seem like something the UAE would do, given their history," agreed Sean McFate, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and author of the book, "The New Rules of War." "The UAE has a tradition of outsourcing military power and has done so on and off since 2011."

"Certainly when you hear 'mercenaries' nowadays, I usually think UAE much more than Russia," Krieg added. "The Emirates have become something of a hub for mercenary activity in the global South."

US businessman Erik Prince also helped create a counter-piracy maritime police force in Somalia for the UAEImage: Jackson Njehia/AP Photo/picture alliance

Why does the UAE use mercenaries? 

The seven emirates that make up the UAE have a population of around 9 million people but only a million are Emiratis. So while the UAE's military has around 65,000 personnel, anywhere between a third and 40% are foreigners.

At the same time, the UAE's leadership has been aggressive about what it sees as its strategic interests in places like Yemen and on the Somalian coast. So mercenaries are employed because of what Krieg calls "casualty aversion." 

"Mercenaries are attractive to very wealthy societies who want to engage in warfare but don't want to bleed themselves," McFate explained further.

Another aspect of bringing foreigners into the UAE military is "coup-proofing." After all, why would well-paid mercenaries overthrow an authoritarian government in a country they have no vested interests in? 

And then there's also the idea of "plausible deniability" that mercenaries offer their employer if military operations are meant to be clandestine. 

Since 2003, the use of what are known as "private military security companies," or PMSCs has exploded, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wrote in its 2023 report. "Today, PMSCs operate in almost every country in the world, for a broad variety of clients," the institute said. 

For the UAE, it started in 2009 when Erik Prince, a former US Navy Seal and founder of the Blackwater PMSC, came to set up an 800-member brigade inside the emirates.

Prince eventually fell out with his employers but cooperation-for-profit between senior US officers and the UAE continues. In 2019, Reuters  found the UAE paying to set up cyber warfare units. In 2022, the Washington Post reported on how the UAE continues to pay former senior US military staffers for assistance and instruction.

There are also less salubrious examples. A BBC investigation found the UAE hired mercenaries, including Americans and Israelis, to carry out politically motivated assassinations in Yemen, or trained locals to do so. The UAE is also known to be a central logistics and financing hub for Russia's notorious mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group.

The UAE's army is about 65,000 strong but around 40% of staff are foreignersImage: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

A legitimate legion

Should it actually become a reality, an Emirati foreign legion, as described in the job offer, would differ from most of the above in a significant way.

"When you hire mercenaries, that comes with lots of headaches," McFate, who worked as a private military contractor himself, explains. "Most of those have to do with safety and accountability and treachery — which is no surprise. Mercenaries are like fire: They can burn down your house or power a steam engine," he argues. "So one solution to this is having a foreign legion."

Soldiers in a foreign legion tend to have longer contracts, are usually an official part of a national army and also subject to local rules and regulations.

A foreign legion is "something of a break from the past [for the UAE] because it seems to be more institutionalized, less ad hoc than some of the other activities they have been involved in," Krieg told DW. "It gives them the possibility of recruiting people in a semi-legitimate fashion." 

"It could even be something of a game changer," he continued. "Because whenever anyone calls out the Emiratis for their mercenary activities, where they're committing potential war crimes or maybe facilitating them, now that they're using an established model like the French Foreign Legion, they can deflect and say 'the French are doing it, why can't we?'"

McFate believes that as the world becomes more multipolar and foreign policy becomes even more transactional, that there will be even more "commodification of conflict." The UAE, with an authoritarian leadership, much wealth and few legislative restrictions, is in position to exploit this, he said.

Krieg agrees. "The commodification of wars has been ongoing for the last 20 years. We're seeing more synergies between private and public entities working together in war so that you can no longer say, it's just a state affair, or it's just a private affair. It's a mix of both," he explained. "And the Emiratis are masters of this, having exploited that grey zone for years."


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