Creating new perspectives since 2009

Will mercenary Gulf armies signal a new Western colonial security order?

March 11, 2024 at 11:00 am

An Arab visitor walks past a battle tank displayed outside the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015 [Gabriela Maj/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Much has been written over the past decade on the prevalence of mercenary forces – so-called private military companies (PMCs) – in combat zones, ranging across Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and even Sudan. Much has also been written on the various efforts by Gulf Arab states to create a degree of regional hegemony through the use of such hired guns, manifested in efforts at the hands of proxies funded and supported by those same Gulf states.

There has been a notable blind spot, however, regarding the exact motives behind those actions. Is it the mere pursuit of influence or the greed for natural resources? Is it the geopolitical need to counter democratic or religious movements abroad which supposedly pose a threat to current governance models? Or is there an ideological bend to the equation, manifested in the need to explicitly control – directly or indirectly – other territories to secure a homeland’s stability and future?

In an episode of his “Off Leash” podcast in February, Erik Prince, founder of the infamous US mercenary company Blackwater, called on the United States and, apparently, the wider Western world to take over and run entire continents, in comments that would make 19th and 20th century imperialists salivate.

“If so many of these countries around the world are incapable of governing themselves, it’s time for us to just put the imperial hat back on, to say, we’re going to govern those countries if you’re incapable of governing yourselves, because enough is enough, we’re done being invaded [by immigrants],” said Prince. “You can say that about pretty much all of Africa, they’re incapable of governing themselves and benefitting their citizens because the governments there are all about looting and pillaging and lining their pockets and going shopping in Paris.”

When asked by his co-host if he was calling directly for colonial rule, he confirmed it. “Absolutely, yes. Enough. Because if you go to these countries [then] you see how they suffer under absolutely corrupt made-up governments that are just criminal syndicates. The people of Africa and the people of Latin America deserve better.”

Prince’s remarks may come as a shock to many, and are certainly the most blatant and open in this regard in recent decades, as a prominent Western figure with influence over military affairs abroad, but they represent a new-found sympathy for neo-colonial positions that has been growing over the years.

Read: Are Saudi Arabia and the UAE leading the way to a new order in the Middle East?

Since the early years of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the Western coalition’s fight against the insurgency there, PMCs have played a prominent role as a supplement to and support for regular troops on the ground. Local allied forces and militias further served as proxies for the US and Western partners throughout the region, modelled on previous efforts to train local forces in Central America and east Asia to either support or overthrow regimes in those regions.

Rather than acting as direct or open imperialists, US and Western military authorities oversaw operations, transfers of power, reconstruction efforts and governance largely at the hands of local entities within the scope of Anglo-American interests. The latter include commercial interests linked to natural resources. Many were prompted to criticise such policies as “soft colonialism”.

Other forms of that model have included the acquisition of territories and ports within strategically-located countries, often legally and under agreements with the host governments, as well as the imposition of coercive policies toward non-compliant states to force them into alignment with the hegemonic order.

It is not only Western powers that have been doing so, of course, but is rather the practice of any power or hegemon which aims to expand its sphere of influence and subdue foreign states or forces. We only have to look toward Russia, India and, to some extent, China as non-Western powers that exert neo-colonial influence within their respective regions.

According to Prince and his sympathisers, however, that model is possibly being reconsidered and formed into a more direct one, with the infamous mercenary head and his aims attracting powerful sponsors.

After leaving and selling off Blackwater back in 2010, Prince was been given a number of tasks by the UAE, starting with the building of a private mercenary army for Emirati ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed which has been valued at $529 million, as well as the training of a Somali force to aid the fight against piracy within and off the coast of Somalia.

Since then, his ties with Abu Dhabi and allied Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia have grown, with his efforts to utilise mercenaries bearing fruit in other theatres of war such as Yemen and Libya. One of his most controversial tasks was to assist eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar during his offensive against the UN-backed government in Tripoli, prior to his forces’ defeat in the summer of 2020.

Read: Will Falcon be Egypt’s Wagner?

Prince’s revival coincided with the rise to power of former US President – and current leading Republican presidential candidate – Donald Trump, who favoured Prince and allowed him to be an unofficial adviser for his campaign and administration. Those ties were, of course, interlinked heavily with the Trump administration’s success in getting the UAE and other Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, cementing the pre-existing ties between all of the aforementioned players in the years leading up to that point.

That network of states, non-state actors, mercenary forces and financiers in many ways formed a front in the supposed fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and “Islamist” influence in the region and beyond. When questioned by the US House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence back in November 2017 about his secret meetings in the Seychelles with Bin Zayed and Russian banking figure Kirill Dmitriev, Prince admitted that the UAE had invited and introduced him to Dmitriev. “If Franklin Roosevelt could work with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism,” said Prince, “then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”

The purported anti-Islamist effort is still being propagated and pursued by the same network, especially as Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza continues to intensify and Trump attempts to make a triumphant return to the White House. Erik Prince also remains favoured by the UAE, and the powerful backers of his aims for mercenary domination of the battlefield in Western-centric interests are going nowhere anytime soon.

However, sceptics of this unofficial alliance may have been asking the wrong questions in recent years. Instead of asking whether the collaboration between Trump, a Russian government-backed banker, and the UAE was having undue influence on the US and its election process – as the House Intelligence Committee did back in 2017 – they perhaps should be asking whether the US has been influencing the active creation of mercenary forces for the Gulf monarchies and their hegemonic efforts in the Middle East and the wider region, in cooperation with Israel as a new and open partner.

Some light has already been shed over the past year on the Gulf states’ potential efforts to establish a regional order, but could that aim be within the wider scope of a revival of Western imperialist strategy? Prince’s call for the reintroduction of imperialist takeovers certainly represents a more direct perspective, and one that may be shared with his past and present allies.

If that is indeed the case, then this new model of colonialism would be defined by the outsourcing of territorial control to mercenaries under government contracts – in a very British East India Company way – coupled with the explicit aim to bring order to the colonised territories and subjects. All would be justified through the fight against religious extremism or the tackling of state instability.

It seems that self-determination no longer holds the value it once did. The new “winds of change” are blowing in a very different direction.

Read: Will colonialism return through the war on Gaza?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.