Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bahrain's Mercenary Army

The unrelenting seeds of North African revolt have been deeply planted in the island state of Bahrain.  The archipelago, home to 1.2 million western Persian Gulf residents of predominately Arab descent, has experienced a catacyslm--its people have awoken from a deep slumber.  And they are now empowered by an elusive, recurrent dream: freedom.

Last week, protesters gathered in the Pearl Rounabout in the heart of the capital city of Manama, to express their newfound voice.  They passionately called for fair elections, the release of political prisoners, and social reform. Their requests were instead met with rounds of live ammunition resutling in scenes of utter horror and death. The demonstrators were not silenced. Instead, they returned with more fervor and a new, stronger demand: the immediate departure of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Bahrain is 99% Muslim, and approximately 70% of the populace is of the Shia sect.  The ruling Al Khalifa family, which has held power for two hundred years, is Sunni.  The Shia are essentially a disenfranchsied majoirty with diminished civil rights--unable to procure jobs in the military and positions of influence, power and wealth. Although the protests were largely framed as political, they were overwhelmingly dominated by the Shia; the sectarian flavor, obvious. Nearby international powers understand this paradigm and are well aware of the potential implications. Riyadh fears a spillover of dissent into the oil-rich, Shia populated eastern Saudi Arabian front.  Washington fears that a possible Shia takeover will lead to undoubtedly friendlier relations with Iran, and the dismissal of the US 5th Navy Fleet stationed in Manama.

The Bahraini government has attempted to shift the Shia-heavy population balance by granting citizenship to over 50,000 Sunni foreigners. These immigrants from South Asia and other neighboring Arab countries are granted passports by Manama. Notably, it is nearly impossible for foreigners to naturalize in Gulf states--given the context, this policy is a very, big deal.  Much like the importation of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet, the Sunni newcomers are offered many advantages and benefits, slowly changing both the character and composition of the nation.  In addition, many guest workers competing for employment are non-local, South Asians, further engendering class-oriented, ethnic, and religious strife.

The Bahraini Defence Force has been suppressing the current revolution as well as prior political uprisings.  It acts in concert with special forces and civilian paramilitary units.  Military and particularly special force recruits are composed of many Sunnis from abroad, promised with money and quite often, citizenry.  The foreign recruits are chosen for a particular reason--their differing ethnicity, language, and religious leanings will allow them to control the local population with less qualms and the absence guilt.  A mercenary army has been created.

The mercenaries hail from Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq (former Ba'athists from the fallen regime of Saddam). The officers of these disliked special forces are from the Arab states.  According to Ian Black of The Guardian, "a Jordanian official is currently described as the organisation's [national security agency] 'master torturer'."

The largest contingent of the mercenary army is from Pakistan--up to 35% of these forces are from its southwestern province of Baluchistan. They primarily serve as foot soldiers. Reports of recruiting Pakistanis of Baluchi descent date back to 1992.  There is an alleged Bahraini recruitment delegation that makes trips to the southern coastal strip of Makran, on the Arabian Sea. This region, once a stronghold of the Persian Empire, is where modern-day warriors are now lured westward, with promises of cash and power. The Baluchi soldiers of fortune are often from destitute backgrounds with little hope of economic betterment in their homeland.  Their fiscally motivated departures to Bahrain are met with much chagrin among the locals.  Leaders of the many Baluchi secessionist movements--the Baluchi Liberation Front and the Baluch Republican Army among them, plead for them to stay home and utilize their energies and restiveness against the subjugating Pakistani Army.  They want these would-be mercenaries to fight the local tyrants--not cross the sea, and work for another.  Not surprisingly, money wins out.

The Bahraini military and mercenary forces have been known to act in concert with armed, "imported" Sunni civilians to quell political disobedience. Reportedly, they have participated in raids to pursue and abduct activists and demonstrators.  Use of internationally recruited soldiers is banned by international law. Human rights organizations in Bahrain understand the governmental manipulation of turning impoverished Baluchis into legionnaires. They have called for improved education within Baluchistan regarding the illegality of this work as well as direct condemnation of the Al Khalifa policy.  However, as long as there is a financial incentive from Bahrain, the flow of professional soldiers across the Persian Gulf is unlikely to stop.


  1. Great post as always. Two things:

    1) What's going on in Bahrain and to a lesser extent Libya is shattering (at least my) expectations vis a vie people demanding economic rights. It's true that in Egypt, the gini coefficient - a measure of relative inequality, was low indicating a relatively egalitarian society. But this coefficient is calculated on a low base - per capita income is only about $7 a day so deviations from the average quickly puts a citizen in a perilous situation. Tunisia also has a relatively low gini coefficient but wikileaks, to the extent what's in those reports are actually true, revealed that the numbers reported by the government were embellished, severely so in many cases. So even though the PCI stands at around $25/day, putting it in middle income territory, Tunisia in reality is a highly unequal society. So just based on economic want, it obvious why people revolted in those countries.

    From the lens of economic rights, what's happening in Bahrain doesn't make sense. The average citizen makes $55/day, and each family was offered the equivalent of an Egyptian's yearly income for complacency. I am operating under the assumption that people don't normally revolt when a "benevolent dictator" institutes sound economic policies and maintains an egalitarian society. So two things may have happened: 1) As with the above cases, stats are embellished, or 2) discrimination against Shias is so severe in Bahrain that people are willing to die for more political rights (note: I tried to find a study on rights in Bahrain, but couldn't in the short time I had, therefore I reasoned to this conclusion). I put my money on the latter, especially given the latent and overt bias against Shias amongst most Arab leaders and the Sunni Muslim community in general. The fixation with Iran as a threat that Saudi Arabia and Egypt (under the former regime) have is not proportional to the threat Iran poses – certainly not compared to at least one other neighbor. It’s obvious that there’s sectarian undertones to this fixation.

    For me, Libya is the more confusing case but at least one article I’ve read reported that most of the wealth is accumulated in the top one-third of society. Therefore, the revolution would fit under the paradigm of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

    2) Fascinating to read about the foreign constituents in the Baharani army. It reminded me of the Muslim armies of the days past – very multi-ethnic and from other parts of the empire. This is both good and bad – in good times, it’s a way for different races/ethnicities/nationalities to mix and mingle. In bad times, the average solider, when suppressing domestic unrest, may think less of pulling the trigger when the countrymen aren’t his own. Regardless, it’s fascinating to read about the slave armies of the days yonder and for some reason, this reminded me of that.

  2. It should be added that the law banning the use of mercenaries was passed by the UN in December of 1989.


    The concept of improving "brotherhood" within armed forces by diversification is an interesting one. I'm sure is some scholarship on this subject and probably excellent examples as recent as WW2. I believe it is a different case if a multi-ethnic force is fighting those of a different state as opposed to those being used to combat a homogeneous domestic population.

    I think it is unusual to have a benevolent dictator. Such an autocrat is much more likely to gain traction if he adheres to majority religious beliefs and is of the same ethnicity. As a ruling minority, the biases of the dictator will become evident--or there will undoubtedly be accusations by the majority of favoritism, whether or not it exists. In this case, they are fairly obvious.