In the wake of the Arab Spring, internal dissent rather than external threats has become the most immediate security issue facing the ruling families in the Gulf, and their future military spending will reflect this new reality.
Be it a $7 billion contract to buy US-made F-16s by the UAE or Saudi Arabia’s $20 billion purchase of the Typhoon Eurofighter from British Aerospace Systems, the various petro-sheikhdoms of the Gulf have never shied away from buying high price-tag military hardware.
But the mass protests witnessed in Bahrain in 2011 coupled with the spread of discord still echoing elsewhere in the region will also push defense spending in a different direction towards an increased focus on Special Operations, electronic surveillance, cyber-security and the capability to suppress mass civil protest.
Last May, the global defense industry gathered at the King Abdullah I Airbase in Amman in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for the ninth biennial Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference (SOFEX) in what organizers described as the “biggest and most successful edition to date.”
Along with the expected array of weapons and ordinance, “internal security training” was also one of the categories exhibited. After the upheaval in Bahrain that left at least 50 dead, this no doubt caught the eye of those attending the opening day’s Middle East Special Operations Commanders Conference, who were promised the “latest insights into the changing operational environment and the latest in technology applications.”
The official SOFEX brochure listed as attending companies such as TASER International and cyber-security solution provider L-3 Communications, along with a host of others offering everything from the latest in video surveillance to canine solutions. But what will this “changing operational environment” look like and what “technology applications” will be needed to address it? Before we attempt to divine the future, it would be useful to look to the past.
When Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman attained independence in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s after Great Britain could no longer afford its protectorates “east of Suez”, the al-Thanis and al-Sabahs of the region feared for their very survival. With Iraq and Iran harbouring their own colonial ambitions to match the departing British, theirs was a valid concern. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi even offered to pay for the continued presence of British troops. This request would prove prescient a couple of decades later when Saddam Hussein ordered his tanks into Kuwait in 1990. The ruling families of these nascent nation states needed protection and luckily they had the money to buy it in the form of lucrative defense contracts.
Before Kuwait’s short-lived sojourn as Iraq’s 19th province, the emirate had smartly bought an array of weapons (much of which it had little intention of ever using) from the Soviet Union, the US, the UK, China and France – an insurance policy certified by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. As such there was no veto when the decision arose whether or not to liberate occupied Kuwait.
In the case of Iran, the threat was also real. Not only is Bahrain viewed by some Iranians as a “long lost” territory, but in 1971 the then Shah exploited the UAE’s weakness upon independence to seize the island of Abu Musa and two others from the emirate of Sharjah – territory it has kept to this day. But Iraq has been weakened by decades of dictatorship and war. And with the US Navy’s 5th fleet based in Bahrain, Iran is not much of “conventional” threat either. And after the “Pearl revolution” of last year, internal security has now assumed far greater importance.
Even before last year’s events in Bahrain brought the possibility of mass civil unrest to the fore, the various Gulf ruling families had already taken action. And as in many others areas, the UAE leads the field. A study by Reporters Without Borders highlighted how the authorities have policed political dissent by monitoring electronic communications on BlackBerry’s messenger service and even attempted to install spyware on smartphones.
And given the important role of social networking sites such as Tweeter (increasingly accessed by handheld devices) in coordinating the demonstrations centered at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, electronic surveillance of potential malcontents in cyberspace is likely to be one growth area for company’s looking to expand in the region.
And this cyber awareness is also backed up with men on the ground. The New York Times reported in 2011 that Abu Dhabi is training an 800-strong battalion of Colombians, South Africans, Americans and British security professionals to protect oil pipelines and possibly repress any internal demonstrations of civil disobedience. The force could be deployed to disperse uprisings from South Asian labourers striking for better pay to nationals calling for political change. Though in Abu Dhabi the latter is a highly unlikely probability given the cradle-to-grave welfare state provided to nationals by the al-Nahayan family.
While the UAE is stocking up on what will likely be preventative remedies, it is Bahrain’s large disenfranchised Shia population that is likely to be the first group that gets “hands-on” experience of any increased expenditure on “urban warfare.” In the aftermath of last year’s protests, which saw baton-yielding policemen pummeling men, women and children and numerous deaths in police custody, worldwide condemnation of the Bahraini government put it top of the list of the Gulf states needing to reassess its “internal security” capability.
Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia to help quell the protests highlighted the al-Khalifa’s vulnerability to a mass uprising. For the al-Saud family, self-preservation would have been the driving motivation to send the Saudi National Guard across the King Fahd Causeway to Manama. No doubt fear of a domino effect sparking similar protests amongst its own Shia population in the oil producing eastern part of the kingdom would have overridden any qualms about intervening in the affairs of a neighbouring state.
In response to the deaths of so many protesters in Bahrain, many at the hands of Sunni immigrants from Pakistani, Bahrain turned to former Metropolitan police chief John Yates and ex-Miami police chief John Timoney to bring “modern policing methods” to the local security forces. Yet the presence of an American law enforcement official only highlighted the perceived hypocrisy of US policy in the region. The Obama administration supported a royal family cracking down violently on demonstrators calling for political reform while unilaterally condemning the mullahs in Tehran for similar behavior after the 2009 elections.
After a temporary ban on exporting arms to Bahrain in the aftermath of the Manama crackdown, US weapons sales resumed after Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a recent state-side visit. However, State Department officials insist that equipment that can be used for (here come those words again) “internal security” purposes will not be sold until there is improvement on human rights. Luckily, the exhibitors at SOFEX came from across the globe so any short-fall from US suppliers should be easily filled from elsewhere.
As Bahrain looks to bolster it owns capabilities, Kuwait is one country that might offer a blueprint for future planning where internal security is the responsibility of the well-funded National Guard. Kuwaiti officers in the army, navy or air force have complained on occasion that National Guard troops get promoted faster (and thus paid more) than officers in the other branches of the armed services. Furthermore, the National Guard tends to be staffed with members of al-Sabah ruling family and men from Sunni tribes traditionally sympathetic to nation’s rulers. Shias, who make up about a third of the Kuwaiti population, are more commonly found in the air force and air defense.
Back to the Future
In many ways, Jordan is the logical setting for a military exhibition trumpeting the importance of internal security as its royal family has come the closest to losing power as the result of mass civil unrest. During the Black September of 1970 Palestinian militants challenged the authority of King Hussein, resulting in a violent crackdown by the Jordanian army that left thousands of Palestinians dead.
Over forty years later, it is the Syrian army that is now killing it own people by the bushel as an autocratic regime intent on remaining in power confronts the urge for political change. Yet at the same time, perhaps the presence of TASER International at SOFEX, a supplier of “non-lethal” forms of crowd control, can be interpreted as positive sign. The autocrats of the Gulf know they cannot get away with the mass slaughter of their own people, even those who might be calling for their removal from power.
One senses if the US government were to lift its arms embargo on Syria tomorrow, TASER International, with its selection of non-lethal armaments would not be the first company flown into Damascus to display its wares in front of the mukhabarat.
*Raymond Barrett is an Irish writer and journalist and the author of Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling. He can be found on twitter @RaymondPBarrett. This article originally appeared on Al Akhbar English.