Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The answer to Saudi Arabia that no one is talking about

Countries around the world have struggled to find a serious way to put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s regime, but the answer could lie in targeting private military companies, writes Jack Clayton

It took the death of one dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, to bring to the world’s attention the Devil’s bargain that exists at the heart of western foreign policy.

Members of the international community – the United Kingdom included – are finally coming to terms with their questionable relationship with the authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia. There have been calls to end arms sales, but others disagree with jeopardising business that makes £1bn annually. One issue with ending sales alone is other sellers could replace the UK, allowing atrocities to continue with less British control. Consequently, the international community have struggled to find consensus to maintain a relationship, but challenge the Saudi regime’s practices against free-speech and its role in the arms industry that has contributed to worsening the humanitarian crisis in the Yemen war.

Pressing for the abolition of private military companies would achieve this.

Unlike mercenary armies, PMCs are legal businesses, providing military services including training, logistics support, equipment procurement and intelligence gathering. American political scientist and PMC expert Peter Singer estimates they operate in 50 countries. Clients claim PMCs are not used as frontline combatants and are not mercenaries. Even so, PMCs are serious international security threats.

PMCs allow governments to resort quickly to militarism since they are affordable and discourage diplomacy. In 2002 a Foreign Office report encouraged the United Nations to hire PMCs because they are cheaper than using soldiers. The UN dismissed this approach, but others did not.

Saudi Arabia initially strengthened its military largely by investing in PMCs. According to Singer, Saudi Arabia’s military now relies almost entirely on PMCs providing a variety of services – developing its air defence system while training and advising its land, sea, and air forces. This sets a worrying precedent for wealthy nations, showing that investment in PMCs make a military powerful within weeks, effectively encouraging arms races.

PMCs frequently undermine peace-building, especially in the Middle East. Although they consist of trained soldiers, they do not focus on the political and ethnic complexities of foreign war zones, exemplified during the Iraq War by the PMC Blackwater. Blackwater were not prepared to stay in Iraq long-term, and had little understanding of the sectarian tensions between the Sunnis and Shias. They were also unfamiliar with guerrilla warfare and vulnerable to car bombs and non-uniformed enemy ambushes.

Similarly, in the Saudi-Yemen conflict, Saudi ally the United Arab Emirates has hired 450 Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadorian and Chilean soldiers. These soldiers cannot speak the same language as civilians, let alone understand cultural differences. Their presence as outsiders creates mistrust and causes more violence.

Since PMCs are profit-driven they may accept dangerous groups and even terrorists as clients. Providing services to the highest bidder means they may ignore the political and security consequences of working with terrorists. In Syria, the PMC Malhlama Tactical worked for the Jihadi terrorist group Tahrir al-Sham to fight President Assad. They emboldened extremism and provided terrorists with military equipment and training for profit.

PMCs are rarely held accountable for human rights violations and war crimes. In the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal, one in six soldiers there were privately hired, but only official United States soldiers faced prosecution. One privately contracted soldier was involved in what the US military labelled a homicide of the prisoner, al-Jamadi, but was granted qualified immunity. Many incidents are unresolved because it is often unclear whether PMCs or the client should face action for war crimes; PMCs may commit war crimes knowing there is a good chance they can get away with them.

Even PMCs that have been reprimanded for war crimes face little punishment. Blackwater merely paid compensation to families of victims for their involvement in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre. It left 17 Iraqis dead, but they still operate. One employee, Nick Slatten, was originally found guilty of first-degree murder in 2015 and given a life sentence, but was able to successfully overturn the decision just two years later.

Moreover, PMCs’ crimes do not seem to damage their reputation or undermine future employment. In Yemen, the UAE hired the PMC Academi, (previously Blackwater) despite their war crimes in Iraq and the risk of such events happening in Yemen.

Meanwhile the UK military has its own problems. 1 in 10 soldiers are obese according to the Ministry of Defence, and they have struggled recruiting; their recent advert targeting gamers was accused of being crass by many and looked like desperation to some. Hiring PMCs might tempt politicians who favour expanding UK arms sales post-Brexit and create a vicious cycle of war-profiteering.

53 states have signed up to the 2008 Montreux Document written by the Swiss government and International Committee of the Red Cross to encourage good practices for regulating PMCs by improving transparency and adopting measures to improve supervision and accountability.

Ten years on, however, this is clearly not enough. Campaigning to abolish PMCs is the only effective means to tackle their threat to international security. Tabling a UN resolution calling for an international ban would be a good start. America, Russia and China may protest, but building international support may pressurise them.

The goal of abolishing PMCs is ambitious, but unless this issue is urgently addressed, countries like Saudi Arabia will continue to buy military power with devastating consequences.


Jack Clayton is a contributor for Progress, and has started a petition to call for the abolition of PMCs


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Jack Clayton

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