The crown prince of Abu Dhabi has hired the founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide to set up an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the United Arab Emirates, the New York Times reported Sunday.
The Times said it obtained documents that showed that the unit being formed by Erik Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, with $529 million from the UAE would be used to thwart internal revolt, conduct special operations and defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from attacks.
The newspaper said the UAE’s decision to hire the contingent of foreign troops was taken before a wave of popular unrest spread across the Arab world in recent months, including to neighboring Bahrain and Oman.
The UAE has not experienced any serious unrest. Most of its population is made up of foreign workers.
Blackwater, which once had lucrative contracts to protect U.S. officials in Iraq, became notorious in the region in 2007 after its guards opened fire in Baghdad traffic, killing at least 14 people in what the Iraqi government called a “massacre.”
One former Blackwater guard pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in those killings, and a U.S. court reinstated charges against five others last month. Prince has since sold the company, which changed its name to Xe Services. It denies wrongdoing.
The Times said the UAE, a close ally of the United States, had some support in Washington for Prince’s new project, although it was not clear whether it had official U.S. approval.
Two UAE government officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment on the Times report, and the U.S. Embassy in the UAE also did not comment. Prince could not be reached for comment.
The Times quoted a U.S. official who was aware of the program as saying: “The gulf countries, and the U.A.E. in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the Times that the department was investigating whether the project broke any U.S. laws. U.S. law requires a license for American citizens to train foreign troops.
Toner also pointed out that Blackwater had paid $42 million in fines last year for training foreign forces in Jordan without a license, the Times said.
According to former employees of the program and U.S. officials cited by the Times, the troops were brought to a training camp in the UAE from Colombia, South Africa and other countries, starting in the summer of 2010.
They were being trained by retired U.S. military personnel and former members of German and British special operations units and the French Foreign Legion, the Times said.
Prince had insisted that the force hire no Muslims, because they “could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims,” the paper said.