Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?
Pakistan has been deploying its own military to the region for decades. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets in combat and 15,000 soldiers were stationed in the kingdom during the turbulent 1970s and 80s. Personnel were also sent to train the militaries of numerous emerging Arab states which lacked the necessary experience and knowledge, and a force was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Pakistan’s strong Islamic identity and need for nearby strategic and economic partners has driven these commitments, and the resulting shared history and institutional links has forged close bonds between states and militaries alike.
However, the strongest flow of Pakistani power to the region is now unofficial and largely unnoticed, with many Pakistanis travelling to the peninsula of their own volition and donning the uniform of Arab countries.
One intriguing case is the recruitment of young men from Pakistan’s Balochistan Province into the Royal Army of Oman. The origins of the arrangement can be traced back to 1784 when Oman, then a significant colonial power, gained possession of the Gwadar region in what is now Balochistan’s Southwestern corner. Many Baloch people migrated to Oman and have played an important part in Omani history since that time. In 1958, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$3 million. The deal included permission for Oman to continue recruiting soldiers from Balochistan. The practice continues to this day with thousands applying for each intake, eager for opportunities which are hard to find in their underdeveloped region.
A more recent phenomenon is the influx of former Pakistani soldiers into the armed forces of Bahrain. The tiny gulf state suffers from internal conflict caused by a rift between its Shia majority and Sunni ruling elite, and has struggled to restore order. Lacking qualified personnel, its government has relied on Pakistan since 2011. Pakistani military foundations publicly advertise positions and up to 2,500 Pakistanis have joined Bahrain’s special forces, national guard and riot police, where they now comprise 30 per cent of the security services. Conditions are dangerous and many have been killed, but with pay exceeding US$1,140 a month it remains an attractive prospect when compared to Pakistan’s average of $162.
Several other countries on the Arabian Peninsula employ Pakistani soldiers. The majority of Qatar’s army comprises foreign soldiers, many of whom are Pakistani. Pakistanis are also recruited into the armed forces of the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where entire battalions consist of Pakistani manpower.
Why are Pakistani soldiers in such high demand in these countries?
The Arab countries desperately need effective soldiers. The combined population of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE is just 53 million, compared to the 79 million of Iran which some consider a major threat. Many of them have vast areas to defend as well as regional ambitions, and they simply can’t recruit enough soldiers. On top of this, their armies have notoriously poor records in combat which is ascribed to a lack of experience and cultural difficulties.
On the other hand, Pakistan has a large population and extensive military experience. Its army benefits from lessons learned during conventional wars with India, and modern soldiers have fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against extremists and achieved considerable success. The knowledge and skills this has produced is a valuable commodity and sorely needed in the region. This is demonstrated by the appointment of Pakistan’s previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander of the beleaguered Saudi-led forces currently battling rebels in Yemen.
Low wages in Pakistan allow the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula to easily attract recruits. Religious considerations also factor in. As a Sunni-majority country, Pakistan provides soldiers who easily assimilate and provoke none of the outrage that US soldiers do. They are also neutral in potentially volatile tribal politics.
It is unusual for a country to allow so many of its citizens to join foreign armies. But for one in an awkward position such as Pakistan, it is a convenient arrangement. Pakistan needs good relations with stable Arab countries. However, it must also avoid provoking its influential neighbor Iran by giving its rivals too much support. Pakistan must walk a tightrope to maintain relations with both. By exporting soldiers in an unofficial capacity, the government manages this by having a tangible impact on security in the Arabian Peninsula while also avoiding the political ramifications that excessively deploying its own forces would entail.