Fortune Favors the Desert Sons: UAE Mercenaries in Yemen and Libya 

Since 2011, the UAE has regularly resorted to using mercenaries to wage its wars in Libya and Yemen. Its small population of 2.7 million leaves it unable to recruit enough troops. It is also risk averse in deploying them abroad where casualties for an unsupported cause are unacceptable to the population. Hence, the oil-rich state started hiring contract soldiers from abroad to fight for it in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

This leads to a rather strange situation. Colombians hired by an Abu Dhabi based company employed by the UAE are fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The involvement of Erik Prince, the controversial ex-founder of Blackwater, should hardly come as a surprise at this point. Especially given his role as a mercenary captain for the UAE. These mercenaries have manifested in multiple different organisations and groups with their own operating procedures/character. (Source

The most notable are as follows:

  • Reflex Response Security Consultants (Headed by Erik Prince and filled with ex-Colombian special forces)
  • Spear Operations Group (Delaware-based company led by a Hungarian-Israeli Abraham Golon, specialised in targeted assassinations)
  • Black Shield Security (Involved in a forced conscription scandal tricking Sudanese migrants with misleading jobs)
  • Bundeswehr mercenary scandal

This all goes to show that the privatisation/globalisation of warfare had come to the middle east. Allowing a wealthy nation with a small population the ability to project force abroad and pursue its own goals. With the increasingly privatised nature of warfare globally, the UAE in Yemen and Libya is an excellent case study to examine. Furthermore, with the breakdown of peace in Yemen recently we are likely to see more mercenaries in Yemen in the foreseeable future.

UAE Mercenaries smile for the camera

2. Reflex Response Security Consultants:

Erik Prince found reflex Response Security Consultants after selling the infamous Blackwater to escape controversy. The UAE government hired R2 in 2011, and they gave Prince a $529 million budget to create an army. This force was created mainly by hiring Colombian ex-special forces operators and has played a large role in the Yemen Civil War. (Source)

2.1. History of Erik Prince

Erik Prince is a controversial figure who has served as a prime advocate of the complete privatisation of war. He sold Blackwater PMC in 2010 for $200 million after various atrocities committed in Iraq tainted the brand. Also, he has been accused of trying to set up a back channel between Trump and Putin.

Moreover, Prince Suggested the privatisation of the Afghanistan War under Trump and has pushed for a coup in Venezuela. (Source) Most recently, Price was involved in a scandal because of one of his companies, Frontier Services Group, stating they are building a training base in Xinjiang in cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (Source)

Erik Prince speaking at a Miller Center gathering on April 15, 2015.

2.2. Organisation of Reflex Response Security Consultants

Since the start of the civil war in Yemen, R2 has hired over 1,800 ex-Colombian military personnel with salaries tripled from their previous jobs. They enter the country under the guise of construction workers before being hired by R2 to fight in Yemen. (Source) Although R2 also hires various other nationalities besides Colombian, Columbians are ultimately preferred. (Source)

Using Colombians and other South American troops in the middle East has several advantages. First, it is more palatable to Middle Eastern employers as it circumvents western boots on the ground. (Source) second, troops from South America are highly experienced, having often been trained by the CIA/US as part of the War on Drugs. In particular, Colombian troops have decades of experience fighting FARC in the jungle. (Source) Third, because of poor post career prospects and meagre pensions, countries like the UAE can hire multiple experienced Colombians for the same cost as one American. (Source)

Furthermore, the use of contractors allows the UAE to fill its military out while also pleasing its domestic Emirati population by keeping the risk to them low. Originally, the contractors worked as domestic security. As long as they were paid, they were more loyal than Emiratis, but since 2011 have been deployed to Yemen. (Source

Colombian Soldiers pose for a photo

3. Spear Operations Group

Spear Operations Group is a Delaware-based US Private Military Company founded by the Hungarian Israeli Abraham Golan. It was approached in 2015 to carry out targeted assassinations for the UAE government as part of the Yemen civil war, a clear violation of the 1996 war crimes act. (Source) A former Palestinian Security Services official Mohammed Dahman serves the UAE as a consultant because of his close links with PMC’s and was partly responsible for the hiring of Spear Operations Group.

3.1 Organisation of Spear Operations Group

Unlike R2, the Spear Operations group was a scalpel for killing opposition leaders and assassinating political opponents in Yemen. As a result, it was much smaller than R2 only comprising 12 members. However, all of them were ex-French Foreign Legion officers or ex-US special forces.

Even within the group there was tension as they only paid the French officers $10,000 a month, half of their US counterparts wages. Golan claims he organised the unit around Israeli assassination tactics. (Source) Also, UAE forces equipped them with low-quality Chinese assault rifles and RPGs to maintain deniability. (Source)

3.2 Spear Operations Group Known Operations

In 2015, the UAE gave Spear Operations Group $1.5 million a month to liquidate opposition members in Yemen. Once Golan recruited his team, he travelled to the UAE where they were transported on UAE military aircraft to Yemen. The UAE gave them a list of 23 names with photos attached of individuals to kill.

The group decided that bombing the Al-Islah headquarters in Aden would be the most efficient because of their first target being the leader of this opposition group, Anssaf Ali Mayo. (Source) The mercenaries were given ranks in the UAE army to try to skirt around any legal implications before the mission.

There was drone footage of the operation beginning on the 29th of December 2015. This footage showed the team of mercenaries being escorted to the target building by UAE military vehicles. (Source) The team set a bomb on the front door of the party headquarters and escaped in the chaos surrounding the explosion. There was apparently gunfire exchanged, but no evidence of anyone returning fire at the team. They returned without a confirmed kill on the target, therefore, making the operation a failure. However, the team still stuck around in Yemen afterwards, engaging in targeted assassinations. (Source)

Spear Operations Group members stand in front of UAE military aircraft being used to transport them to Aden, Middle right is Abraham Golan

3.3 Mohammed Dahman

Mohammed Dahman is a former Palestinian Security Services member and ex-leader of the Palestinian Fatah party. The UAE employed him as a security advisor because of his close relationships with PMC groups. He allegedly handles the agreement with Golan for the Spear Operations Group to assassinate members of the Al-Islah party in Yemen. (Source) However, since then has fallen out with his UAE patrons because of alleged collaborating with the CIA and Israel. Which when one takes into consideration the makeup of the Spear Operations Group, he did. (Source)

Dahman also allegedly set up and supervised many mercenary training sites in the occupied Negev area of Palestine, which were deliberately chosen to train Colombian and Nepalese mercenaries because of the terrain being like Yemen’s. Also, the mercenaries were allegedly receiving training from officers of the IDF. (Source)

4. Black Shield Security/Sudanese exploitation

Black Shield Security is a US firm based in the UAE. It allegedly tricked young Sudanese men to come to the UAE with offers of high paying security guard jobs. When they arrived, they were sent to military training camps before being deployed to Yemen or Libya. (Source)

Over 15,000 Sudanese mercenaries are serving in Yemen and Libya, with many of them predicted to be children. (Source) Both the UAE and Black Shield Security are accused of breaking the UN arms embargo on Libya by sending weapons and Sudanese mercenaries to the Libyan National Army. (Source)

The Sudanese paramilitary group Rapid Support Force (RSF) has been accused of taking sizeable sums to recruit poor citizens and send them to Yemen. (Source) RSF group has profited $350 million so far from its involvement in Yemen. (Source)

Consequently, Sudanese lawyers have vowed to take action against the UAE government over the scandal. (Source)

5. Bundeswehr mercenary scandal

On the 24th of October 2022, two former Bundeswehr soldiers received suspended prison sentences for attempting to create a mercenary force. This was to include those who are serving and ex Bundeswehr troops to take part in Yemen. (Source) The goal of the group was to take land for the UAE-Saudi coalition. They were also to be paid over $40,000 a month for their services. (Source) All of this goes to show that the UAE in Yemen has encouraged a state of free for all for soldiers of fortune.

6. Other Mercenaries in Yemen

There are a myriad of other smaller mercenary groups serving in Yemen currently showing how far the privatisation of the war has gone. The UAE Saudi Coalition has also agreed a deal to use Eritrean airspace to launch airstrikes on Yemen. (Source) Over 400 Eritrean troops are also believed to have signed up as part of the UAE forces in Yemen. (Source)

Furthermore, up to 1000 Pakistani mercenaries are serving in Yemen, despite Islamabad voting not to participate in the operation. (Source)

The UAE-Saudi coalition also hired as militia many Yemeni nationals, demonstrating how the UAE aims to fight wars without its own citizens’ involvement. Indeed, US mercenaries are also present in command positions, such as with Stephen Toumajan – a retired US officer who ran a breast enhancement service before being hired to the elated position of Major General commander of the UAE Joint Aviation Command Yemen. (Source)

7. Summary

With the recent breakdown of the truce in Yemen, mercenaries serving the coalition in Yemen are likely to come into the spotlight. The UAE is likely to keep utilising mercenaries to make its military operations abroad palatable to its domestic population, particularly if the UAE wants to keep expanding its position as one of the most prominent military powers in the Middle East. Given the lack of nations that supported the 2001 UN Mercenary Convention, it is likely the future holds much more for these soldiers of fortune.

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