How UAE Mercenaries Serve Its Foreign Policy Ambitions

On February 12th the London-based Stoke and White law firm filed a legal case against UAE-hired mercenaries, accusing them of committing war crimes in southern Yemen. These complaints were filed to London’s Metropolitan Police, the US Department of Justice and Turkey’s Ministry of Justice on behalf of Yemeni journalists Abdullah Suliman Abdullah Daubalah and Salah Muslem Salem, detailing attempted assassinations against themselves and /or their families.

The case draws attention to the UAE’s increasing outsourcing of its military, mostly in Libya and Yemen. Abu Dhabi has come to rely on the growing and unregulated trend of utilizing mercenaries to carry out its foreign policy actions as it offers greater practical benefits than its own national forces. In Yemen for instance, the UAE employs most of the mercenaries operating in the Saudi-led coalition.

Mercenaries or ‘private militaries’ have reshaped regional and global conflicts as states have become increasingly reliant on them. After gaining independence during the 20th century, various Gulf monarchies hired former British soldiers to defend their regimes from insurgents and threats from the advances of socialism. More recently, the USA has grown increasingly dependent on mercenaries as a key part of its ‘war on terror’.

Though intended to protect US officials, the case of Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq in 2007, in which 17 unarmed civilians were killed and 24 were injured, highlights the potential negative consequences of this growing trend. Nonetheless, after withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, US contractors still retained such a key presence in these countries.

Meanwhile Russia has utilized mercenaries from the Wagner Group to fight in Syria, Libya and the Ukraine, and even NGOs have hired mercenaries to protect their operations, which shows just how far the reliance on private military companies has evolved. Even so, few regional actors have utilized mercenaries to the extent of the UAE.

In 2011 Abu Dhabi hired Erik Prince, who founded the notorious Blackwater company in 1997, to set up a private Emirati army called the Presidential Guard. It’s initial remit was to protect domestic oil pipelines and skyscrapers, counter internal dissent, and to partake in special operations. This new force was composed of South Africans, Sudanese Janjaweeds, Colombians and fighters from other nationalities and was commanded by a veteran Australian army officer, also hired by the UAE.

Abu Dhabi has been able to acquire ever more experienced mercenaries through Mohammad Dahlan, a security advisor to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the businessman who has been the connecting figure between the UAE and mercenary companies.

In Libya the warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) has been waging war on Libya’s capital Tripoli since April 2019, and the country has subsequently become awash with external fighters. The UAE, which has since 2014 delivered military equipment and air support to help Haftar consolidate control over eastern Libya, has also covertly supported his ongoing offensive with foreign fighters.

In January this year, Sudanese media reported that Abu Dhabi had hired local civilians with promises of lucrative security jobs in the UAE but had instead sent them to fight alongside Haftar’s LNA. Sudanese Janjaweed fighters were also hired to bolster Haftar’s offenses, with previous reports indicating that the UAE was sending thousands of Sudanese mercenaries to fight alongside the LNA. Such secretive but substantial Emirati backing of Haftar aims to help his forces secure a victory over the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

This echoes Abu Dhabi’s policies in Yemen where, since 2015, it has hired mercenaries from Latin and Central America, including Colombia, El Salvador, Chile and Panama for the anti-Houthi campaign. Its Presidential Guard has supported its efforts in Yemen. Other African mercenaries have played a key role in strengthening Emirati forces in Yemen, particularly those from Chad and Eritrea.

Furthermore, a Buzzfeed investigation showing the UAE had hired former US navy seals to assassinate leaders of Yemen’s al Islah Party (which the UAE considers tied to the Muslim Brotherhood) highlighted Abu Dhabi’s wider aims to forcibly control the south and eliminate opposition forces. Mercenaries have also been deployed to Yemen’s remote island of Socotra to shore up the UAE’s military presence there, in order to secure its own maritime trade across the Indian Ocean.

The use of mercenaries has helped the UAE avoid scrutiny over its regional actions. In June 2019 when it staged a withdrawal from Yemen amid growing scrutiny over the ongoing war, there were multiple reports of the UAE retaining mercenaries in the south of Yemen. One such example was the presence of at least 10,000 Sudanese fighters at the Assab base.  While Saudi Arabia’s overt bombing campaign in Yemen has attracted more international attention, as have other countries’ roles in Libya, the UAE has shown itself capable of avoiding the spotlight by employing humanitarianism and proxy forces.

The UAE has often presented its foreign policy as strictly humanitarian whilst not being transparent about the details, which has helped its forces slip under the radar. Furthermore, the UAE has highlighted its military cooperation with the USA. And as it has relied on US mercenaries and companies, this has also granted it further impunity.

In terms of practical benefits, the UAE is a wealthy and rapidly developing country, with an assertive foreign policy which had earned it the title “Little Sparta” from former US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed has developed a country with a majority expat population and abundant wealth to pursue its ambitious military aims without relying on its own limited national forces.

For other sectors it has similarly relied on established expertise. For example, the UAE has also recruited experienced Israeli security advisors to reinforce its cyber-security capabilities sector. Relying on battle-hardened fighters enables Abu Dhabi to quickly secure its regionwide influence, as its own forces are limited in experience. As with other sectors, Abu Dhabi seeks to benefit from cheaper labour from poorer countries, such as Sudan where civilians experience economic hardship and still receive tiny monthly salaries from the UAE.

Though in the long-term the UAE has indicated it seeks to develop more sovereign military capabilities, mercenaries have enabled it to rapidly expand its own influence in the meantime. Such benefits are enabling Abu Dhabi to outmanoeuvre its close but contentious ally Saudi Arabia in various regional affairs, and to position itself as a future regional force in Yemen, Libya, the Horn of Africa and further afield.