By Saltanat Berdikeeva
A recent revelation about a UAE-based security firm involved in deceiving thousands of young Sudanese men into protecting UAE’s oil interests and fighting its wars in Libya and Yemen drew angry protests in Sudan.
The Sudanese revolution that deposed the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir in September 2019, after months of protests, was a liberating and euphoric outcome for the Sudanese people. However, this African country of 40 million remains politically divided and unstable.
Its economy is in crisis with shortages of essential goods, low pay, rising prices, and a high unemployment rate. Against this background, the promise of jobs as security guards in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with an enticing salary of more than $2,000 USD, became a draw for thousands of young Sudanese men. UAE-based security company, Black Shields, served as a recruiter.
After arriving in the UAE, however, the young recruits found out that they were to get months-long military training to protect Emirati oilfields in Libya and facilities in Yemen against their will.
Black Shields confiscated their personal belongings, including passports and mobile phones. Some of the Sudanese men were given options to go to Libya or Yemen, yet the company rejected their demands to return them back to Sudan.
As sub-contractors for Black Shields, Sudanese travel agencies appropriated millions in Sudanese pounds from young people who responded to advertisements to work in the UAE. Reportedly, close to 3,000 Sudanese men were lured to protect Emirati oil interests in Libya.
Around 50 Sudanese youths returned home, largely thanks to the exposure of the problem on social media, but many still remain in Libya.
Libya and Yemen have been collectively mired in civil wars for six years. External powers, such as the UAE, support warring factions in both conflicts.
The UAE backs Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who has been fighting in the capital city of Tripoli to expel the UN-recognized Libyan government.
According to a report from the United Nations last year, there were about 1,000 Sudanese soldiers in Benghazi in eastern Libya.
According to a report from the United Nations (UN) last year, there were about 1,000 Sudanese soldiers in Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Reportedly, they were meant to guard Emirati oil infrastructure to free up Haftar’s militiamen so the latter could advance their offensive in Tripoli against government forces.
The UN condemned UAE’s recruitment of Sudanese militiamen to help Haftar in a 2019 report by the International Sanctions Committee on Libya. Sudanese forces have also fought alongside a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015.
The revelations of the UAE’s deceitful recruitment of Sudanese men to conflict zones in Libya and Yemen were met with angry protests in Sudan. Protesters launched a social media campaign against the UAE’s policies in Sudan.
Demonstrators whose family members were still in Libya and Yemen demanded this January that the Sudanese transitional government intervene and return the young men from the war-torn countries.
The country’s Minister of Information, Faisal Mohamed Saleh, stated that the Sudanese government would investigate the situation.
He also said “the UAE has been asked to immediately respond to Sudan’s demand to return the Sudanese who want to return to their country voluntarily.”
According to a statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, it held intense discussions with the UAE on the matter, but stressed that it “would not affect the ties between the two countries.”
Young men who managed to return to Sudan demanded from the Emirati embassy in Khartoum that Black Shields be held to account. Black Shields denied the accusations of deception and threatened to take legal actions against the accusers.
Apart from funding and equipping local militia groups in Libya and Yemen, hiring (and coercing) foreign mercenaries to fight proxy wars to advance its geopolitical interests has become the UAE’s useful foreign policy tool in recent years.
Abu Dhabi allegedly bankrolled thousands of young Arab tribesmen in Chad and Niger to fight in Yemen as Emirati soldiers.
Abu Dhabi allegedly bankrolled thousands of young Arab tribesmen in Chad and Niger to fight in Yemen as Emirati soldiers. The recruitment methods in those countries were similar to the ones used in Sudan.
Young people were promised jobs in UAE security firms for a handsome salary, on top of the possibility of getting UAE citizenship. After discovering the deception, activists in Chad started an online campaign to warn young people about the scam.
Recently, Turkey criticized the UAE for financing Russian mercenary groups in Libya fighting on the side of Haftar.
The UAE has not only exploited the poverty and unemployment of young people in African countries and dragged them into fighting its proxy wars, but also an equal opportunity outsourcing of war fighting to foreign mercenaries has become a feature of the UAE’s military agenda.
American and Australian former servicemen have served as either military commanders of the UAE armed forces or its mercenary fighters.
The notorious American Blackwater mercenary group, headed by Erik Prince, brother of the current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, was involved in establishing a paramilitary army for the UAE in 2010, which aimed to crackdown on any pro-democracy civil disobedience efforts.
The UAE also recruited and used former American intelligence employees to hack phones and computers of foreign governments, militia groups, vocal human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents. Fearing human rights activists and domestic critics in particular after the Arab Spring, the UAE began to actively target them.
The UAE also recruited and used former American intelligence employees to hack phones and computers of foreign governments, militia groups, vocal human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents.
Although the UAE assured its paid American intelligence operatives that they would be part of protecting the country’s government from cyber threats, in reality these Americans have been helping target the UAE’s enemies and citizens by hacking and gathering information on them, including teenagers who criticized the Emirati authorities on social media.
Much like military mercenaries who do not fear repercussions for their actions, even if they commit war crimes, because of their obscure roles and responsibilities, hired American spies were content to go after human rights activists and journalists who criticized the UAE authorities.
In the end, experienced former American intelligence operatives helped establish a secret surveillance unit in the UAE, which is bound to grow its intelligence-gathering capabilities and target anyone, even foreign journalists and news outlets, who criticizes the sheikhdom.
With its growing military ambitions, the UAE is likely to increase its reliance on foreign mercenaries given its small population. It is already involved in wars in Libya and Yemen.
It built military bases in Eritrea and Yemen. And it has planned to set up a base in Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous region of Somalia, which later became a civilian airport. As it is, the UAE already runs ports in four countries along the Red Sea coast.
The only way to counter the UAE’s expansion of hired mercenaries, involvement in war crimes, and violations of human rights—including trafficking of vulnerable and poor young Sudanese men to fight its foreign wars, is persistent media exposure and condemnation by the international community.
Saltanat Berdikeeva is a consultant and writer whose work on energy and security issues in Eurasia, the Middle East, and the U.S. has been published extensively. Her articles have been featured in Energy Digital, European Energy Review, National Geographic, Platts, Oil and Gas Journal, Insight Turkey, ISN, local newspapers, and other publications.