By Hiba Zayadin
Between September and November 2019, Black Shield Security Services recruited more than 390 Sudanese men who thought they were coming to work as security guards in the UAE.
Huddled alongside dozens of other Sudanese men at a military base in the desert one chilly January night this year, “Amer” had no idea where he was – just that he was many miles away from where he had planned to be.
It wasn’t until he and his fellow Sudanese workers noticed the labels on the water bottles, he said, that they realized they had unwittingly been brought to war-torn Libya.
Amer’s journey from his hometown of Khartoum to Libya had begun four months earlier, when the 29-year-old traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), expecting to work as a security guard in the air-conditioned skyscrapers or cavernous malls of the capital, Abu Dhabi.
But from the day he arrived in September 2019, Amer had grown increasingly uneasy about Black Shield Security Services, the Emirati security services company that hired him.
His passport and phone were taken away. He was required to undergo a months-long military training. And he was kept in the dark about where he and hundreds of other Sudanese recruits would eventually be posted.
Despite his nagging doubts, Amer never imagined the company would drop him and about 270 other Sudanese workers onto a military base in Libya, a country in conflict where governance remains divided between two opposing entities: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya that is affiliated with the UAE-backed armed group known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
Amer and the other men were transported to, and housed in, a delapidated military compound in the eastern Libyan town of Ras Lanuf. The town is located in the so-called oil crescent, a strip along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sirte where four of Libya’s six oil terminals are located and through which more than 50 percent of its crude oil exports leave the country.
In the compound, the Sudanese men lived alongside Libyan fighters aligned with the LAAF under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar.
They were told they would guard the surrounding oil facilities the LAAF controlled. Since 2016, the oil crescent has seen multiple offensives by rival forces seeking to control the region and its oil supply, each causing deaths and extensive material damage.
As of September 2020, General Hiftar’s forces retain control of the region and the oil terminals that they seized in January 2020.
A map pinpointing key oil facilities in Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya, and their close proximity to a military compound used by the LAAF to accommodate Sudanese employees of Emirati company Black Shield Security Services.
Amer and the other Sudanese men, whose names we have changed to protect their identities, experienced several exploitative recruitment practices and migrant labor abuses commonly faced by migrant workers in the UAE and the wider Gulf region.
What appears to be unusual in their case is that the deception they were subjected to ultimately put them at risk of becoming potential military targets in a country embroiled in a years-long civil war, in what could amount to a violation of international humanitarian law.
Our investigation into their plight highlights just one example of the UAE’s pernicious involvement in foreign conflicts, which includes funneling vast amounts of money and weapons to abusive local armed groups in Yemen and Libya and hiring foreign fighters to help wage its proxy wars in the region.
In the last five years alone, UAE-led proxy forces have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured Yemenis in south and east Yemen, including Yemeni activists who have criticized coalition abuses.
In October 2019, a Buzzfeed investigation claimed the UAE hired former American soldiers to kill prominent clerics and Islamist political figures in Yemen in a targeted assassination campaign.
And in what seems eerily reminiscent of the findings of our investigation, unverified reports emerged in 2018 of Chadians being recruited for jobs with Emirati security companies in the UAE and then being sent to fight in Yemen.
Even before the ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the UAE pumped billions of dollars into Sudan in exchange for the struggling country’s participation in the UAE and Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Since 2015, Sudan has sent troops to Yemen, including members of its paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, known for their abuses in Darfur.
In Libya, the UAE is one of three countries that have routinely and systematically violated a 2011 United Nations arms embargo, according to UN experts’ reports.
The UAE supplies weapons and ammunition to General Hiftar’s armed group, has a forward operating base in eastern Libya, and operates armed drones in support of General Hiftar.
Since April 2019, it has conducted more than 850 drone and jet strikes on the general’s behalf, killing scores of people.
Foreign fighters from Sudan and Chad, fighters from a private security company affiliated with Russia’s Kremlin, and Syrian fighters backed by Russia also reportedly support General Hiftar’s armed group.
According to the Sudan Panel of Experts report, in 2019, Darfurian rebel groups significantly increased their military capability in Libya, including in the oil crescent area to support the LAAF with large scale recruitment and acquisition of equipment.
As of October 2020, the UAE has not addressed the allegations made against it by the Sudanese men.
In a statement that news reports attributed to Black Shield, and which circulated on social media in late January 2020, the company denied all allegations of deceiving its workers regarding the nature or location of the work and stressed that it does not engage in any services or actions of a military nature.
So how did Amer and hundreds of other men like him, who left their struggling country to secure well-paying jobs in the presumably safe and wealthy UAE, find themselves rubbing shoulders with battle-weary Libyan fighters in conflict-ridden Libya?
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone or in person 12 Sudanese recruits who traveled to the UAE, including Amer and three others who applied to Black Shield Security Services through local Sudanese recruitment agencies but didn’t go.
We reviewed Black Shield Security Services documents provided to us by those we interviewed and published on social media platforms, as well as photographs and videos taken by the men in the UAE and Ras Lanuf.
We also gathered publicly available information on the company and those affiliated with it. We wrote to representatives of Black Shield, the Emirati Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the LAAF in September 2020 to inquire about the allegations brought by the Sudanese men, but did not receive a response from any at the time of publication.
For Amer, it all began, unremarkably enough, in the fall of 2019 in Khartoum. He told Human Rights Watch that he heard about well-paying security guard positions that were opening up in the UAE and being recruited for in Sudan.
He applied through one of two local recruitment agencies, submitted his passport, and paid 12,000 Sudanese pounds ($US266 at the time) in recruitment fees.
He expected to be posted in malls, hospitals, hotels, or at the entrance of embassies or government buildings. Within days, the recruitment agency had his work visa ready and a plane ticket to Abu Dhabi for September 22, 2019.
He was not presented with a job offer letter nor an employment contract while still in Sudan, which, unbeknown to him, violates a 2015 UAE regulation that prohibits a foreign worker from entering the country without having first signed an employment offer that conforms to a Standard Labor Ministry employment contract.
“I was a little worried and confused from the very beginning,” Amer said, recalling his first day in the UAE.
Upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport, Amer said that he and more than 40 other Sudanese men who had traveled with him were met by two Emirati men who introduced themselves as representatives of Black Shield Security Services, the company for which they had come to work.
Immediately, the company representatives confiscated the mens’ passports – a pervasive practice that the UAE has officially prohibited since 2002.
The men then boarded buses and were taken to a compound in the city of Ghiyathi, about 300 kilometers to the east.
“I only saw my passport again the day they sent me back to Sudan [over 5 months later],” Amer said.
Over the next few weeks, more Sudanese men arrived at the military compound, but company representatives were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Amer said, men who introduced themselves as members of the Emirati Armed Forces gave them military uniforms, confiscated their phones – only giving the phones back for a few hours each week – and told them they would undergo security training for at least eight weeks.
“Starting mid-November, they taught us [military] field skills, battle drills, the army crawl, and many other things that had nothing to do with a security guard job,” Amer said.
“We trained to use all types of weaponry, the Kalashnikov, machine guns, RPGs, and mortars. We were taught how to disassemble and assemble the weaponry, how to use hand grenades, and how to shoot at targets.”
What Amer and the others didn’t know at the time was that to become security guards in the UAE, they only needed to complete a five-day basic security training course with an institute approved by the Ministry of Interior or the General Directorate of Police, successfully pass an exam, and get the required license.
The UAE’s law on private security companies also prohibits employees from carrying firearms and mandates they wear uniforms distinctly dissimilar from the uniforms of the armed forces and the police.
Amer and his fellow Sudanese migrant workers had many questions: Why were they at a military compound?
Why were security guards being trained to use a Kalashnikov? Where were the company representatives?
And what purpose did Black Shield Security Services really hire them for?
Like Amer, all the men interviewed described experiencing exploitative recruitment practices that put them at risk of human trafficking and forced labor, and which violate domestic and international standards on migrant workers’ rights.
None had signed contracts while still in Sudan, and all were falsely told they would become security guards in the UAE.
Those interviewed said they paid between 10,000 and 20,000 Sudanese pounds (between US$190-390) in recruitment fees, while one man said he paid 50,000 ($960) and another 65,000 Sudanese pounds ($1250).
None received receipts for the payments they made. In violation of both UAE law and international labor standards, all those who traveled to the UAE for the jobs said they had their passports confiscated upon arrival.
Besides being registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development as both a sole proprietorship and a limited liability company and listed on the Government of Abu Dhabi’s website as a security services company established in 2019, Black Shield appears to have left no other trace of its existence online.
According to job contracts reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the company is owned by Daien Saif Muaded al-Kaabi, an Emirati man described in a 2012 local news article as a colonel in the armed forces.
To continue in Part 2
Hiba Zayadin – Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division