The Yemeni Civil War, which started as a conflict between President Abdrabbuh Munsar Hadi’s government and Houthi revolutionaries, has become a magnet for external actors from around the world. A Saudi-led coalition consisting of the United States, France, and other countries supports Hadi’s government, while Iran backs the Houthi rebels. Nations representing both sides have poured billions of dollars of resources and thousands of men and women into the conflict, but recent findings have begun to reveal that there is another type of actor which is extraordinarily prominent: foreign mercenaries (Isenberg 2018).
These mercenaries come from all over the world. A majority have been hired by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and come from Colombia, Panama, Sudan, Eritrea, and Nepal. The Colombian and Panamanian forces of nearly 1,400 soldiers are composed primarily of expatriate military personnel specially trained in guerilla warfare (The Economist 2015, Cole 2019). Additionally, Sudan has reportedly sent over 1,000 privately recruited soldiers, Eritrea has received payment for embedding nearly 400 troops in UAE forces, and an unknown, smaller number of Nepalese soldiers have been discovered within UAE units (The Economist 2015). Notably, many of the Colombian, Sudanese, and Nepalese soldiers are believed to have been trained by the Israeli government, which presumably would also like to see any Iranian influence in the Middle East suppressed. Many of these soldiers are receiving nearly three to four times as much in wages as they would be if they were employed by their native country’s military (Bar’el 2019).
The UAE has also hired more small-scale, elite mercenary forces. One such force was a small outfit led by Israeli mercenary Avraham Golan, who formed a team of elite American and French ex-soldiers hired by the Emiratis to carry out assassinations (Pratt 2018, Roston 2018). Golan is the head of Spear Operations Group, an American-registered private military group headquartered in Delaware. The team’s assigned targets were prominent Islamist clerics and political figures such as Anssaf Ali-Mayo, a well-known Islamist cleric and member of the Al-Islah party (Roston 2018). Golan and Spear Operations Group have no official ties to either the American or Israeli governments, although some have suggested that the CIA may have been aware of the group’s activities. The group may have violated the United States Neutrality Act, and some believe its practices went against warfare norms. Though mercenaries from the US are required to receive a license from the State Department to export their services, Spear reportedly did not obtain one (Avant 2018).
Meanwhile, brokers representing Saudi Arabia are hiring Yemenis living far from the front lines and not already employed as members of the official Yemeni military to join the fight to defend the Saudi border. These private soldiers earn a much higher wage than they would if they were members of the official Yemeni army, but they receive far less training and are generally placed closer to the front lines and in vulnerable positions. Many receive as little as 40 weeks of training and are required to fight for at least six months. Saudi soldiers, on the other hand, lie farther back and launch airstrikes and ground-to-ground missile attacks from safer positions. Yemeni mercenaries have been placed along key Saudi-Yemeni border towns such as Najran, Dharan, and Kbhash (Middle East Eye 2019).
Though the increase in sheer numbers benefits the Saudi coalition, the massively varying backgrounds of the privately hired soldiers has led some experts to believe that coordination for pro-Hadi forces will grow increasingly complex and prone to failure. Activity coordination between troops from such a variety of countries (many whose citizens often do not speak Arabic) leads experts to believe field miscommunications and discord could become more prevalent among UAE forces (The Economist 2015). Such complications could drag out what is already one of the greatest crises of the 21st century.
The UAE, as a major supplier of mercenaries, may actually benefit from an extended war. The UAE has very little to lose by employing foreign mercenaries and extending the conflict. By doing so, they could further drain Iranian resources dedicated to maintaining Houthi strength, continue to make their own presence felt throughout the Gulf by opening new military bases and expanding the reach of their navy, and hold a constant bargaining chip against the Saudi government. The UAE believes it can dangle coalition support in front of the Saudis in exchange for efforts by the Saudi government to lessen the influence of certain Islamist parties, particularly those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, which the UAE sees as dangerous and threatening (Patrick 2017). Extension of the war seems to be allowing the UAE to expand its military presence around the Arabian Peninsula and to accomplish its foreign policy goals in the region. It appears that further privatization of the Yemeni Civil War does not necessarily mean a more rapid conclusion to the conflict.
Avant, Deborah. 2018. “Former U.S. Special Forces were reportedly hired to kill Yemen’s leaders. Did the government know?” Washington Post. October 19. Accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/10/19/former-u-s-special-forces-were-reportedly-hired-to-kill-yemens-leaders-did-the-government-know/?utm_term=.6055b5e950a5
Bar’el, Zvi. 2019. “Yemen’s War Is a Mercenary Heaven. Are Israelis Reaping the Profits?” Hareetz. 17 February. Accessed at https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-yemen-s-war-is-a-mercenary-heaven-are-israelis-reaping-the-profits-1.6938348
Cole, Matthew. 2019. “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.” The Intercept. 3 May. Accessed at https://theintercept.com/2019/05/03/erik-prince-trump-uae-project-veritas/
Isenberg, David. 2018. “he UAE In Yemen: With a Lot of Help From Its Mercs.” The New Arab. 20 June. Accessed at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2018/6/20/the-uae-in-yemen-with-help-from-its-mercs
Middle East Eye. 2019. “Drawn by Saudi cash, Yemeni mercenaries are left high and dry.” Middle East Eye. 12 February. Accessed at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/drawn-saudi-cash-yemeni-mercenaries-are-left-high-and-dry
Patrick, Neil. 2017. “The UAE’s War Aims in Yemen.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 24 October. Accessed at https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/73524
Pratt, Simon Frankel. 2018. “What Should We Make of Elite American Mercenaries in Yemen.” War on the Rocks. 28 October. Accessed at https://warontherocks.com/2018/10/what-should-we-make-of-elite-american-mercenaries-in-yemen/
Roston, Aram. 2018. “A Middle East Monarchy Hired American Ex-Soldiers To Kill Its Political Enemies. This Could Be The Future Of War.” Buzzfeed. 16 October. Accessed at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/aramroston/mercenaries-assassination-us-yemen-uae-spear-golan-dahlan
The Economist. 2015. “UAE deploys mercenaries in Yemen.” 30 November. Accessed at http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=733721457&Country=Eritrea&topic=Politics&subt opic=Forecast&subsubtopic=International+relations