UAE Sends over 400 Colombian Mercenaries to Fight Houthis in Yemen

Wael Qubady/AP
Wael Qubady/AP

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a member of a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia, has deployed to Yemen more than 400 Colombian mercenaries who had been training in the Emirati desert to combat Iran-linked Shiite rebels known as Houthis, reports the New York Times (NYT).

The NYT reports, “The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.”

The Colombian troops sent to Yemen were reportedly “handpicked” from a brigade of some 1,800 former Latin American soldiers who were being trained somewhere in the Emirati desert.

They were deployed to Yemen in the middle of the night last month, notes the Times, adding that they “were later issued dog tags and ranks in the Emirati military. Those left behind are now being trained to use grenade launchers and armored vehicles that Emirati troops are currently using in Yemen.”

“Emirati officials have made a point of recruiting Colombian troops over other Latin American soldiers because they consider the Colombians more battle tested in guerrilla warfare, having spent decades battling gunmen of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the jungles of Colombia,” adds the report.

The NYT points out that the exact mission of the Colombian troops in Yemen is unknown. The former Colombian soldiers will be joining hundreds of Sudanese troops recruited to fight as part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia regards Shiite powerhouse Iran as a rival for leadership in the Muslim community and sees its influence behind many of the Middle East region’s conflicts. The two countries are supporting opposite sides in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, like the UAE, worry about Iran’s influence over the Shiite population within their borders. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, has been launching airstrikes against the Houthis and their allies in Yemen since March 26.

“It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project,” reports the Times, referring to the Colombian mercenaries. “The program was once managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, but the people involved in the effort said that his role ended several years ago and that it has since been run by the Emirati military.”

“The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country,” it adds.

Most of the Latin American troops deployed to Yemen are from Colombia.

“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The Modern Mercenary” told the Times.

“The private military industry is global now,” added McFate, noting that the U.S. has essentially “legitimized” the industry with its heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of war.

“Latin American mercenaries are a sign of what’s to come,” he said.

The UAE has kept the presence of Latin American troops a secret, refusing to publicly announce their deployment to Yemen.

NYT notes that the Emirati ambassador to Washington, D.C. and U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters overseeing America’s involvement in the war in Yemen, have also declined to comment.

“The Latin American force in the Emirates was originally conceived to carry out mostly domestic missions — guarding pipelines and other sensitive infrastructure and possibly putting down riots in the sprawling camps housing foreign workers in the Emirates — according to corporate documents, American officials and several people involved in the project,” reports the Times. 

Several Americans are among the Westerners who serve as trainers for the Latin American troops at the desert camp, reportedly located within a sprawling Emirati military base called Zayed Military City.

The trainees receive “salaries ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, compared with approximately $400 a month they would make in Colombia,” notes NYT. “Those troops who deploy to Yemen will receive an additional $1,000 per week, according to a person involved in the project and a former senior Colombian military officer.”

“Hundreds of Colombian troops have been trained in the Emirates since the project began in 2010 — so many that the Colombian government once tried to broker an agreement with Emirati officials to stanch the flow headed to the Persian Gulf,” adds the Times. “Representatives from the two governments met, but an agreement was never signed.”


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