The United Arab Emirates has trained hundreds of mercenaries recruited from Latin America and sent them to fight in Yemen, according to The New York Times.
The Emirates have steadily built up the mercenary force over the past five years. The deployment to Yemen is the first time the Emirates has sent mercenaries into an active war zone.
The development of the mercenary force, which is largely comprised of fighters from Colombia, allows the wealthy Gulf nation to engage in combat operations abroad with little risk to their own citizens.
“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” Atlantic Council senior fellow Sean McFate told the Times.
The UAE also faces a potential manpower shortage: As of 2011, only 11.5% of the UAE’s estimated 8.5 million inhabitants were actually Emirati citizens, according to the State Department. The UAE is in the midst of an arms buildup aimed at making the country’s military one of the most powerful in the Middle East. It’s an ambition that might require more personnel than the population can provide.
So far, the Emirates have hired and trained hundreds of Colombians since starting its mercenary program in 2010, according to the Times. The Times notes that the UAE had a preference for Colombians over other soldiers because of the Colombian military’s decades of experience battling against FARC rebels in jungles throughout the country. Colombian soldiers are also happy to work in the Emirates, where they can earn upwards of seven times their salary in the Colombian military.
Until the deployment to Yemen, the mercenary force was intended to function as a guarantor of domestic stability. The force’s missions involved operations against Somali pirates and potential al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) elements.
“The troops were told that they might one day be called for foreign combat missions, but until the deployment to Yemen the only external missions they were given were to provide security on commercial cargo vessels,” the Times reports.
The Times notes that the exact nature of the mercenaries’ involvement in Yemen still isn’t clear. Whatever the the mercenaries are up to, they’re now a part of a fluid and multi-sided war that’s raged for the better part of a year.
The ongoing war in Yemen pits Iranian-supported Houthi rebels, who overthrew the internationally recognized and US and Saudi-supported government of president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in January of 2015, against former government elements backed by a Saudi-led multinational Arab force.
The Emirates have intervened in Yemen as part of the international coalition that seeks to restore the earlier government and to curb Iranian influence in the region. In September, 45 Emirati soldiers were killed when a Houthi-fired missile hit their encampment in Yemen’s Marib Province.
The coalition has managed to dislodge the Houthis from parts of the country. But the rebels still control Sanaa, the capital, while the anti-Houthi bombing campaign has been widely criticized for its civilian death toll.
Amid the chaos, AQAP has managed to assert control of a large but sparsely inhabited portion of the country, which was the poorest in the Arab League even before the outbreak of the war. Militants that have associated themselves with ISIS have also carried out operations in Yemen, but so far do not control any territory in the country.