The UAE in Yemen: With a Lot of Help from its Mercs

Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Toumajan shakes hands with Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett, the U.S. Army Central commanding general (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Youtoy Martin).

by David Isenberg

The UAE has participated in the ongoing, Saudi-led war in Yemen largely through its use of a disparate collection of mercenaries, or to use the accepted euphemism, “private military contractors” (PMC). In 2011, the UAE hired Erik Prince to set up an operation to train foreign personnel, mainly from Latin America, ostensibly for internal defense purposes. But events have shown that the UAE’s dependence on foreign contractors, for military and intelligence purposes, is far greater than previously thought.

One indication of the use of mercenaries by the UAE is to look at headlines about casualties, like “Dozens of Saudi-led Mercenaries Killed, Injured in Yemen’s Western Coast Front” and “Yemeni troops ambush Sudanese mercenary convoy in desert.” Earlier this year, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Britain called on the UN Human Rights Council to form a special committee to investigate the UAE’s recruitment of mercenaries in Yemen. According to the group, the UAE recruited mercenaries to carry out torture and field executions. On November 27, 2017, the group commissioned a law firm to file a formal complaint with the International Criminal Court demanding an urgent investigation into the UAE recruitment of armies of foreign mercenaries to carry out criminal activities in Yemen. A press release from the organization also accuses the UAE of engaging mercenaries to fight in Yemen, including nationals from Australia, South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, Chile, and Panama.

Recent news reports show how Cambridge Analytica’s UK-based parent company, SCL group, conducted a surveillance operation in Yemen, using psychological profiling, “strategic communications campaigns,” and infiltration of foreign operatives into indigenous communities through unwitting local partners whom they were instructed to deceive.

In June, BuzzFeed reported that Stephen Toumajan, who retired from the US Army in 2007 after 20 years of service, is a major general for the Emirati military, according to his own statements and a UAE government website. According to BuzzFeed:

He commands the UAE’s military helicopter branch at a time when that country’s forces are fighting one of the world’s deadliest conflicts: the brutal war in Yemen, which has left over a million people with cholera, 8 million people at risk of starvation, and 5,000 children dead or wounded. The UAE and its partners in the war have been accused of atrocities. Toumajan says he is not involved in that war.

Given that Toumajan started in Abu Dhabi shortly after leaving the US Army and founded and now leads the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command—which controls the acquisition, deployment, and operation of the majority of the UAE’s combat helicopters—the following incident merits close scrutiny:

On the morning of March 17, 2017, news reports of a massacre began emerging after the survivors docked at the port of Hodeidah in Yemen—with 42 dead bodies in the hull of their ship. The unarmed Somali migrants were headed across the Red Sea Straits toward Eritrea, survivors said, when their boat came under withering machine gun fire from a helicopter. UN investigators later said that “those alive hid themselves beneath the bodies of the dead and remained motionless for about 30 minutes to avoid further attack.” …A UN panel examined the incident and just this January reported that a military helicopter appeared to have committed the massacre. It “fired on the boat for five minutes and then circled the boat and fired again from another direction.”

A recent analysis by Just Security noted that Toumajan’s activities might merit prosecution under the War Crimes Act since the UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been accused of serious international law violations (including war crimes) for indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes in Yemen, arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, the imposition of a blockade, and closure of Sana’a International Airport. Although it is over two decades old and yet to be used, the War Crimes Act enables the U.S. government to prosecute war crimes committed by U.S. nationals. Of course, any prosecution must receive the express approval of the assistant attorney general, which in the current Trump administration, seems unlikely.

If the UAE had to depend solely on its own military forces it would not be fighting in Yemen. It is only fighting in Yemen because of the availability of mercenaries and private military forces. Nor is Yemen the only country where the UAE is relying on contractors. The New York Times reported in 2012, that the UAE was bankrolling an effort to create a, highly trained fighting force that could defeat the pirates off the Somali coast. More noteworthy was the little noted report in late 2017 that Qatar’s former deputy prime minister, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah, has accused the UAE of recruiting mercenaries from the American company Blackwater to invade Qatar before the siege of Qatar was announced in June 2017.

In the early 1990s, the advocates of PMC refuted concerns over their engaging in conflicts that either violated human rights or were against international law, both the case with respect to Yemen, by saying that PMC cared so much about their reputations that they would never work in an operation that the international system didn’t fully accept. As long as they were employed by a recognized state everything was legal. This is the PMC equivalent of Richard Nixon’s notorious remark that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” It was a pathetic lie back then, and as Yemen shows, it remains so today.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.



  1. “The New York Times reported in 2012, that Yemen was bankrolling an effort to create a, highly trained fighting force that could defeat the pirates off the Somali coast.”

    I thimk the author means “that the UAE was bankrolling.”

  2. A good article, thank you David. It seems as though the world is getting murkier by the day

  3. Weak report. lots of allegations. No facts or proof. The mercenary army of Little Sparta is an astonishing story more than 2 decades in generation, when UAE sent 600 man battalion to Beirut as part of UNIFIL forces 1976.
    How many FARC have died in Yemen? Sudanese? a US General is flying combat helicopters in Yemen. Come on Mr. Isenberg, you can do much better than that superficial story.

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