By: Farah Halime
“Late one night in November 2010, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian men touched down in this glittering seaside capital [Abu Dhabi]. Whisked through customs by an Emirati intelligence officer, the group boarded an unmarked bus and drove roughly 20 miles to a windswept military complex in the desert sand.
The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529m from the oil-soaked sheikdom,” from the New York Times article “Secret Desert Force Set Up by Blackwater”, written and reported by Mark Mazzetti and Emily B. Hager in May 2011.
For any expatriate who has spent time in the United Arab Emirates, the luxury lifestyle soon gives way to a seedy underworld, which is only a paradise for fugitives on the run
The UAE, after all, is “an autocracy with the sheen of a progressive, modern state”, according to the New York Times’ reporters who exposed Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, and his secret army.
But for the Colombians he recruited for the battalion intended to beef up the UAE’s military presence, Abu Dhabi is the “Arabian Dream” offering a better quality of life.
Prince, who had already been a driving force in the boom in wartime contracting that began after the 11 September 2001, attacks was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, to put together a squad of foreign troops for the UAE.
He outsourced critical parts of the UAE’s defense to mercenaries from countries including Colombia and South Africa, in a plan said to have been drafted months before the so-called Arab Spring revolts that many experts believe are unlikely to spread to the UAE. But Iran was a particular concern.
The mercenaries live in a training camp, located on an Emirati base called Zayed Military City:
“It is hidden behind concrete walls laced with barbed wire. Photographs show rows of identical yellow temporary buildings, used for barracks and mess halls, and a motor pool, which houses Humvees and fuel trucks,” said the New York Times article.
It does not sound like much, but for these imported soldiers, joining the operation was an opportunity to earn a lot of money and see a new part of the world.
This week, Columbia’s daily newspaper El Tiempo, gained exclusive access to some of the Colombian paramilitaries who spoke of the “Arabian Dream” in the UAE.
For the 1,400 Colombian troops in Abu Dhabi, the UAE offers “not just a medal, but a proper paycheck”, according to a translation of the Spanish article.
“Why did we decide to leave? That’s what people ask us. The response is easy: Quality of life,” the troops told El Tiempo.
One officer describes the stark difference in quality of life. In Columbia, he received a bonus of 800,000 pesos ($448.80). In Abu Dhabi, he has a salary of $3,000, receives free housing, food and healthcare. He has also learnt English, and in the evenings, he and his colleagues travel in buses into the city centre, where they can buy food and supplies. They get weekends off.
The long weeks of combat, sleepless nights, patrolling and watching for landmines were left behind, the officers told El Tiempo.
Reflex Responses, a company known as R2 and contracted by the UAE government to train and recruit the troops, spends roughly $9m per month maintaining the battalion, which includes expenditures for employee salaries, ammunition and wages for dozens of domestic workers who cook meals, wash clothes and clean the camp, according to the New York Times article.
The Colombians “never wanted for anything”, said Calixto Rincón, a 13-year veteran of Colombia’s National Police force who is now back in Colombia after serving as a mercenary in the UAE.
The UAE and American leaders even arranged to have a chef travel from Colombia to make traditional soups.
Unsurprisingly, the secrecy of the project and the clash of cultures between the Catholic Colombians and the Muslim Emiratis made some things uncomfortable:
“Here, you can’t look at the women like in Colombia, because you can end up in jail,” one officer told El Tiempo. “A wrong glance can create offense, which gets reported to the police.”
Meanwhile another told the New York Times: “We didn’t have permission to even look through the door. We were only allowed outside for our morning jog, and all we could see was sand everywhere.”
But even this grievance was addressed by the American trainers.
One evening, the New York Times reporters wrote: “After months stationed in the desert, [the troops] boarded an unmarked bus and were driven to hotels in central Dubai. There, some R2 executives had arranged for them to spend the evening with prostitutes.”