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Revealed: The mercenaries commanding UAE forces in Yemen

The UAE has brought in experienced foreign military officers to command an elite force reporting to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed
UAE Presidential Guard Commander Mike Hindmarsh receives an award (UAE armed forces)

An Australian citizen is the commander of an elite UAE military force deployed in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition, which human rights groups accuse of war crimes.

Mike Hindmarsh, 59, is a former senior Australian army officer who is publicly listed as commander of the UAE’s Presidential Guard.

The Presidential Guard is a unit of marines, reconnaissance, aviation, special forces and mechanised brigades, according to the US State Department website.

Hindmarsh oversaw the guard’s formation in early 2010 shortly after he took up his estimated $500,000-a-year, tax-free job in Abu Dhabi, where he reports directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

The Presidential Guard has been lauded for playing a key role in the Saudi-led coalition seeking to reinstall the exiled Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The coalition was formed in March to push back the rebel Houthi movement, which Arab Gulf states view as being backed by regional rival Iran.

Presidential Guard troops have been in Yemen since 4 May, and were reported to have played a key role in the recapturing of port city Aden by local Hadi-allied forces on 17 July.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International have called for a suspension of arms exports to members of the Saudi-led coalition after reporting what they described as “damning evidence” of war crimes in Yemen. There is no evidence to suggest that Hindmarsh is responsible for the alleged war crimes claimed by rights groups.

At least 5,700 people – about half of them civilians – have been killed since the coalition launched its campaign. Yemen was already suffering a serious humanitarian crisis before the coalition's entry into the war; however, the country’s situation has since grown increasingly grave, with more than 80 percent of the population of 24.5 million needing humanitarian assistance.

The Australian connection

While the Arab coalition fighting in Yemen is widely described as being led by Saudi Arabia, one Gulf official told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity that the external ground forces were in reality being steered by the UAE.

More than 10,000 coalition troops have been sent to Yemen and, while no official numbers have been released, it is believed that at least 1,500 Emirati troops are taking part in ground operations.

The best trained and equipped coalition troops are likely to be those from the UAE Presidential Guard, which was the only Arab force to undertake full military operations in Afghanistan, where they fought alongside American soldiers.

A defence website has estimated that there are around 5,000 soldiers in the Presidential Guard.

It was announced in 2014 that the UAE was to pay the US Marines $150mn to train the guards. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was reported to have ordered the force to be instilled with a “warrior ethos”.

Overseeing the development of this elite force has been Hindmarsh, who had a distinguished career in the Australian army before moving to Abu Dhabi.

Hindmarsh served in his home country’s military between 1976 and 2009, during which time he received 11 awards and took part in tours that included deployments to the Middle East.

Mike Hindmarsh (UAE Armed Forces)

After first heading up the Australian SAS between January 1997 and January 1999, he moved on to command Australian Special Forces between October 2004 and January 2008, before leading Australian forces in the Middle East from March 2008 until January 2009.

Hindmarsh was based in Baghdad and oversaw the moving of Australia’s regional base to the UAE after their withdrawal from Iraq. Local media reported that during this time Hindmarsh had “dealings at the highest security levels with senior officials and the UAE military”.

Since then Australian troops have been based at the Minhad Air base, and earlier this year then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that 600 Australian troops would be sent to the UAE as part of the wider fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

After moving back to Australia from the Middle East, Hindmarsh took up a new role in March 2009 heading up the Army Training Command at Victoria Barracks in Sydney for a salary of $230,000 a year.

However, in October 2009 it was announced that the Australian government had approved Hindmarsh retirement from the army to take up a new role commanding the UAE Presidential Guard.

Military expert Michael Knights said Hindmarsh's role in the guard, reported on Twitter, was a “smart” move by the UAE.

“All GCC (Gulf) states should be doing this. Don’t just buy the best equipment, buy talent too,” he wrote, referring to the Gulf state's huge investment in military hardware.

It would appear that the UAE has followed the principle of bringing in experience to develop the Presidential Guard, as a quick search through LinkedIn throws up numerous results of experienced soldiers - mainly from Australia - who occupy senior roles in the elite force.

Among those working in Abu Dhabi is Peter Butson, a former Australian soldier and intelligence corps officer who since February 2014 has been an adviser to the Presidential Guard.

Scott Corrigan, a former special operations commander in the Australian army, has been a specialist adviser to the Presidential Guard since January 2013. Kevin Dolan is an evaluator for the guard and was previously a warrant officer in both the Australian and British armies. Steve Nichols is another former senior commander in the Australian army who is now in his fifth year as a senior adviser to the guards.

It is not known how many Australians work for the UAE army; however, local media reported at the time of Hindmarsh's appointment that there were "dozens" working in "leadership, training and mentoring roles".

While Australians appear to dominate the foreign contingent of commanders in the Presidential Guard, there are other nationalities who are advising and training the force.

Dizzy Dawson, a former manager at the UK’s Ministry of Defence and an ex-Royal Marine officer, is a senior security adviser to the guard; and American Robert B Cross Sr headed up the UAE Presidential Guard Institute as part of the US Marine Corps training programme.

Responding to critical comments about the UAE employing mercenaries, military expert Knights tweeted: “It is the same business whether for your original state or a new one. A good general can end a war faster, save lives.”

Knights added that employing foreign mercenaries “was a fairly traditional part of conflict before the age of nationalism”.

Mike Hindmarsh speaks to a room of Emiratis (UAE Armed Forces)

Mercenaries killed in Yemen

Some mercenaries have been killed in Yemen. The Houthi-run Saba News reported on 8 December that six Colombians and their Australian commander were killed in fighting around the flashpoint southeast province of Taiz.

Saba News updated their report on 9 December to say 14 foreign mercenaries had been killed – including two Britons and one French citizen on top of the Australian and Colombians – although this claim is unconfirmed.

Colombian mercenaries were first reported to have been fighting in Yemen in October, when about 100 former Colombian soldiers were said to have joined coalition troops, with about 800 in total planned to be sent in to back up pro-Hadi forces.

The Colombians are believed to have been recruited to fight in Yemen by the UAE. The New York Times reported in 2011 that experienced Colombian troops had been offered high salaries to join a secretive UAE force established in response to the Arab Spring uprisings.

It is not known if the Colombians fighting in Yemen are linked to the Presidential Guard; however, both the secretive force established in 2011 and the guard report directly to Mohammed bin Zayed.

Many reports have referred to the Colombians as being employees of Blackwater – a controversial American military company whose guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. However, as former Guardian Middle East editor Brian Whitaker has written, the contractor who set up the UAE force is a company called Reflex Responses.

Reflex Responses, which is also known as R2, has denied that Erik Prince, the former Blackwater chief, is behind their company.

Presidential Guard recruitment

While the Colombian and Australian mercenaries remain largely behind the scenes, the UAE Presidential Guard is far from secretive, at least in its recruitment strategies.

The guard has been promoted as a symbol of national strength, rooted in pride at how strong the UAE has become since its establishment in 1971.

The UAE has engaged in military action across the region, including in the Saudi-led coalition and the US-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

Abu Dhabi has independently launched air strikes in Libya – to the surprise of American officials – and been described as a “potent ally” for the US.

This developing sense of military strength is on full display in a 2011 promotional video for the Presidential Guard. Men in military fatigues singing nationalistic songs are interspersed with images of the country’s rulers and shots of the UAE’s military hardware.

A recruitment presentation posted online in October 2013 said the guard is at the “heart of the nation”. The presentation said recruitment should be targeted at men and women between the ages of 16 and 29 who are at a “crossroads” in their lives.

The guard has a Facebook page and Twitter account. Recruitment has been publicly advertised, projecting Emirati members as proud citizens protecting their country.

The Presidential Guard has not only sought to expand its numbers but its members experience has also been used to train young men completing their national service.

Mandatory national service was introduced by the UAE in June 2014. All men aged between 18 and 30 who completed secondary education must serve nine months, while those who did not must serve for two years. National service is voluntary for women, and those who sign up are trained for nine months.

A way of completing national service is to train with the Presidential Guard, according to the LinkedIn profile of one Emirati.

Some national service conscripts have been sent to fight in Yemen. However, this was stopped in September after 45 Emirati troops were killed in a Houthi attack.

Emirati families told MEE in August that they were shocked their sons had been sent to Yemen, as they had no conflict experience. 

At the time, military expert Knights said the rationale behind sending national service conscripts to Yemen was likely to bring untrained troops experience as part of a nation-building exercise.

There is no official death toll of the number of UAE troops killed in Yemen.

'Ally with the Muslim Brotherhood'

There is no sign of the war in Yemen coming to an end. Peace talks between opposing sides ended in Switzerland at the weekend with little progress, while fighting continues on the ground.

According to one Gulf official, the UAE should build more pragmatic alliances on the ground in Yemen if they want the war to end soon.

The official, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said that the war could be over “in two to three weeks” if the Emiratis agreed to ally with Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Yemen.

“But they won’t because they have this problem with the Muslim Brotherhood,” the official said.

The UAE has led a region-wide assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, including labelling the group as terrorists domestically and supporting the Egyptian army in overthrowing Egypt's first elected president Mohamed Morsi, who is a Brotherhood leader.

Abu Dhabi has refused to work with Islah, and Emirati officials have blamed the Brotherhood for the failure to drive Houthi rebels out of areas including Taiz province.

Emirati disdain for the Brotherhood has gone so far that Abu Dhabi is said to have aided and abetted the Houthis' takeover of Yemeni capital Sanaa in September last year, in order to undermine the role played by Islah in the country's governance, senior sources told Middle East Eye at the time. Now, 15 months later, the Emiratis are mired in a battle to push back the Houthis, but are wary of empowering their Brotherhood foe. 

The Gulf official said: “It is time for the UAE to prioritise the lives of Yemenis and ally with Islah. Their men are being killed by the Houthis and there is a clear way to end this.”

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