UAE relied on expertise of retired US troops to beef up its military
The Washington Post October 19, 2022
The hottest overseas job market for retired U.S. service members is a tiny Persian Gulf nation that outsources much of its military to foreign advisers and mercenaries.
Over the past seven years, 280 military retirees have sought federal authorization to work for the United Arab Emirates — far more than for any other country, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Those who have worked as military contractors or consultants for the Emiratis include generals who made their mark fighting U.S. wars in the Middle East. Among them: retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who was a military adviser to the UAE before he became defense secretary in the Trump administration, the documents show.
The influx of American veterans willing to sell their military expertise to a foreign power — most with the consent of the Pentagon and the State Department — has helped the small but oil-rich UAE build what many experts regard as the most powerful military in the Arab world.
But for U.S. national interests, the outcome has proved a blessing and a curse. While the Emiratis remain a close partner, their newfound military muscle has emboldened them to send troops into Yemen and Libya, inflaming civil wars in both countries.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress and human rights groups have become more critical of the UAE, including for its decision this month to band with Russia and other members of the OPEC Plus cartel to curtail global oil production. In addition, the Justice Department has scrutinized the country’s leaders for interfering in U.S. elections and politics.
“The Emiratis have gathered immense influence and they punch way above their weight class, but they have used that to undermine U.S. foreign policy in terms of our support for the rule of law, democracy and counterterrorism,” said Jodi Vittori, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a retired U.S. Air Force officer. “It’s hard to see how this is a good thing.”
Federal law prohibits retired military personnel as well as reservists from taking jobs or gifts from foreign governments without approval from the State Department and the Pentagon. The purpose is to prevent veterans from becoming beholden to foreign powers or undermining U.S. interests. The law applies to retirees — generally defined as those who served at least 20 years and receive a pension — because they can be recalled to active duty.
The armed forces and the State Department declined interview requests from The Post. In a written response to questions, the State Department said it judges job applications based on whether they “would adversely affect the foreign relations of the United States.”
Asked whether the U.S. government had made it easier for the UAE to intervene in Yemen and Libya by allowing the Emiratis to hire so many U.S. military contractors, the State Department said: “The UAE has long been a vital U.S. partner on a wide range of regional security issues. ... We intend to continue to help them improve their capabilities to defend their territory and are confident that our strong relationship will continue.”
The 280 military retirees identified in the records are only a partial accounting of Americans working as military contractors in the UAE.
Analysts estimate that hundreds of other U.S. veterans are employed by the Emirati government or state-owned companies. Americans who served fewer than 20 years in uniform do not have to seek federal permission to take foreign jobs, and the U.S. government doesn’t track how many work overseas.
The UAE is a federation of seven tribal monarchies that includes the city-states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It has 1.1 million citizens, about the same as Rhode Island. Yet the country launched a massive military buildup a decade ago during the Arab Spring, when its royal families became alarmed by the potential for domestic unrest and tensions with Iran.
Since then, the Emirati armed forces and government-owned defense firms have hired American military contractors of all stripes by offering double or triple what they earned at home. The country’s flashy, tax-free lifestyle is a major draw, with ostentatious attractions that include the world’s tallest building, an Arab branch of the Louvre, indoor ski slopes, and vending machines that dispense bars of gold.
All the wealth and glitz mask the UAE’s record of chronic repression. Freedom House, a pro-democracy group, ranks the absolute monarchy among the least free countries in the world. There are no elections, no political parties and no independent judiciary. Criticism of the government is banned. Trade unions and homosexuality are outlawed.
In Washington, the UAE has dodged condemnation of its human rights record by binding itself to the Pentagon.
Emirati armed forces have fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The UAE allows the Pentagon to station 5,000 personnel at al-Dhafra Air Base and to berth warships at Jebel Ali, a deep-water Persian Gulf port. Since 2012, the country has been the third-biggest purchaser of U.S. weapons, behind Saudi Arabia and Australia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global arms sales.
UAE officials said their overall partnership with the United States has greatly benefited both countries in trade and security.
“Over the last 50 years, no country has played as important a role in the UAE’s progress and security as the United States,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, said in an email. “We have tapped into US expertise in virtually every area to build know how, to develop our economy and to advance and protect our society.”
Emirati and U.S. officials, however, have obscured the extent of the UAE’s dependence on American military contractors.
The Post had to file two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to compel the U.S. military and the State Department to release documents about retired troops who work for the UAE and other foreign governments. Agencies redacted the names of personnel except for retired generals and admirals, saying that disclosure of their identities could lead to “embarrassment and harassment.”
In September, a federal judge ruled that the agencies’ justification for withholding the names was “weak” and “unconvincing,” and ordered the military and State Department to release more information. The Justice Department said it is considering whether to appeal.
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The documents reveal that the UAE has hired Americans to help manage almost every part of its military machine.
They serve as strategic consultants, aircraft mechanics, instructor pilots, drone operators, missile defense experts, artillery trainers, radar specialists, cybersecurity advisers, logistics planners and maintenance supervisors. Most are U.S. Air Force and Army veterans. About one-third are retired officers.
Most of the Americans secured jobs with a network of defense contractors controlled by the UAE government. The largest firms are subsidiaries of Edge Group, a state-owned defense conglomerate that reports $5 billion in annual revenue.
The UAE keeps much information about its armed forces confidential, but analysts estimate that the UAE spends $22 billion a year on defense, about the same as Turkey. According to the CIA, the Emirati armed forces have 65,000 troops on active duty, similar to Canada and Australia.
The Arab monarchy relies heavily on foreigners to staff its armed forces, just as it does to power the entire economy — immigrant workers outnumber Emirati citizens by 9 to 1. Andreas Krieg, a professor of security studies at King’s College London, estimated that foreigners make up 40 percent of the UAE’s uniformed personnel.
Besides hiring Americans as civilian contractors, the Emirati military fills its uniformed ranks with thousands of mercenaries from other countries. Many come from Pakistan, Oman and Yemen, while others are recruited from as far afield as East Africa and South America. A former Australian major general commands the UAE Presidential Guard, leading 12,000 elite troops.
The UAE’s outsourcing of military work to Americans ramped up in 2010 when the country retained Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, a prominent U.S. private security firm that gained notoriety in 2007 when its guards killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Prince, a former Navy SEAL, served in the U.S. military for four years before he started Blackwater and created a 7,000-acre training facility in North Carolina.
Four U.S. employees of Blackwater Worldwide were convicted in the 2007 killings and sentenced to long federal prison terms. President Donald Trump pardoned the men in December 2020. Blackwater has changed ownership and the name of the company multiple times since 2009.
Working on behalf of the Emiratis, Prince helped recruit hundreds of ex-soldiers from Colombia, South Africa and other countries to form a commando force that trained at a camp near Abu Dhabi. Plans for the commando unit flopped and Prince fell out with UAE leaders, but the country continued to look outside its borders for combat experience and military expertise.
The New York Times first reported details of Prince’s role with the UAE’s mercenary force in 2011.
About the same time, the UAE armed forces welcomed another American into its ranks. Stephen Toumajan, a retired lieutenant colonel who served 20 years in the U.S. Army, became the commander of a UAE special operations aviation unit called Group 18. He later took charge of the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command.
Federal regulations prohibit retired military personnel as well as reservists from swearing allegiance to other governments or taking uniformed jobs in foreign armies. Those who violate the rule can face financial penalties.
Toumajan has given conflicting explanations about whether he is a uniformed officer in the UAE military. He and the UAE government list his title and rank on official websites as “His Excellency Major General Staff Pilot Stephen A. Toumajan PhD.” He’s also depicted in photos wearing a flight suit adorned with an Emirati flag. Yet in 2018 he told BuzzFeed News that he was working as a civilian contractor and had “not sworn allegiance to the UAE.”
U.S. Army officials investigated Toumajan’s affiliation with the UAE after he submitted a foreign-employment request to the Pentagon in 2014. Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman, said in an email that officials determined Toumajan had violated the law “by accepting a foreign title and by wearing the military rank of the UAE Armed Forces.”
But the Army did not dock Toumajan’s pension or otherwise penalize him because it was unable to prove that he had received any compensation from the UAE government, Smith added. She declined to elaborate or explain the apparent discrepancy in the Army’s findings.
Toumajan did not respond to requests for an interview. Today, he serves as general manager of the UAE National Search and Rescue Center and publicly touts his close relationship with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president of the UAE and a fellow military pilot.
During a May conference for entrepreneurs in Dubai, Toumajan paced the stage in his tan flight suit as he gave a motivational speech and lauded the UAE’s rulers as “the greatest leaders in the world.” He described how Sheikh Mohamed once made a point of holding hands with him while walking in public, a sign of respect and affection in the Arab world.
President George W. Bush famously held hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and kissed him on the cheeks during a 2005 visit to Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
“He said, ‘Come with me, Steve,’ and I’m holding hands with Sheikh Mohamed,” Toumajan said, according to a video of his talk. “That was pretty incredible.”
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The most prominent American cheerleader of the Emirati armed forces is former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who refers to the UAE as “Little Sparta” because of its prowess in warfare. The retired four-star Marine general commanded all U.S. troops in the Middle East before he ran the Pentagon during the Trump administration.
In a video testimonial posted in January to mark the UAE’s 50th birthday, Mattis fondly recalled first visiting the country as a junior Marine officer in 1979. He also reminisced about building a “trusting relationship over many years” with Sheikh Mohamed and praised the country’s troops as “equal brothers in arms who knew how to fight.”
What Mattis did not mention is that he previously worked for the UAE government.
In June 2015, two years after he retired from the Marine Corps, Mattis applied for federal authorization to “accept civil employment” with the UAE as a “military advisor.” The Marines and State Department approved his request in August 2015, according to the records obtained by The Post, though the agencies withheld other documents that specified his exact duties and expected compensation.
The Marine Corps failed to produce Mattis’s 2015 application. But the State Department released a document showing that it had granted final approval to his request.
It is unclear how long Mattis held the role. He returned to U.S. government service as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary in January 2017.
Mattis declined an interview request. Robert Tyrer, co-president of Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm where Mattis works as a senior counselor, said in an email that Mattis advised the Emiratis on “the operational, tactical, informational and ethical aspects” of military operations.
According to Tyrer, Mattis did not request or accept payment from the UAE government other than reimbursement for travel expenses. “Consistent with his belief in the importance of ethical conduct, he sought approval for his uncompensated activity through a process which would ensure the most robust review from the proper officials in the U.S. government,” Tyrer said.
He added that Mattis also did not receive payment for taping the UAE birthday video. “General Mattis has great respect for the UAE, a nation which has stood by the U.S. in numerous conflict and relief operations,” Tyrer said.
Mattis served two years as Trump’s defense secretary. In March 2019, two months after leaving the Pentagon, he once again applied for approval to accept employment from the Emirati government, this time as a featured speaker at a conference on U.S.-UAE relations hosted by Sheikh Mohamed.
In his application, Mattis said the UAE would pay him an “honorarium” and cover his travel expenses. The Marine Corps redacted details of the financial arrangements, saying that disclosing them would violate Mattis’s personal privacy. According to Tyrer, however, Mattis accepted payment only to cover his travel costs.
The conference was held in May 2019 at Al Bateen Palace, a royal residence in Abu Dhabi. In his remarks, Mattis said he turned down “99 percent” of his invitations for speaking engagements but made an exception for the UAE and Sheikh Mohamed because of their close relationship with the United States.
“It is broad enough, it is deep enough and it’s strong enough to withstand any temporary challenges of any sort, because the underpinnings are just that strong,” Mattis said, according to a videotaped portion of his speech posted online by the UAE Embassy in Washington. “Whenever the going gets tough, we have found our militaries working alongside each other.”
In a best-selling memoir published four months after his Abu Dhabi speech, Mattis again extolled Sheikh Mohamed and downplayed concerns about human rights in the UAE and other countries in the region.
“I constantly had to argue with those in government who wanted human rights to be the singular criterion of our foreign policy,” Mattis wrote, referring to his tenure as a four-star general during the Obama administration. “The Arab monarchies and strongman leaders were not reforming at the pace our human rights idealists insisted upon. But those nations that had stood behind us after 9/11 had records far better than those of hostile, oppressive regimes like Iran and Syria.”
Mattis isn’t the only Marine general who went to work for the UAE shortly after leaving government service, according to the documents obtained by The Post.
Charles F. Bolden Jr., a retired Marine major general and astronaut, served as NASA administrator during the Obama administration. In June 2016, he traveled to Abu Dhabi to sign a cooperation agreement between NASA and the UAE Space Agency. He also delivered a lecture about NASA’s mission to Mars to an audience of dignitaries, including Sheikh Mohamed.
Nine months after Bolden’s term as NASA’s leader ended, he applied for federal approval to work as an adviser to the UAE Space Agency, documents show. In his application, he said the agency would pay him to attend two advisory board meetings a year. The Marine Corps and the State Department approved the request but redacted financial details from the documents, citing his right to privacy.
During his career as a Marine and an astronaut, Bolden flew on four space shuttle missions and spent over 680 hours in space.
In an interview, Bolden said that the eight-member space advisory board has not met since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and that he last traveled to the UAE for a board meeting in 2019. He declined to say how much the Emiratis have paid him.
“Some people would say they were generous, others would say not even close,” he said. “That’s not the reason I joined.” He noted that the UAE has an active and ambitious space program. The country launched an unmanned interplanetary spacecraft that began orbiting Mars in 2021.
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While the Pentagon kept foreign pay packages for generals and admirals a secret, it disclosed salaries for lower-ranking officers and enlisted personnel.
Those documents show that the Emiratis pay well.
A retired senior chief petty officer from Navy SEAL Team 6 received a $348,000 salary, plus $54,400 for housing and travel, to work in the UAE as a firing range trainer. A retired U.S. Army colonel accepted a $324,000-a-year job as an adviser for the Emirati army.
Retired American personnel who move to the UAE often receive five-figure housing and transportation allowances, while continuing to collect their U.S. military pensions, records show.
Those with specialized skills or advanced degrees earn the most. Sean Connors, a retired Navy commander, received federal permission in 2019 to take a $600,000-a-year job as a vice president with Nawah Energy Company, a state-owned firm that constructed the first civilian nuclear power plant in the Arab world.
The Navy redacted Connors’s name, but other details in the application match public information about his work history in the nuclear industry. He confirmed his employment in the UAE but otherwise declined to comment.
When Sheikh Mohamed founded a National Defense College to educate UAE officers a decade ago, the school went on a hiring binge and began recruiting military academics from the United States.
Thomas Drohan, a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, was lured to the country with a $240,000 salary and a $49,000 housing allowance, documents show. Daniel Baltrusaitis, a retired Air Force colonel, moved to Abu Dhabi to become dean of the college, with a $338,000 salary and $53,200 in housing perks.
Air Force officials redacted their names, but The Post identified them through LinkedIn profiles and other online biographies. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Former enlisted personnel working in the UAE can also make excellent money, with mechanics, welders and painters earning $100,000 or more annually, records show.
The Emiratis depend on Americans to teach them how to use an extensive arsenal of U.S.-built weaponry, including F-16 fighter jets, Predator drones, Patriot missile batteries and THAAD missile interceptors. American mechanics also take care of the specialized equipment while embedding with UAE military units.
American military expertise may not come cheap, but the contracting arrangements are still a bargain for the UAE, according to Krieg, the King’s College professor.
The UAE “can hire people for as little as 90 days, or a few years, then have no responsibility for them,” he said, while American taxpayers continue to bear the expense of their pensions and health benefits.
Krieg noted that the U.S. government spends huge sums to train and educate its military personnel during their long careers in uniform, “and now you’re exporting it for free to a foreign government. They just get the finished product.”
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One of the foremost recruiters of U.S. talent is Knowledge Point Educational Consultant LLC, an Abu Dhabi-based company.
In 2010, Knowledge Point established a subsidiary with an office in Alexandria, Va., and advertised scores of open jobs with the UAE military as senior strategic advisers and planners. The positions were tailored for recently retired U.S. Army generals and colonels, many of whom were looking for work after serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several retired U.S. generals signed fixed-term contracts with Knowledge Point to move to the UAE and work as military consultants, The Post found.
James Chambers, a retired two-star Army general who formerly oversaw U.S. military logistics in the Middle East, led a team that advised the UAE’s Joint Logistics Command from 2018 to 2020, documents show. William G. Webster Jr., a retired three-star Army general, spent one year in Abu Dhabi as a Knowledge Point senior manager working on a “capabilities development review” for the UAE military. Chambers declined to comment, and Webster did not respond to messages.
Others have stayed for longer. John MacDonald, a retired two-star Army general who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been working in Abu Dhabi since February 2018 as a senior adviser to the UAE army, documents show.
U.S. Army officials redacted salary information for MacDonald and other generals. He declined an interview request about his work with the Emirati military. “Not interested,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t like how you twist words, what you misrepresent nor the paper (and leadership) you work for.”
Knowledge Point provides consulting services for numerous industries and has about 2,000 employees. Its chief operating officer is John J. Prendergast III, a rear admiral who retired from the Navy in 2009 after a 30-year military career. He has worked for Knowledge Point in Abu Dhabi since 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The Navy said it had no record of Prendergast applying for authorization to work for Knowledge Point or the UAE government. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Another Emirati defense contractor that employs droves of Americans is Global Aerospace Logistics. Since 2015, records show, the state-owned company has hired more than 100 retired U.S. military personnel, mostly Air Force and Army veterans with aviation backgrounds.
Some American veterans who work for the Emiratis do so as consultants based in the United States. In 2017, the UAE government retained Fairfax National Security Solutions LLC, a small firm in Arlington, Va., to provide consulting services.
William Mooney, a retired Army colonel who served as Fairfax’s senior vice president, reported that he earned a $480,000 annual salary with the firm and did consulting work for both the UAE and Saudi governments, documents show. He did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2019, Todd Harmer, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, received federal authorization to work as a D.C.-based lobbyist for the UAE government. Documents show that he lobbied Congress to approve major arms sales to the UAE and that he received a $180,000 annual base salary from his employer, American Defense International.
In an email, Harmer said his work was “in full compliance with U.S. laws and regulations,” but declined to comment further.
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With their military capabilities boosted by American contractors and weapons, UAE leaders have become more aggressive about intervening in conflicts far from home — often with little regard for human rights.
After sending thousands of troops to Yemen in 2015, the UAE ran a secret network of prisons where Yemeni men were beaten, flogged and sexually assaulted while detained in shipping containers, according to human rights groups. The Associated Press reported that some prisoners were shackled to a “grill” and slowly roasted alive over open flames.
In a 2017 statement to the AP, the UAE’s government denied the allegations, saying: “There are no secret detention centers and no torture of prisoners.” Human Rights Watch also reported on the alleged abuses, as did Amnesty International and other groups.
In Libya, the UAE military sent its forces to aid Khalifa Hifter, a rebel commander trying to seize control of the country. In 2020, the Defense Department inspector general reported that the UAE government was helping to finance the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army close to the Kremlin that has been accused of atrocities in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. The Wagner Group has also sent forces to fight on behalf of Russia in Ukraine and Syria.
The UAE is a longtime friend of Saudi Arabia and has spied on dissidents on behalf of Riyadh. Emirati security services gathered intelligence about Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post contributing columnist who was assassinated by a Saudi hit squad in October 2018 for his criticisms of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In July, UAE officials arrested a onetime lawyer for Khashoggi as he was catching a connecting flight in the Dubai airport. Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen who lives in Virginia and represents Arab dissidents, was detained on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
The arrest occurred while President Biden was visiting the Middle East to meet with Arab leaders, including Prince Mohammed. Ghafoor was released a month later after protests by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers.
Vittori, the Georgetown professor, said that by arresting Khashoggi’s lawyer, UAE officials sent an unmistakable message to Biden and members of Congress that the country would continue to crack down on political dissent.
“You couldn’t be more transparent in thumbing your nose at the United States,” she said. UAE officials said they investigated Ghafoor at Washington’s request, but U.S. officials denied asking for his arrest.
The UAE has developed advanced surveillance and cyber capabilities to target dissidents, work aided by the hiring of former American and Israeli hackers and spies.
In September 2021, three former employees of the National Security Agency admitted to violating U.S. computer-fraud and export-control laws by working on behalf of DarkMatter, an Emirati cyberintelligence firm that hacked computer servers in the United States and spied on enemies of the UAE government in other countries. The former NSA cyber operatives agreed to pay $1.68 million in fines as part of a deferred-prosecution deal.
U.S. officials have become alarmed by the number of former intelligence officers who have taken jobs with foreign governments. Last year, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief sent an unusual letter to retired spies, warning them not to sell their skills to foreign powers.
Yet retired U.S. troops with backgrounds in intelligence and cyberwarfare have faced no such restrictions. Among those who have taken jobs in the UAE are two retired U.S. Army colonels, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
Dennis McFarland, a former senior intelligence official at the Pentagon, took a job with Knowledge Point as a lead adviser to the UAE government on cyber and intelligence matters in 2017. That same year, Knowledge Point also hired Mark Benedict, a former senior National Security Agency official, to work as a cyberwarfare consultant for the UAE armed forces.
Both declined to comment.