Huddled alongside dozens of other Sudanese men at a military base in the desert one chilly January night this year, “Amer” had no idea where he was – just that he was many miles away from where he had planned to be. It wasn’t until he and his fellow Sudanese workers noticed the labels on the water bottles, he said, that they realized they had unwittingly been brought to war-torn Libya.
Amer’s journey from his hometown of Khartoum to Libya had begun four months earlier, when the 29-year-old traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), expecting to work as a security guard in the air-conditioned skyscrapers or cavernous malls of the capital, Abu Dhabi. But from the day he arrived in September 2019, Amer had grown increasingly uneasy about Black Shield Security Services, the Emirati security services company that hired him. His passport and phone were taken away. He was required to undergo a months-long military training. And he was kept in the dark about where he and hundreds of other Sudanese recruits would eventually be posted.
Despite his nagging doubts, Amer never imagined the company would drop him and about 270 other Sudanese workers onto a military base in Libya, a country in conflict where governance remains divided between two opposing entities: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya that is affiliated with the UAE-backed armed group known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
Amer and the other men were transported to, and housed in, a delapidated military compound in the eastern Libyan town of Ras Lanuf. The town is located in the so-called oil crescent, a strip along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sirte where four of Libya’s six oil terminals are located and through which more than 50 percent of its crude oil exports leave the country. In the compound, the Sudanese men lived alongside Libyan fighters aligned with the LAAF under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar. They were told they would guard the surrounding oil facilities the LAAF controlled. Since 2016, the oil crescent has seen multiple offensives by rival forces seeking to control the region and its oil supply, each causing deaths and extensive material damage. As of September 2020, General Hiftar’s forces retain control of the region and the oil terminals that they seized in January 2020.
Amer and the other Sudanese men, whose names we have changed to protect their identities, experienced several exploitative recruitment practices and migrant labor abuses commonly faced by migrant workers in the UAE and the wider Gulf region. What appears to be unusual in their case is that the deception they were subjected to ultimately put them at risk of becoming potential military targets in a country embroiled in a years-long civil war, in what could amount to a violation of international humanitarian law. Our investigation into their plight highlights just one example of the UAE’s pernicious involvement in foreign conflicts, which includes funneling vast amounts of money and weapons to abusive local armed groups in Yemen and Libya and hiring foreign fighters to help wage its proxy wars in the region. In the last five years alone, UAE-led proxy forces have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured Yemenis in south and east Yemen, including Yemeni activists who have criticized coalition abuses.
In October 2019, a Buzzfeed investigation claimed the UAE hired former American soldiers to kill prominent clerics and Islamist political figures in Yemen in a targeted assassination campaign. And in what seems eerily reminiscent of the findings of our investigation, unverified reports emerged in 2018 of Chadians being recruited for jobs with Emirati security companies in the UAE and then being sent to fight in Yemen.
Even before the ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the UAE pumped billions of dollars into Sudan in exchange for the struggling country’s participation in the UAE and Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Since 2015, Sudan has sent troops to Yemen, including members of its paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, known for their abuses in Darfur.
In Libya, the UAE is one of three countries that have routinely and systematically violated a 2011 United Nations arms embargo, according to UN experts’ reports. The UAE supplies weapons and ammunition to General Hiftar’s armed group, has a forward operating base in eastern Libya, and operates armed drones in support of General Hiftar. Since April 2019, it has conducted more than 850 drone and jet strikes on the general’s behalf, killing scores of people. Foreign fighters from Sudan and Chad, fighters from a private security company affiliated with Russia’s Kremlin, and Syrian fighters backed by Russia also reportedly support General Hiftar’s armed group. According to the Sudan Panel of Experts report, in 2019, Darfurian rebel groups significantly increased their military capability in Libya, including in the oil crescent area to support the LAAF with large scale recruitment and acquisition of equipment.
As of October 2020, the UAE has not addressed the allegations made against it by the Sudanese men. In a statement that news reports attributed to Black Shield, and which circulated on social media in late January 2020, the company denied all allegations of deceiving its workers regarding the nature or location of the work and stressed that it does not engage in any services or actions of a military nature.
So how did Amer and hundreds of other men like him, who left their struggling country to secure well-paying jobs in the presumably safe and wealthy UAE, find themselves rubbing shoulders with battle-weary Libyan fighters in conflict-ridden Libya?
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone or in person 12 Sudanese recruits who traveled to the UAE, including Amer and three others who applied to Black Shield Security Services through local Sudanese recruitment agencies but didn’t go. We reviewed Black Shield Security Services documents provided to us by those we interviewed and published on social media platforms, as well as photographs and videos taken by the men in the UAE and Ras Lanuf. We also gathered publicly available information on the company and those affiliated with it. We wrote to representatives of Black Shield, the Emirati Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the LAAF in September 2020 to inquire about the allegations brought by the Sudanese men, but did not receive a response from any at the time of publication.
For Amer, it all began, unremarkably enough, in the fall of 2019 in Khartoum. He told Human Rights Watch that he heard about well-paying security guard positions that were opening up in the UAE and being recruited for in Sudan. He applied through one of two local recruitment agencies, submitted his passport, and paid 12,000 Sudanese pounds ($US266 at the time) in recruitment fees. He expected to be posted in malls, hospitals, hotels, or at the entrance of embassies or government buildings. Within days, the recruitment agency had his work visa ready and a plane ticket to Abu Dhabi for September 22, 2019. He was not presented with a job offer letter nor an employment contract while still in Sudan, which, unbeknown to him, violates a 2015 UAE regulation that prohibits a foreign worker from entering the country without having first signed an employment offer that conforms to a Standard Labor Ministry employment contract.
“I was a little worried and confused from the very beginning,” Amer said, recalling his first day in the UAE.
Upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport, Amer said that he and more than 40 other Sudanese men who had traveled with him were met by two Emirati men who introduced themselves as representatives of Black Shield Security Services, the company for which they had come to work. Immediately, the company representatives confiscated the mens’ passports – a pervasive practice that the UAE has officially prohibited since 2002. The men then boarded buses and were taken to a compound in the city of Ghiyathi, about 300 kilometers to the east.
“I only saw my passport again the day they sent me back to Sudan [over 5 months later],” Amer said.
Over the next few weeks, more Sudanese men arrived at the military compound, but company representatives were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Amer said, men who introduced themselves as members of the Emirati Armed Forces gave them military uniforms, confiscated their phones – only giving the phones back for a few hours each week – and told them they would undergo security training for at least eight weeks.
“Starting mid-November, they taught us [military] field skills, battle drills, the army crawl, and many other things that had nothing to do with a security guard job,” Amer said. “We trained to use all types of weaponry, the Kalashnikov, machine guns, RPGs, and mortars. We were taught how to disassemble and assemble the weaponry, how to use hand grenades, and how to shoot at targets.”
What Amer and the others didn’t know at the time was that to become security guards in the UAE, they only needed to complete a five-day basic security training course with an institute approved by the Ministry of Interior or the General Directorate of Police, successfully pass an exam, and get the required license. The UAE’s law on private security companies also prohibits employees from carrying firearms and mandates they wear uniforms distinctly dissimilar from the uniforms of the armed forces and the police.
Amer and his fellow Sudanese migrant workers had many questions: Why were they at a military compound? Why were security guards being trained to use a Kalashnikov? Where were the company representatives? And what purpose did Black Shield Security Services really hire them for?
Between September and November 2019, according to Amer and three other Sudanese men, Black Shield Security Services recruited more than 390 Sudanese men who thought they were coming to work as security guards in the UAE. Like Amer, all the men interviewed described experiencing exploitative recruitment practices that put them at risk of human trafficking and forced labor, and which violate domestic and international standards on migrant workers’ rights. None had signed contracts while still in Sudan, and all were falsely told they would become security guards in the UAE. Those interviewed said they paid between 10,000 and 20,000 Sudanese pounds (between US$190-390) in recruitment fees, while one man said he paid 50,000 ($960) and another 65,000 Sudanese pounds ($1250). None received receipts for the payments they made. In violation of both UAE law and international labor standards, all those who traveled to the UAE for the jobs said they had their passports confiscated upon arrival.
Besides being registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development as both a sole proprietorship and a limited liability company and listed on the Government of Abu Dhabi’s website as a security services company established in 2019, Black Shield appears to have left no other trace of its existence online. According to job contracts reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the company is owned by Daien Saif Muaded al-Kaabi, an Emirati man described in a 2012 local news article as a colonel in the armed forces. An article in the UAE’s official news agency’s website in 2017 does not mention his military title. The Sudanese migrant workers identified another person who may be involved: Brigadier General Masoud al-Mazrouei who is mentioned in Yemeni newspapers in 2017 and 2018 as deputy commander of the Emirati Forces and a commander of the Allied Operations in Aden. Five different migrant workers, interviewed separately, saw his photo and recognized him as one of the company representatives. Three of them identified him by name as the same Masoud al-Mazrouei who at one point introduced himself to them as deputy director at Black Shield.
“There was a real secrecy around telling us what the nature of our job really would be,” said “Malek,” a 24-year-old Sudanese university graduate who told us he chose to pursue work in the UAE because of a dire economic situation in Sudan that had left many of the country’s youth unemployed. “They [the men in charge of their training and of the Ghiyathi camp] wouldn’t give us clear information though, even when we asked direct questions about why we were in a military camp for example, and what this had to do with our work as civilian security guards.” Several of the Sudanese men mentioned asking those responsible at various times about the nature of the work and the military training, only to be told either that they were only in charge of their training and knew nothing else, or that there was nothing to worry about and this was just standard training.
Two things slightly placated the men’s skepticism and unease. First, a Sudanese man who introduced himself as their training supervisor served as their liaison with a company whose representatives were otherwise nowhere to be seen. He would reassure them again and again that, despite being trained militarily and donning military uniforms, they would work as security guards for a privately-owned company. Second, a few weeks after their arrival in the UAE, the company issued the men residency permits, bank cards, and health insurance cards, and had them sign contracts that explicitly said they would work as security guards within the emirate of Abu Dhabi. None of those interviewed were given copies of their contracts, and just a few managed to snap pictures of them using their phones.
One man said it was the worry they would lose their jobs – some, without having earned back the money they paid in recruitment fees to secure the jobs – that discouraged some of the men from probing too deeply and demanding clear and direct answers. As migrant workers in the UAE, the Sudanese men were governed by an exploitative foreign labor governance system which gives employers excessive control over workers. Migrant workers’ ability to speak up is often constrained by dependence on the company for their livelihood and accommodation some of them said, their passports being confiscated, and fear of retaliation, including arrest and deportation.
On January 20, about four months after the first Sudanese recruits arrived, the men said a company representative finally came to meet the men. Masoud al-Mazrouei, dressed in civilian clothing, introduced himself as deputy director of Black Shield and congratulated the men on successfully completing the training. Al-Mazrouei refused to disclose where they would be posted, leaving the men with more unanswered questions. Five of the men interviewed said they understood they’d be sent to guard infrastructure and facilities critical to the UAE inside or outside the country; four understood they’d guard such facilities inside the UAE, and at least five said al-Mazrouei’s response was unclear when asked whether they’d be posted in Yemen or Libya. When some of the men voiced concerns about being sent to an undisclosed location, they said al-Mazrouei offered to double their wages from the 1,840 Emirati dirhams (US$500) per month stipulated in their contracts to 3,680 Emirati dirhams ($1000).
“We kept asking about the actual locations, but he still refused to tell us,” said “Naji,” 33. “And I thought if he was not willing to trust me with this information, how are you trusting me to go guard such a sensitive location, I didn’t want to go through with it.” Naji and a little over 100 men refused to work, asking that they be sent back to Sudan. Amer, Malek, and around 270 men accepted. “I am the eldest among my siblings and I’m responsible for my family,” Amer said when asked why he agreed to go without knowing the location. “When I left Sudan [for this job] I resigned from my job as an employee. Now it’s extremely difficult to find another job.”
Following their meeting with al-Mazrouei, Black Shield divided the Sudanese migrant workers into two groups. Over the next two days, the men who had consented to continue working said they traveled by bus to a military base near Abu Dhabi. From this point, they wore non-camouflage uniforms with the letters CNIA printed on them, which stands for Critical National Infrastructure Authority, a government entity which protected the UAE’s borders and oil fields and was absorbed by the armed forces in 2012. Neither their phones nor their passports had been returned. They said they embarked on what they described as a large military cargo plane accompanied by two men from their compound clad in Emirati military uniforms and the plane crew, also in military uniform. “The pilots said they can’t tell us where we are going,” said Naji. “Once in the air, one captain said we will take around five hours to land. This is where we got really nervous about where we were actually being taken.”
Five and a half hours later, the men said they arrived at the military airbase in the desert where they saw the water bottles and realized they were in Libya. “It was cold and humid, it felt like it was near the sea,” said Naji. “The airbase was filled with military planes and weaponry,” Amer said. “It was small and almost everyone there was Emirati.” Human Rights Watch could not determine the precise location of the first airbase.
The men said the Emirati men in military uniforms who came with them from the UAE told them they would travel 50 men at a time in a smaller plane to their final destination – a journey the men said took around 1.5 hours. From that point onwards, the men said no Emiratis joined them. Over the course of the next day, the men, in groups of 50 or less, boarded a military transport aircraft and headed towards Ras Lanuf. 
The men began to arrive at an airstrip in Ras Lanuf where they said they were met by armed Libyan fighters, loaded onto pickup trucks, and taken to a military compound around 15 kilometers from Ras Lanuf’s oil port. The pickup trucks had an insignia plastered on them that Human Rights Watch later identified in pictures as that of General Hiftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces’ (LAAF) Unit 302, a special forces group also known as al-Saiqa (Thunderbolt). “There were blocks of housing that looked damaged, as if there had been fighting there,” said Naji of the compound. “We found cars destroyed and ammunition strewn across the grounds, it looked like a battlefield,” said Amer.
Sometime after the last group arrived, the men said a Libyan member of the LAAF brought them their previously confiscated phones, which they soon realized could not be used to make international calls or access the internet. The Libyan man told them their mission was to guard the surrounding oil fields. “The Libyan fighters treated us horribly, they would push us with their weapons, and try to provoke us and terrorize us,” said Amer. “We couldn’t get in touch with anyone and we were afraid that if we did anything wrong, they would kill us or hurt us. So we all stayed silent and tried not to put ourselves in danger.”
Since at least 2014, the UAE has provided sustained military support to General Hiftar’s eastern-based LAAF, one of two major Libyan parties to the conflict.
Over the past few months, two reports alleged that UAE-based private companies were used to transport military supplies or personnel to Libya in support of General Hiftar’s forces, apparently unrelated to Black Shield. In April 2020, they claimed that at least two UAE-based companies had shipped nearly 11,000 tonnes of jet fuel to General Hiftar’s forces. In May 2020, Bloomberg news service reported on a confidential UN report that alleged there had been a short-lived mission in which a group of foreign fighters reportedly linked with Dubai-based companies was briefly deployed to Libya under the guise of coming to guard the oil and gas facilities.The mission was apparently aborted after disagreements on equipment used by the team.
This mission, too, was short-lived. On January 26, after one of the Sudanese men in Libya managed to tell his family back in Khartoum about the situation, some of the mens’ families protested at the UAE embassy in Khartoum and demanded their relatives be immediately returned to Sudan. Two days later, they protested again in front of the Sudanese Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Sudanese activists amplified their calls on social media. Local media covered the story, as did Al Jazeera English and the Guardian.
The Sudanese Minister for Information was quoted as saying Sudan was in contact with the UAE over its citizens in Libya and demanding that those who wanted to leave be returned immediately. Reuters reported that Sudan was investigating the matter. Starting January 28, six days after the first Sudanese men arrived in Ras Lanuf, every one of Black Shield’s Sudanese employees returned to the UAE the same way they came, the men told Human Rights Watch. “We were so relieved to hear that [we were leaving Libya],” said Abdelilah. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify that all Sudanese employees returned to the UAE.
Arriving back in the UAE on January 20, the Sudanese men who refused to work without being informed of their work location were moved out of the Ghiyathi compound to another nearby compound, where two of them described being housed in trailers in detention-like conditions without their phones for one week. “We saw the guards install devices around our caravans. These were probably to monitor us. But we managed to sneak in some hidden phones and we weren’t treated badly, but we did feel very restricted,” said Abdelilah. “After three days there, we decided to go on hunger strike so they can speed up the process of returning us back to Sudan. A member of the Emirati military, who was also in charge [of the Ghiyathi compound], came to us and said that he doesn’t like this type of behavior, that our behavior was a sort of terrorism and that they could send us to the [state security forces’] terrorism unit [if the strike continued].”
Once all of Black Shield’s Sudanese employees were reunited in late January, this time at a migrant workers’ accommodation in the Emirati city of Bani Yas, company representatives, including Daien Saif al-Kaabi, met with them and vaguely apologized for the “misunderstanding” that had occurred, offering to let them work in the UAE instead. The 12 men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they rejected the offer, and two said all the Sudanese men present rejected it. “This man [al Kaabi] had lied to me once and twice and three times, he will only lie to me again,” said Amer. “Immediately I said I want go back to Sudan. I have dignity and a conscience. He sent me there as a mercenary to die. I refuse to work for him.”
The 12 men said that the company bought them tickets for between January 31 and February 7, and only returned their passports moments before they boarded the plane for Khartoum. Four of the men said they were paid between 5500 and 7500 Emirati dirhams (between US$1490-2040) in wages and settlements.
Since returning to Sudan, the men have assembled a team of local volunteer lawyers, headed by Suleiman Jiddi. Jiddi told Human Rights Watch in September 2020 that criminal complaints of fraud and trafficking have been submitted to the courts against local recruitment companies that contributed to deceiving the Sudanese men and facilitating jobs with Black Shield Security Services. A second lawyer the men consulted, Omar al-Obaid, said in October that he is “planning to take the case to international courts.” Protests led by the returned Sudanese men demanding an apology and compensation from UAE authorities continue to take place sporadically in front of the UAE embassy in Khartoum.
“We went looking for an honest livelihood and we were deceived,” said “Ibrahim,” a 36-year-old Sudanese employee who was amongst those who refused to travel to an unknown location. “If it weren’t for our families back home and the Sudanese people, those boys would’ve remained in Libya.”