In 2019, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of a paramilitary organisation called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) pledged over $1bn to help stabilise the Sudanese Central Bank in the aftermath of the economic crisis and protests which led up to the ouster of dictator, President Omar Al-Bashir. "We put $1.027 billion in the Bank of Sudan … the funds are there, available now" and that the RSF "supported the State at the beginning of the crisis by buying the essential resources: petrol, wheat, medication," said Dagalo, when making the pledge.
Questions have been asked, ever since, over the pledge. How was a little-known militia group able to source over a billion dollars? A decade ago, Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, was nothing more than one of the leaders of the Janjaweed, a paramilitary force deployed by former Sudanese President, Omar Al-Bashir, in Darfur to suppress an insurrection. Violence and terror carried out by the Janjaweed during the war in Darfur led to the displacement of millions of people and an estimated death of 300,000 civilians. An investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused Janjaweed leaders of committing genocide. Hemedti himself was enough of a prominent figure as to feature in the ICC Prosecutor's application for an arrest warrant.
War crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly carried out by Hemedti did not hinder the Janjaweed leader's rise to prominence. Details uncovered about the 49-year-old's source of wealth and his meteoric rise consistently point to the UAE. More than any other country, the Gulf monarchy features heavily in Hemedti's consolidation of power and influence. The former camel herder, accused of genocide, is said to be sitting at the apex of a "paramilitary-industrial complex" which controls both a large powerful military force and an independent source of wealth, thanks in large part to the Emirates. With over 100,000 fighters, beyond a tool for domestic power and making money, the RSF gives Hemedti geopolitical power, ready to be enlisted by the likes of the UAE to do its bidding wherever it is necessary.
Read: UAE behind RSF's attempted coup in Sudan, leaked recording says
It is no secret that, in recent years, the Emirates have emerged as a major player, not just in the Middle East where it is using its vast wealth to influence events across the region, but also around the world. While the country presents itself as a force for stability, Abu Dhabi's role in the rise of Hemedti is just one of many examples showing that the Gulf country has been anything but, and a more accurate description would be to call the Emirates an agent of chaos and instability. Its role in funding and supporting mercenaries in countries such as Libya and Yemen are well known. Often referred to, admiringly or disparagingly, as "little Sparta" – a power that punches above its weight – the small Gulf state, which has a population of nine million, the overwhelming majority comprising of foreign labourers, is heavily reliant on mercenaries.
In 2020, the US Pentagon claimed that Abu Dhabi is helping to finance the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in Libya, where it has been a key player in the ongoing conflict, providing support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is fighting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, who is recognised by the UN and others like Turkiye. The UAE's support for the LNA has included providing military equipment, training and air support, as well as recruiting mercenaries from countries, such as Sudan and Syria, to fight on the LNA's behalf. Having helped to consolidate Hemedti's power and influence in Sudan, 1,000 RSF fighters were sent to support UAE-allied forces.
In Yemen, where a ceasefire deal was agreed last month between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis after seven years of military conflict, Hemedti's private soldiers were deployed by the Gulf States. Sudanese troops reached over 40,000 at the peak of Yemen's war in 2016-2017.
Read: Who is fighting who in Sudan, and why?
Returning to Sudan, the UAE has provided arms to Hemedti's RSF. The Telegraph reported that, on Tuesday, footage emerged of thermobaric shells apparently supplied by the UAE to the RSF and captured by the military. Video showing crates of the 120mm thermobaric airdrop shells with markings suggesting they were manufactured in Serbia in 2020 and later supplied to the UAE. According to analysts cited in the Telegraph, the video undermines the UAE's credibility as a neutral mediator. "The assertion by Washington that the UAE is a partner in pursuing peace in Sudan as part of the Quad must increasingly be looked at with scepticism," Cameron Hudson, a former CIA officer and Sudan expert is reported saying. The Quad is the UK, US, Saudi and UAE, a group that tried to restore civilian rule after the Sudanese military and the RSF carried out a coup in 2021.
Hemedti himself appeared to acknowledge that the UAE is the main benefactor of his private army when answering questions about the source the one-billion-dollar pledge in 2019. "People ask where do we [the RSF] bring this money from. We have the salaries of our troops fighting outside [abroad] and our gold investments, money from gold, and other investments." The source of RSF finances, which includes the profiteering through their takeover of the Jebel Amer gold mines in Darfur, has allowed Hemedti to ignore calls to bring his fighters under control of either the Sudanese military or the civilian elements of the country's government.
What keeps Hemedti's network functioning? Global Witness, an international NGO established in 1993 that works to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, found a cache of leaked documents which show that not only has Hemedti managed to captured a large part of the country's gold industry through a linked company, but the leaked bank data and corporate documents show their use of front companies and banks based in Sudan and the UAE. The leaked bank documents show that the RSF hold an account under their own name at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (now part of First Abu Dhabi Bank). "This provides evidence", said Global Witness, "of the financial autonomy of the RSF". It went on to explain that, despite an ambiguous law of 2016 placing the militia under the control of the President as Supreme Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, it suggests that the RSF might not be under the financial control of the military, let alone the civilian elements of the power-sharing Sovereignty Council.
The leaked RSF spreadsheet seemingly describes how the militia received over $40 million "for technical support" from an unknown source, and used over $30 million of that to purchase vehicles and communications equipment. The document suggests that the RSF bought over 1,000 vehicles during the first six months of 2019, from dealers in the UAE. The shipments included over 900 Toyota Hilux and Land Cruisers, models which the RSF frequently converts into what it calls "technical" – 4×4 military vehicles, mounted with machine guns.
PROFILE – Hemedti: A camel trader with aims to rule Sudan
The UAE's support for the RSF has played a major role in enabling a group accused of genocide to consolidate its power. Abu Dhabi has been using the RSF to advance its own interests in the country, which include securing access to Sudan's natural resources and countering the influence of other regional powers. The UAE's support for the RSF is just one example of the country's role as an agent of chaos and instability in the Middle East.
Its support for mercenaries and paramilitary groups across the region paints a picture of a country that is actively fuelling instability and conflict. Rather than promoting stability and security, the UAE's actions are contributing to the breakdown of institutions and the rise of violent non-state actors.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.