LOS ANGELES (Middle East Eye) -- In California's Mojave Desert last year, an American man wearing a helmet and body armor stood in front of a line of rifle-toting Emirati troops who were in the United States for military training.
"My name is General Stephen A. Toumajan,” he tells the camera in a distinctly American accent, his thumbs gripping the sides of his heavy bullet-proof vest. "I’m the commanding general for the Joint Aviation Command in, uh, UAE.”
He did not misspeak: Gen Toumajan, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is the commanding officer of the United Arab Emirates' military helicopter branch. He wears the UAE’s uniform, gives orders to Emirati troops and - when he meets with American counterparts - is identified as a general of a foreign force.
At war in Yemen - and with aspirations of becoming a dominant land, air and sea power in the Middle East - the UAE is leaning heavily on foreign expertise to transform and guide its military.
From commanders like Toumajan to mercenaries and trainers, foreigners have been central to the rise of the UAE’s military.
"All Persian Gulf military forces employ many foreigners, but in the UAE there is a different, more effective military outcome," said David Roberts, an assistant professor at King's College London and an expert on Persian Gulf affairs.
Toumajan is not the only foreign commander in the UAE’s armed forces.
Australian Mike Hindmarsh heads the UAE’s Presidential Guard, which is considered to be among the most elite fighting forces in the Arab world today and is active in Yemen.
The role Toumajan and Hindmarsh play is not exactly clear.
The Presidential Guard is said to lead the UAE’s deployment in Yemen and Hindmarsh is believed to answer directly to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed.
Roberts, the UK-based Persian Gulf expert, said the commanders are more than figureheads and likely play a key role. "I presume they have been influential in the planning process working alongside senior Emiratis,” he said.
Other western officers wear the UAE’s uniform and hold rank as well, but they appear to be confined to training roles.
An Emirati company called Knowledge Point employs a large number of former American officers tasked with training and advising Emirati forces.
While some of their work is as mundane as writing military textbooks, one employee lists himself as a "senior advisor to the Commander of Land Forces”. In online resumes, other employees write that they are specifically readying Emirati troops for combat in Yemen.
Sean McFate, a former mercenary who now studies and writes about private military contractors, said these kinds of gigs are attractive for retired U.S. officers.
"Senior officers like it because you do 25 years in the army and get out at 45 or 50. If you’re an infantry guy, what are you going to do? Work at Walmart?” he said. "No. You can make big bucks this way and you can do something with your skillset.”
Becca Wasser, a policy analyst at the Rand Corporation who specializes in U.S. defense and foreign policies in the Middle East, said the UAE's military depends on foreigners it contracts to keep it up and running.
"These contractors include former US and other military personnel, and often take on the lion’s share of the unglamorous work that helps keep the military afloat,” she said.
The UAE military’s reliance on foreigners is not exactly new.
Back in 2010, Blackwater founder Erik Prince was tasked with putting together a mercenary army in the UAE that would confront any potential worker or pro-democracy uprisings.
Before he joined the Trump administration, U.S. Defense Secretary General Jim Mattis received permission from the U.S. Marine Corps to serve as a military advisor to the UAE in 2015.
The UAE has also been accused of sending hundreds of Latin American mercenaries - members of the hired gun army Prince founded - to fight in Yemen.
While Emirati troops have deployed to Yemen and played a key role, they have outsourced much of the fighting to their local anti-Houthi allies, limiting their own casualties.
McFate, the former mercenary, said the policy lowers the barriers of entry to war. "Being able to outsource war seems to promise more war in the future; that’s what’s so dangerous about it,” he said.
"If you rent a car and you don’t have to pay for long-term damages, you might want to run it over speed bumps. Where if it’s your own car, you would never do that,” he added. "They (mercenaries) are like a rented car. You can act more recklessly and what it can do is start wars and elongate wars that otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Emirati military ambitions only appear to be growing.
The UAE is at war in Yemen. The country reportedly considered using military action against Qatar. In East Africa, it has built a base in Eritrea and is planning to establish a base in Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region in Somalia.
To support its military ambitions, the UAE introduced a mandatory military service of one year for men between the ages of 18 and 30 in 2014. And on Sunday, the UAE extended that military service period to sixteen months.
"They are in danger of overstretch when you compare their activities to their primary resource constraint: their small population,” said Wasser. "As such, the Emirati armed forces are likely to continue to bolster their small size with non-Emirati contract support in non-combat roles.”
From bombing civilian targets to torturing prisoners in detention centers, the UAE stands accused of a number of war crimes as its war in Yemen enters its fourth year.
So what happens if troops serving under a foreign commander commit a war crime?
Rebecca Hamilton, an assistant professor of law at American University in Washington, DC, said it’s hard to prosecute war crimes, especially when the role of a commanding officer is opaque.
"Just trying to prove the knowledge that you would need even if a war crime is being committed, pinning that down to an individual is always challenging.”
It also comes down to where the foreign commander is from. A foreign commander from the United Kingdom or Australia could potentially be tried at the International Criminal Court, but as the U.S. is not a party to the statute that established the court, that is not an option for Americans.
So as long as Toumajan does not intend to give up his U.S. citizenship and has received permission to work for the Emiratis, he is in the clear.
"If prohibitions on war crimes are not enforced, that sends a signal to people who might perpetrate them that they don’t need to be worried,” said Hamilton, the assistant law professor.