As countries worldwide divert their efforts toward mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf conflict and warfare persist. However, nowhere is the situation more dire than in Yemen, where domestic and foreign actors are heavily armed with advanced weapons.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of military forces to launch Operation Decisive Storm. This was a series of airstrikes directed against Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthi movement, which had allied with the Saudis’ old foe, former Yemeni president ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh to take over the capital, San‘a. In the past five years, Yemenis have suffered from the ensuing proxy war. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and millions of people displaced, in addition to famine and widespread destruction in the country. Iran and the Gulf states have played a significant role in this, but the United States and European countries are hardly blameless.
Yemen is the world’s second most heavily armed country after the United States. Arms trafficking is hardly new to Yemen. Long before the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, and even before the uprising that led to Saleh’s resignation in 2011, Yemen was already an arms-trafficking hub. What is new today, is the types and quantities of weapons available in the country. Arms markets exist from Houthi-controlled San‘a to the provisional capital of Aden, in an area now controlled by the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council.
International arms transfers normally come with binding end-user certificates. These certify that the buyer is the sole user of the weapons and materials purchased. The transfer of any item to third parties is categorically prohibited. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been repeatedly accused of violating their end-user certificates by providing material—including U.S. and European military hardware—to members of their military coalition, President ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces, and more notably the National Resistance Forces (NRF). The NRF consists of armed proxy groups such as the Giants Brigade and the Abu ‘Abbas Brigade, a Salafi militia with ties to Al-Qa‘eda. Interestingly, in October 2017 Saudi Arabia and the UAE had joined the United States in classifying the Abu ‘Abbas Brigade as a terrorist organization. Yet the brigade’s spokesman, Radwan al-Hashidi, has declared that its relationship with Saudi Arabia has persisted in spite of this.
A CNN report in 2019 provoked shock when videos surfaced showing competing factions in Yemen armed with American weaponry that had originally been sent to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2018, the German broadcaster DW revealed the overwhelming presence of European weapons—also meant for Saudi Arabia and the UAE—in the country. This included Swiss hand grenades, Austrian assault rifles, Belgian machine guns, U.S. armored vehicles, British mine clearance vehicles, and German machine guns, rifles, and assault rifles. These weapons have been seen in the hands of Al-Qa‘eda, the Abu ‘Abbas Brigade, the Houthis, and the Islah Party, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sources from within the NRF have said that they would often sell their weapons when they were short on cash, as it was common for them to not receive their salaries. Still, the Arab coalition denies accusations that it has supplied such groups with U.S. and European weapons. In a press conference in 2018, its spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Maliki, said such information was “not based on evidence.”
The European Union’s official website claims that “EU foreign and security policy seeks to preserve peace” and “develop and consolidate … respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The EU’s policy on arms sales, the 2008 Common Position, even entrusts member states with ensuring that countries receiving weapons transfers respect international human rights and humanitarian law, which Saudi Arabia and its allies have blatantly disregarded in Yemen.
Still, weapons sales to the Gulf states have not been interrupted. For example, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in its annual report released in March of this year, claimed that Saudi imports of arms had increased by 130 percent between 2015 and 2019. Germany, France, and Italy have discontinued arms sales to Turkey for its actions in northern Syria, but have not done so to Saudi Arabia. This has raised questions about the EU’s double standards. In March 2018, Germany finally appeared to reconsider its position by slamming the brakes on a €400 million arms deal with Riyadh. Yet it reversed its decision the following November, just weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, no less.
In the United States, there has also been considerable displeasure with weapons transfers. Senator Chris Murphy, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, has stated that “the Saudis have been violating the rules of conflict for years now” by using U.S.-made bombs to “intentionally drop them on civilians.”
In July 2019, the Republican-controlled Senate voted in favor of blocking a $8.1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a bipartisan effort, citing concern over Saudi and Emirati human rights abuses and their actions in Yemen. President Donald Trump vetoed the measure, and the Senate failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. Trump had also vetoed previous legislation to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen.
Ironically, the weapons that the United States sends to allies in the Gulf may well end up being used against Americans, considering that a significant quantity now lies in the hands of its enemies. However, the Trump administration is already seeking out new multi-billion dollar arms deals. In May 2020, Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, revealed that the State Department was working on the sale of thousands of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. Might Congress resume efforts to halt future arms sales to Gulf countries? If so, it is unlikely that the House and Senate could garner enough support across the aisle to prevent another presidential veto.
The repercussions of the proxy war in Yemen are being felt indiscriminately across the country. In addition to hitting medical facilities run by Doctors Without Borders five times since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has also continued to attack civilians, even bombing a school bus in Dahyan in 2018, killing at least 29 children and wounding 30. While the Saudi-led coalition has persisted in denying its role in the bombing of civilians, the United States and the EU continue to be complicit in aiding and abetting the coalition’s actions, despite the fact that the war in Yemen has become the world’s most pressing humanitarian catastrophe.
This article is part of a larger project on which the author is working with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Global Public Policy Institute.