Western countries - the US, UK and France have continued to sell arms to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, resisting pressure to halt such sales in the wake of the Khashoggi murder and the near-famine conditions Yemen. Both these countries have used US-manufactured weapons to buy loyalties of militias or tribes, bolster chosen armed actors and influence the complex landscape. Has the US lost control over a key ally presiding over one of the most horrific wars of the past decade?
The continuing civil war in Yemen has reduced the country to abject poverty. The war led by the Saudi-led coalition in support of President Hadi, started soon after the capital Sana'a was seized by Houthi rebel forces in September 2014. This forced President Hadi into exile. According to data released by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project ( ACLED), over 60,000 people- including 6000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting between January 2016 and November 2018. A ceasefire around the port of Hudeydah has reduced the intensity of ground fighting but the Saudi-led partial blockade continues to place the country in near-famine conditions.
Besides Saudi Arabia and UAE, other participants in the Saudi-led coalition include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the UAE. Morocco withdrew its forces in February 2019, but until then was part of the coalition.
The US, UK and France have been severely condemned as the primary arms vendor to Saudi Arabia and UAE in their war against the Houthi rebels and their supporters in the Yemeni army, who control the capital Sana’a.
The US Congress has favoured blocking President Donald Trump from selling arms and technical support to Saudi Arabia. The votes came in the midst of renewed tensions with Iran.
President Trump has rejected this Congressional Resolution. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has cited the Iranian threats as a primary reason to ratify the arms sale to its allies in the Gulf. The White House maintains that stopping the weapons supply would signal that the US does not stand by its partners and allies, at a time when the threats against them are intensifying. President Trump stated that cancelling major arms contracts with the Saudis would be imprudent, and that "Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries" if the US halted its sales.
Critics of the sale denounced the White House for bypassing the congressional review of the arms sales, which was done by invoking an emergency loophole in the Arms Export Control Act. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, “The president’s shameful veto tramples over the will of the bipartisan, bicameral Congress and perpetuates his administration’s involvement in the horrific conflict in Yemen, which is a stain on the conscience of the world.”
In June 2019, a UK court declared that export licenses should not be provided if there is a risk that the exports might be used in violation of International Humanitarian Law. It directed Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary to review the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have defended the UK’s arms relationship with Riyadh, although other European countries have halted sales.
The crisis that has unfolded in Yemen has two major actors. On one side, there is increasing evidence that the Houthis who are in control of the capital city of Sana’a and much of the north and west of Yemen, are being supplied arms from Iran in violation of a UN embargo. A recent report by the UN Panel of Experts for Yemen observed that the missiles and UAVs used by the Houthis bore a strong similarity to those produced by Iran. The Stockholm Institute of Peace and Research (SIPRI ) has recorded a probable delivery of more than 10 Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missiles, a variant of the Scud missile, a fairly unsophisticated unguided missile.
On the ‘opposing side, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of states that are intervening militarily in Yemen, to support the internationally-recognized government of President Hadi. However, many of the Yemeni forces supported by the coalition owe lesser loyalty to the Hadi government. Supporters of Hadi are a variety of tribal militias who are armed, trained and funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They include various foreign mercenaries loyal to the Southern Transitional Council, supported by the UAE, which seeks to establish an independent South Yemen.
- All major arms exporters are suppliers to the lucrative Gulf arms market. Saudi Arabia is almost entirely dependent on imported arms, which most Western producers have been very happy to supply.
- The US is the largest supplier to all of these countries, followed by the UK and France. In Yemen, British Tornado and Typhoon aircraft are a major component of the Saudi Air Force. They provide the technical air support that helps the Saudis to continue the bombing.
- The Yemen war has led to a significant debate on arms sales. In some cases, it has reached the level of serious legislative opposition, breaking what has often been a cross-party consensus in favour of arms sales.
- US weapons might once again be available to Al Qaeda affiliates fighting Washington’s proxy war in Yemen.
- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used the US-manufactured weapons as a tool to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes and influence the complex political landscape.
- There is a fundamental disconnect between the goal of arms trade regulation, the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention.