Arms Sales in the Yemeni Conflict: Who’s (Legally or Illegally) Selling Guns?
The Saudi-led coalition purchases most of its arms from the United States and United Kingdom, while weaponry for the Houthi rebels is smuggled almost entirely from Iran.
In 2017, the American and Saudi governments agreed to a deal wherein Saudi Arabia would purchase over $350 billion worth of American arms from 2017 to 2027. The deal was meant to strengthen American and Saudi ties and offset growing Iranian influence in the region. Orders that have been delivered are being used to support Saudi efforts in the Yemeni Civil War.
Lockheed Martin has sent Saudi Arabia THAAD missile defense systems, laser guided bombs, satellite guided missiles and nearly 200 Black Hawk helicopters (Metha 2017, Elbagir et al. 2018). The Obama administration blocked exports of laser guided bombs and satellite guided missiles to Saudi Arabia for fear of misuse, but this policy was overturned by the Trump administration (Elbagir et al. 2018). Boeing has sold over $6 billion worth of F-15 aircraft, anti-tank missiles and bombs, and Raytheon has delivered updated Patriot missile systems to Saudi Arabia (Mehta 2017, Zengerle 2019). Lockheed Martin and Boeing both received heat from American lawmakers and the general public after it was discovered that their weapons systems and bombs had been used in attacks that killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians (Elbagir et al. 2018).
In the months since Jamal Khashoggi’s death, many of the sales to the Saudi coalition have been met with more resistance from the legislative branch. Congress normally reviews and approves arms sales, but recently an $8 billion deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States was pushed through by the Trump administration without Congress’s approval (Held 2019). The administration made use of a legal loophole designed to allow arms sales without Congress’ approval if the president feels that American national security is at risk. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that recent Iranian provocations threaten American security and argued that greater support for the Saudis would adequately counter the danger (Garger 2019). The United States Senate passed a resolution with bipartisan support on June 10 to block the sale, but without a supermajority the sale will almost assuredly go through after President Trump vetoes it. Such disapproval from Congress shows that many lawmakers do not support either American military involvement in Yemen or the Saudi government in general.
The United Kingdom has approved the shipment of nearly $6 billion worth of arms and arms systems to the Saudi government since 2015. Nearly $5.5 billion has been in the form of planes, helicopters, drones, grenades, missiles, bombs, and military training equipment. The companies with the highest sales include Excelitas, BAE Systems, and Transac International (Campaign Against Arms Trade 2019).
On the same day that the United States Senate voted to block President Trump’s arms sales to the Saudis, a British Court of Appeals also ruled that much of the nation’s weapon sales were made unlawfully, citing a report by the Campaign Against Arms Trade and the United Nations detailing war crimes committed in Yemen (Dean et al. 2019). Following the ruling, the UK suspended all export licensing of arms that would be sold to members of the Saudi coalition. Notably, this suspension interrupted the planned shipment of 48 EuroFighter Typhoon Jets that BAE Systems had planned to send to Saudi Arabia in a deal worth over $5 billion (Croft et al. 2019).
International sanctions have banned Iran from sending weapons to Houthi rebels for years. Since these exports are banned, discovering what and how much Iran sells to the Houthi rebels is nearly impossible, but there is evidence that it has been supplying the rebels with rocket-propelled grenades, munitions, anti-tank and helicopter missiles, and bomb-making materials (Feierstein 2018, Schmitt and Worth 2012). Iran has supplied rebels with drones, which have increased the rebels’ killing power (Brumfiel 2019).
The Iranian government has officially denied any sales or shipments to the Houthi rebels, but the denials have generally been rebuked by the international community. The steady flow of arms and the introduction of drones into the fight indicate Iran’s unapologetic boldness in the region. The country has done little to hide its support for the Houthi rebels, and its recent provocations against the American military in the Persian Gulf show that the country is growing more confident that its actions will go largely unchecked by the international community.
Brumfiel, Geoff. 2019. “In Yemen Conflict, Some See A New Age Of Drone Warfare.” NPR. 29 May. Accessed at https://www.npr.org/2019/05/29/726760128/in-yemen-conflict-some-see-a-new-age-of-drone-warfare
Campaign Against Arms Trade. 2019. “UK export licences approved for military goods to Saudi Arabia since bombing of Yemen began.” Campaign Against Arms Trade. Accessed at https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/export-licences/dashboard?region=Saudi+Arabia&period=yemen-bombing-2015
Croft, Jane, Sylvia Pfeifer and Andrew England and Simeon Kerr. 2019. “UK suspends new arms export licences to Saudi-led coalition.” Financial Times. 20 June. Accessed at https://www.ft.com/content/fd03c434-933c-11e9-b7ea-60e35ef678d2
Dean, Sarah, Duarte Mendonca, Max Ramsay and Robert North. 2019. “UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, court rules as war in Yemen rages on.” CNN. 20 June. Accessed at https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/20/world/uk-arms-sales-saudi-arabia-gbr-intl/index.html
Elbagir, Nima, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Brown, Barbara Avanitidis, and Laura Smith-Spark. 2018. “Bomb that killed 40 children in Yemen was supplied by the US.” CNN. 17 August. Accessed at https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/17/middleeast/us-saudi-yemen-bus-strike-intl/index.html
Feierstein, Gerald. 2018. “Iran’s Role in Yemen and Prospects for Peace.” Middle East Institute. 6 December. Accessed at https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-role-yemen-and-prospects-peace
Garger, Kenneth. 2019. “Trump administration may use loophole to sell Saudi Arabia weapons.” The New York Post. 23 May. Accessed at https://nypost.com/2019/05/23/trump-administration-may-use-loophole-to-sell-saudi-arabia-weapons/
Held, Amy, 2019. “In Rare Rebuke To Trump, Senate Votes To Block Saudi Arms Sales.” NPR. 20 June. Accessed at https://www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734437874/in-rare-rebuke-to-trump-senate-votes-to-block-saudi-arms-sales
Mehta, Aaron. 2017. “Here are the big industry winners in the Saudi weapons offer.” Defense News. 9 June. Accessed at https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2017/06/09/here-are-the-big-industry-winners-in-the-saudi-weapons-offer/
Schmitt, Eric and Robert F. Worth. 2012. “With Arms for Yemen Rebels, Iran Seeks Wider Mideast Role.” New York Times. 15 March. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/world/middleeast/aiding-yemen-rebels-iran-seeks-wider-mideast-role.html
Zengerle, Patricia. 2019. “Defying Congress, Trump sets $8 billion-plus in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE.” Reuters. 24 May. Accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-arms/defying-congress-trump-sets-8-billion-plus-in-weapons-sales-to-saudi-arabia-uae-idUSKCN1SU25R