Trump’s Ongoing Political Predicament: Saudi-UAE Coalition Transfers U.S. Arms to Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supplying U.S. military equipment to al-Qaeda-linked groups in Yemen. The Trump administration now finds itself in a predicament as Congress demands answers to justify this disastrous development.
Trump’s Ongoing Political Predicament Saudi-UAE Coalition Transfers U.S. Arms to Al-Qaeda in Yemen
Image by: Youssef Qabli/Inside Arabia

A CNN investigation released in early February found that the military intervention in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had transferred U.S. military equipment to al-Qaeda-linked fighters and Salafi militia in the country. The investigation also found that these weapons had since ended up in the hands of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, which the coalition has failed to contain since it intervened in March 2015.

The coalition allegedly used U.S.-manufactured weapons in a series of fatal attacks against Yemeni civilians, including children, between 2015 and 2018. The investigation also indicated that the coalition used these weapons to “buy the loyalties of militias” in Yemen.  

Not only is Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s relocation of American weapons to known terrorists morally questionable, it is also illegal. The transfer of military equipment to third parties is a breach of contract, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, which is currently investigating the matter.

“Deep Concern”

CNN’s damning investigation caused a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers to express their “deep concern” about the Saudi Arabia-UAE conduct.

CNN’s damning investigation caused a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers to express their “deep concern” about the Saudi Arabia-UAE conduct. In late February, the group called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to clarify how the illegal transfer of American weapons had taken place. They stressed the threat to national security, adding that it was “alarming that the media reports linked some of the Yemeni proxy groups to al-Qaeda.”

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) made its way to the frontlines of Houthi territory in Taiz—a city in southwestern Yemen—in 2015. Since then, the terrorist group forged beneficial alliances with the pro-Saudi militias they fought alongside. The AQAP allegedly received U.S. weapons from the Saudi-UAE coalition in the same year.

The U.S. named Abu al-Abbas, the leader of Abu al-Abbas Battalions—an AQAP-linked militia—a foreign terrorist in 2017 because of his affiliation with the Yemeni branches of ISIS and al-Qaeda. The Saudi-UAE coalition is suspected of supplying weapons to the Abu al-Abbas Battalions, which possesses U.S. Oshkosh armored vehicles that were used in a military parade in Taiz in 2015.

Does the Saudi-UAE-led Coalition Support Terrorism?  

As an influential actor in Yemen, the UAE has taken full advantage of the areas that the coalition has liberated from the Houthis in southern Yemen. Over the years, Abu Dhabi has recruited loyal local forces, including Salafists, to establish the Security Belt Forces. The UAE-backed forces control the city of Aden, among other territories.

Abu al-Abbas assembled different Salafi factions and established “Hamat al-Aqeda” (Protectors of the Faith) in Taiz in 2015. Since then, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition has supported the Hamat al-Aqeda militia with money and weapons, allowing Abu al-Abbas and his followers to become a force to be reckoned with in the strategic city of Taiz.

Although Pentagon spokesperson Johnny Michael affirmed that the U.S. did not authorize Saudi Arabia or the UAE to allocate American weapons to any third party in Yemen, Abu al-Abbas admitted that the coalition gave him millions of dollars in weapons and financial support in December 2018. “If I really was a terrorist, they would have taken me in for questioning,” he claimed. The question that remains is how did the Houthis, the coalition’s adversary, obtain those weapons?

American Weapons in Houthi Possession

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the de facto leader of the Houthi militia, appeared in  Yemeni television footage in September 2017, posing behind the wheel of a U.S. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) and surrounded by Houthi rebels chanting “Death to America” in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.

CNN claimed that it had obtained images showing the serial numbers of a second MRAP in the possession of another senior Houthi official in Hodeidah in 2018. The serial numbers and a sale document discovered during CNN’s investigation indicated that the UAE had purchased the military vehicle as part of a $2.5 billion arms sale in 2014.

Iranian intelligence has captured other MRAPs on the battlefield. A member of a secret Iranian-backed Houthi unit, known as the Preventative Security Force, revealed that some U.S. military technology has already been transferred to Iran, which is assessing it “very closely.”

Moreover, the anonymous member of the Preventive Security Force claimed that there was not a single American weapon that Iranian intelligence did not attempt to deconstruct and analyze. Despite a member of the Houthi political council denying claims that Iranian intelligence had probed any MRAPs, the armored vehicles remain in the hands of the Houthis.

Tehran’s seizure of American military hardware is likely to increase its might on the battlefield. This is problematic at a time when Washington is trying to convince six Arab nations to form the Middle East Strategic Alliance, better known as Arab NATO,” to curb Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Are Riyadh and Abu Dhabi Reliable Allies for Washington?

Washington is currently the biggest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Washington is currently the biggest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since taking office in January 2017, Donald Trump has closed approximately $4 billion worth of arms deals with Riyadh. The contracts were signed to ostensibly increase security in the region “in the face of Iranian threats.”

However, it appears that Washington’s Gulf allies are undermining this goal. Critics believe that Washington’s support of the Saudi-UAE-led coalition makes it an accomplice to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Following the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October, the U.S. Senate voted to end American military support for the war that Saudi Arabia has waged in Yemen for the past four years. The bipartisan decision was considered an act of defiance against Trump, who has continued to defend Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman against allegations that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

The Trump administration now not only is called upon to explain to Congress how U.S. weapons sold to Gulf allies ended up in the possession of known terrorists, but it also should have to defend its continuing alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in light of their continuing human rights violations. If past is prologue, however, Trump’s utter disregard for congressional admonishment or deadlines will prevent any changes, and in all likelihood, business will go on as usual for the foreseeable future.