Years of conflict from domestic and external actors have greatly destabilized Yemen. Yet one of the less-mentioned factors that are driving the conflict is that of arms trafficking within and outside of the country even as various Western-supplied weapons have played a controversial role in Yemen’s swelling arms market. 

Before the current civil war, smuggling arms into Yemen was a profitable business for organized networks. Traditional routes had come in through the West such as al-Mokha’s port. Larger and more organized smuggling networks had trafficked weapons through the eastern Mahra provincebordering Oman, then transited through the central Marib province to be delivered to local arms dealers.

Mohammad, a resident from Sanaa’, told Inside Arabia that “carrying arms in Yemen is an ancient tribal habit; Yemenis are proud of weapons and they wear [them] everywhere, so there are weapons markets available almost everywhere in Yemen.” 

“But the weapons trade has increased more than 300% compared to before the war as many markets emerged in new cities that didn’t have them before the war, such as Taiz and Aden for example.”

There have been heavy weapons and tanks sold in the arms markets too, he added, which has become a large part of the war economy. 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are heavily stocked with Western-supplied weapons, have flooded the country with arms since intervening in March 2015 , backing several local militias and armed forces fighting for the anti-Houthi coalition. 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are heavily stocked with Western-supplied weapons, have flooded the country with arms since intervening in March 2015 to reinstate the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, backing several local militias and armed forces fighting for the anti-Houthi coalition. 

Much of this military equipment however has been diverted through third-party transfers for several reasons. Either allied factions may have dual-loyalties, or government soldiers have often sold them to local markets or other factions, to boost their appalling salaries. Several investigations have seen these weapons end up in the “wrong hands.” 

Weapons shops that have widely proliferated in Yemen have not only been used for individual trade, militia factions have also placed larger orders on weapons, leading to a soaring demand for them.

Ahmed Himmiche, who had coordinated a panel of experts on Yemen, said there are fighters outside the Yemeni government’s control who “receive military support, including weapons, which then end up on the black market or in the hands of entities under sanction.”

Due to the lack of controls on weapons moving across Yemen, Western arms delivered to coalition forces have unexpectedly ended up on the market and in the hands of extremists, as documented in a CNN investigation last year. 

Taiz city has been engulfed in a power struggle involving various factions, mainly government-aligned forces, the Houthis, al-Islah militias, and even hard-line Salafi militants. 

Among weapons markets in Taiz, Western weapons are readily displayed. “American guns are expensive and sought after,” said one weapons trader.

The militia of Abu al-Abbas, who was designated as a terrorist by the United States in 2017 for his Al Qaeda ties, has been seen possessing U.S.-made Oshkosh armored vehicles.

The militia of Abu al-Abbas, who was designated as a terrorist by the United States in 2017 for his Al Qaeda ties, has been seen possessing U.S.-made Oshkosh armored vehicles.

The UAE-backed Giants Brigade, a Salafi organization in the anti-Houthi campaign operating in the western Al-Hudaydah area, has discarded much U.S.-made weaponry on which it had left its insignia. These include many Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles with the Giants Brigade insignia, according to the investigation. 

Speaking to Inside Arabia, Michael Horton, researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, said that coalition-supplied weapons had even ended up in Houthi hands, evidently backfiring on Saudi Arabia’s military efforts.

“The only weapon system that has come under increased scrutiny and is subject to tracking are ATGMs [anti-tank guided missiles],” said Horton. “Saudi Arabia and the UAE put limits on the provision of ATGMs since so many were ending up in the hands of the Houthis who are incredibly adept at using them to attack ‘coalition’ forces.’”

“While the Houthis captured many of the ATGMs, they were also buying them from coalition aligned militias.”

“Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have supplied their various allies in Yemen with vast amounts of weaponry with limited or no end use tracking,” he added. “The militias and forces supplied with these weapons often trade weapons among themselves, use them as a kind of currency, and even use them to secure informal loans,”

German weapons from the manufacturer Heckler and Koch have been seen in the hands of Al Qaeda militias. This is in direct breach of international law, which states that weapons cannot be used in unauthorized transfers to third parties, according to an investigation from the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ). There has still been a lack of accountability to those responsible for such unregulated arms transfers into Yemen.

There is still a lack of accountability to those responsible for such unregulated arms transfers into Yemen.

“Where we found abuse of the end user certification system, we sought explanations from the arms companies and government who authorized the sales to the coalition. Many simply turn a blind eye,” said journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit.

AK 47 automatic rifles seized from a skiff by the guided missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham. The stateless skiff was found carrying a shipment of over 1000 illicit weapons.

AK 47 automatic rifles seized in a shipment of over 1000 illicit weapons by the guided missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham in the Gulf of Aden. Aug 28, 2018 (U.S. Navy via AP)

Belgian weapons have also been spotted in the hands of the Giants Brigade, reported Amnesty International. 

Such connections between Saudi Arabia and the UAE were previously highlighted in an Associated Press investigation which revealed that AQAP fighters were fighting alongside government-backed militias, and were sometimes even recruited into the anti-Houthi coalition. 

The UAE has openly given weapons and money to Abu al-Abbas’ militia, despite him being labelled as a terrorist. 

Though the UAE and Saudi Arabia have nonchalantly empowered Al Qaeda in the war despite the former’s alleged ‘counter-terrorism’ campaign against the faction, this has increased warfare and instability within Yemen considerably. 

However, despite such obvious violations of warfare within Yemen, neither the United States or other suppliers have pursued an investigation into how and by whom these weapons are being used.

The U.S. State Department and Office of the Secretary of Defense did not respond to Inside Arabia’s request for comments. 

In contrast to before the war, an increase of weapons into the country has boosted the war economy in Yemen, which has boosted arms exports from the country. Various militia factions sell weapons externally to finance their own war efforts. 

“Yemeni smugglers are said to carry weapons from Yemen into the Horn of Africa.”

“Yemeni smugglers are now said to carry weapons from Yemen into the Horn of Africa. Yemen has no need for AK47s or bullets for example, but most boats captured during the arms embargo were carrying thousands of AK47s, which Yemenis don’t need,” Fernando Carvajal, a former UN Security Council Panel of Experts member, who had monitored arms flows in and out of Yemen, told Inside Arabia.

Michael Horton, who was recently in the Horn of Africa, said that numerous senior officials brought up the issue of the number of weapons being smuggled into the Horn from Yemen. 

“Prices for small arms are much higher in places like Somalia than in Yemen so it is a very good business to buy cheap in Yemen and export to places like Somalia,” said Horton.

“The weapons do not stay in Somalia. Many make their way to Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Kenya.”

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