U.S. Continues Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Despite Increasing Devastation in Yemen

Middle East and North Africa


“What happened in Kunduz is happening multiple times a day in Yemen,” stated Tariq Riebl on an October 20 panel entitled “Humanitarian and Security Consequences of Military Support to the Region.” Riebl, who recently returned from three months in Yemen with Oxfam International, was joined by experts William D. Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and Senior Advisor to Security Assistance Monitor, Martin Butcher, a Policy Advisor at Oxfam International, and moderator Natalie Goldring, a Senior Fellow for the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. The event, co-hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade and Security Assistance Monitor, discussed the politics and consequences of U.S. and U.K. military support to the Saudi-led coalition and their campaign to oust the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

Mr. Riebl began the event by emphasizing the gravity of the situation in Yemen and why Yemen could be considered statistically one of the worst crises in the world. “We’re looking at 21 million in need of humanitarian aid- over 80% of Yemen’s population.” According to Riebl, the fighting on the ground, the airstrikes and the current blockade are leading to the massive humanitarian crisis. But it is the latter two conditions which have really transformed Yemen into a nightmare, Reibl described. During his time in Yemen, he witnessed over a thousand air strikes, including those on hospitals, schools and water systems. On top of such destruction which has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed infrastructure, the Saudi-led blockade impedes goods from entering the country leaving a country that relies on imports for most of their food and gas in dire straits.

Mr. Hartung addressed the audience next, connecting the situation on the ground in Yemen with U.S. military assistance to the Saudis. During Obama’s first term in office, Congress approved a $60 billion weapons package for the Saudis including an array of attack helicopters, F-15s, bombs and missiles that are being felt in Yemen today. And since Saudi Arabia started the campaign in Yemen, the U.S. has approved nearly $20 billion in arms deals, including a massive $11.25 billion agreement for four littoral combat ships the day of the event. In addition to arms sales, the United States also provides logistics and intelligence to the bombing campaign.

Hartung added, despite support and in the aftermath of high casualty strikes, U.S. government officials have weakly defended their role saying they are not the ones directly picking the targets. And the death of thousands in Yemen at the hands of U.S. weapons is strategically unjustifiable. “Saudi Arabia has not proved itself to be a critical partner” in the international coalition against ISIS and furthermore, the reckless campaign has helped enable al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State or ISIS to thrive amidst the chaos, suggested Hartung. He concluded by commenting that instead of using its leverage for good, the United States continues to approve massive weapons deals.

But it is not only the U.S. who is supplying many of the Saudi arms used in Yemen. Martin Butcher rounded out the panel discussing how the United Kingdom also provides a vast array of weaponry to the Saudis- who account for 25 percent of all U.K. arms sales over the last thirty years. Like the United States, the United Kingdom has approved numerous new arms deals with the Saudis since the fighting began in March according to Butcher. However, the U.K. may be in a better position to stop such arms deals compared to the United States. Under British law, Butcher explained, arms deals are prohibited where there is a clear risk for use in war crimes or human rights abuses, whereas U.S. law requires evidence of human rights violations to restrict sales.