Yemen has over twenty markets selling arms, the most famous of which are Jahana market, east of the capital Sana’a, Talh market in Saada, and Raida market in Amran, north of Sana’a, in addition to other markets in Marib and Al-Bayda. These are where many types of light, medium and even heavy weaponry are sold, and throughout the country Kalashnikovs, 12.7mm and 14.5mm artillery shells, anti-tank weaponry, and even surface-to-air missiles can be found.
The reason so many weapons are carried in the country stems from the customs and traditions that make it imperative for tribesmen to carry arms. This is in addition to the spread of tribal warfare and retaliation, as well as the multiple military conflicts and inter-Yemeni wars between the north and the south—and within those two regions themselves—both before and after the unification of Yemen in 1990.
Some arms dealers cite government reports claiming the arms trade, and the accompanying security conditions; have cost the country USD 18 billion over the past two decades. However, others believe that the arms trade “represents a source of income for many Yemenis that should not be compromised”, as expressed by A. Sabran, an arms dealer, who believes that “despite the proliferation of arms in Yemen and the thriving trade in them, the rate of murders in the country is decreasing thanks to the wisdom of the Yemenis and their prudence when it comes to using these weapons.”
With regards to the types of weapons that can be found in local markets, they are mostly Russian and Chinese made. However, although these two countries lead the way in the Yemeni arms trade, there are also Korean, Czech and Turkish weapons available, in addition to the Iranian weapons that the Houthis in the north are reportedly receiving periodically.
A recent report issued by Transparency International has ranked the Arab states in accordance with their respective government’s ability, or lack thereof, to tackle corruption in arms and defense deals. The report classifies corruption in this regard in seven bands, ranging from very low to moderate to critical risk. In the second highest band of defense corruption—described as very high risk—are Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Morocco, and Tunisia, in addition to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are all ranked in the top band—critical risk—for global defense corruption.
Recently, the issue of smuggled Iranian and Turkish weapons has come to the surface in Yemen, and a number of arms shipments from these two countries have been shut down. It is significant that the smuggled Turkish arms are mostly for personal use, given the nature of the arms trade where smugglers aim to sell to individuals for personal, use or to then trade on for a profit. The likely hypothesis is that the Turkish weapons have come through smugglers seeking to make money, and not to supply armed groups.
This is in contrast to the Iranian weapons, which Yemeni officials say are different in nature, most of them being the kind of heavy weaponry that rebel groups are seeking to obtain, as evidenced by the recent Iranian arms shipment seized by Yemeni authorities in the southern port of Aden.
Mohammed Al-Salehi, Editor-in-Chief of the Yemeni Mareb Press newspaper, supports this hypothesis regarding the two countries separate motives, and told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Iranian weapons are heavy ones, some of which are highly advanced including surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, highly explosive materials, and night vision equipment.” Salehi added, “In contrast, the Turkish weapons are all light weaponry such as handguns and ammunition, and the purpose of these shipments is to trade and make money in the Yemeni arms market.” Salehi remarked that it is not only the nature of the Turkish and Iranian weapons that are different, but also the positions of their respective governments.
The Iranians, according to Salehi, “always respond to the accusations against them with disbelief and denial, while the Turkish government promises to investigate the issue. Already, a number of arms manufacturers in Turkey have been investigated.” In Salehi’s opinion, this indicates that the Iranian government is complicit in the smuggling of weapons into Yemen, while Turkish smugglers are acting without the knowledge of Turkish officials.
Rajeh Badi, media adviser to the Yemeni prime minister, stated that Iran is looking for a foothold in Yemen by supporting certain armed groups, movements and political figures. He told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Yemen has sent a number of requests to the Iranian side to stop their interference in Yemeni affairs; however the Iranians have not heeded these appeals.” He indicated that Iranian weapons are intended to support armed groups such as the Houthis in order to destabilize the country, meaning that Iranian weapons smuggling serves a wider political function.
Regardless of the multiple opinions and conflicting interests behind the arms trade, the weapons market in Yemen remains one of the most active. UN observers have even reported that Yemen has sometimes served as a transit point in the global arms trade, where some weapons are re-exported to African countries experiencing conflict, such as Somalia, with reports indicating that the Al-Shabab movement has acquired a large number of weapons from the Yemeni market.