The civil war in Yemen is now in its third year. As a direct result of the war and the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, Yemen is now the scene of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. There is a cholera epidemic—a half a million Yemenis have been infected—millions face starvation, and the country’s infrastructure has largely been destroyed by Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate aerial campaign.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controls large swaths of southern Yemen where it is now the best organized and most capable organization operating there. The war is a gift to AQAP but it is has also been a bonanza for U.S. and UK-based arms manufactures who—with the approval of UK and U.S. governments—have sold billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Not to be left out are the Gulf based private military companies that are making millions from their contracts with the UAE whose army largely consists of mercenaries.
In a recent article for the British think tank Chatham House, Peter Salisbury argues that the war in Yemen is dragging on because various Yemeni factions are making money from the war. Salisbury argues that tribal militias, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Yemen’s largely discredited government in exile are all financial beneficiaries. This, to varying degrees, is no doubt true. However, in Salisbury’s article there is no discussion of the role of the U.S. and the UK in the war in Yemen. Nor is there any mention of the arms manufacturers in both countries who are happily supplying many of the weapons used by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to devastate a country of 25 million.
Salisbury points to an abundance of imported ice cream in the country as evidence of the money-making opportunities that now abound in a country that is in ruins. He goes on to argue that Yemenis—who Salisbury correctly points out are incredibly innovative and resilient—have set up ad-hoc systems for levying and collecting taxes on goods moving through the country in exchange for the provision of security. The fact that these informal taxes are being collected by numerous armed groups is, for Salisbury, further evidence of Yemenis’ desire to continue a war that has wrecked thousands of families and set the country back 50 years. As he explains, “despite the humanitarian crisis, the current set-up seems to suit most parties, to the extent that they would appear to be quietly cooperating with each other.” Salisbury poses the question, seemingly to Yemenis: “but big money is being made and if the war ends the money stops. So why stop now?”
To say the very least, this is a disservice to the millions of Yemenis, including many of those serving in these profit-making militias, who want nothing more than the cessation of hostilities and a return to relative normalcy. Most simply want to be able to feed their families and send their children to school sure in the knowledge that they will not be shot by a sniper or be incinerated by a U.S. or UK manufactured smart bomb dropped by a Saudi jet.
Yemeni politicians are by no means blameless. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a politician who would make Machiavelli’s prince seem like an amateur, is suspected of committing crimes against his own people. Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who is technically the president of Yemen though he rarely sets foot in the country, has presided over and indeed encouraged Saudi Arabia’s relentless aerial campaign. Yemen’s Houthi rebels—who might not even exist as a military force if it were not for policies put in place by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—are also far from blameless. Houthi leaders oversaw a brutal battle for the port city of Aden in 2015 and fighters loyal to them continue to lay siege to Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz.
The war in Yemen is, like the country itself, incredibly complex and divisions run deep. But if there was a genuine interest on the part of Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the UK to end the conflict, Yemen’s numerous warring parties—apart from AQAP—would likely respond. There is a rich history of negotiated settlements in Yemen and it has a culture that prioritizes and respects de-escalation.
Rather than focusing on the relatively minuscule profits made by some factions in Yemen, the billions being made by arms manufacturers are surely more worthy of examination as a driver of conflict in Yemen and further afield. It is worth remembering the venerable and ever-more prescient words of Major General Smedley Butler: “war is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” Perhaps Salisbury’s own question, “so why stop now?” should be directed to those opportunists who are making not a few million dollars—but rather billions—off the war in Yemen.
Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.