The United States has struck at least $68.2bn worth of deals for firearms, bombs, weapons systems, and military training with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the start of their war in Yemen – billions more than previously reported – according to data collected by an American think tank.
That colossal sum includes, for the first time, both commercial and governmental arms deals and indicates that US involvement in the disastrous war may be greater than suspected. In fact, the weapons expenditure could have funded the United Nations’s 2019 humanitarian appeal for Yemen – which totalled $4bn – 17 times over.
According to the data collected by arms trade watchdog Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) and reported here for the first time, American companies have made deals worth at least $14bn with the Emiratis and Saudis since March 2015, when the coalition intervened in the conflict.
Government sales tend to be for major systems, like combat aircraft, tanks, bombs, and ships, some of which are more likely than others to be used in Yemen – partly because it can take years to finalise such deals, which frequently grab headlines.
But it’s the smaller weapons like firearms and bombs sold in commercial sales that experts say are disproportionately likely to be used in the conflict and inflict significant damage.
William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC, which houses SAM, said the commercial data shows the US footprint in Yemen is "dramatically understated” because commercial sales are “so rarely discussed, compared to big glitzy deals like the fighter planes”.
SAM’s estimate was all but confirmed by a US state department official, speaking on background, who said the overall value of American weapons deals to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since March 2015 totalled about $67.4bn.
New details about the arms deals come amid a continued push in the US Congress to end Washington’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which has displaced millions and led to widespread disease and malnutrition.
In February, the Senate passed a bill to withdraw US military support for the coalition and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted 247-175 in favour of the resolution on Thursday. US President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the effort, however.
“President Trump is going to have to decide if we are going to continue to aid the Saudi military in killing thousands of civilians and blocking humanitarian aid to Yemen," Senator Chris Murphy, one of three lawmakers behind the bipartisan bill, told Middle East Eye.
Some of the deals were struck just days after US-made weapons were shown to have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in air strikes that killed civilians, including school children on a field trip, guests attending a wedding, and an entire family, excluding a five-year-old girl, at their Sanaa home.
“It's hard to imagine a more dramatic example of the negative consequences of US arms sales,” Hartung said.
'It's hard to imagine a more dramatic example of the negative consequences of US arms sales'
- William Hartung, Center for International Policy
“They're supporting regimes that are murdering civilians and causing a humanitarian catastrophe… This is a stain on the United States.”
The weapons in the deals range from missile defence systems to grenade launchers to firearms, but most were offered in deals by US arms manufacturers to the Saudi and Emirati governments.
And that’s why, until now, the total figures used by journalists and researchers for approved US deals have been deceptively low: unlike government deals, data on commercial deals is difficult to obtain, with bare-bone details only made public long after Congress is notified, sometimes even 18 months later, said Christina Arabia, the director of SAM, which collected the data used in this story and is the only organisation which tracks both types of sales.
Without US weapons, experts say the coalition fighting in Yemen – which is led by Saudi Arabia and includes the UAE – would be largely unable to wage its war. As of 2017, three out of every five weapons imported by the coalition was US-made, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Some of those weapons have been used in more than 100 coalition air strikes and cluster bomb attacks which have killed civilians or targeted hospitals and villages since March 2015, NGOs and media outlets have reported.
The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 4,764 reported civilian deaths since 2016, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
Yet deals over the past four years have continued largely unabated. “Most deals to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or anywhere else, basically sail through Congress without a discouraging word, much less a vote,” said Hartung.
The main reason the total worth of US arms deals to the Saudi-led coalition has been publicly undervalued, said Arabia, is the convoluted and opaque way commercial deals are tracked and reported.
The US government publishes details about arms deals concluded with other governments – through the “Foreign Military Sales” programme – whenever the administration gives its approval. But tracking deals between commercial US arms manufacturers and foreign governments – ‘Direct Commercial Sales’ – is tricky.
'There’s some information about the type of weapon in one committee report. Then another committee report will say the country name, and then I have to contact another committee to get the dollar amount of the sale'
- Christina Arabia, Security Assistance Monitor
Some deals are listed as going to multiple countries, hiding the true recipients of the weapons or any dollar amount. Other agreements don’t give specific weapon types, only rough categories like "firearms and ammunition".
There are also thresholds, which mean certain, lower-value deals aren’t disclosed to Congress – any firearms deal under $1m, for example – and some deals are only listed at a threshold amount when they are worth far more.
The US state department recently listed an arms export deal to Saudi Arabia – for work related to the Patriot air defence system – as being worth “$50 million or more”. SAM data shows it was in fact worth over $195.5m.
The result of this murky reporting? The public is left in the dark about where, how many and to whom US arms are sold, said Arabia.
“There’s some information about the type of weapon in one committee report,” she said. “Then another committee report will say the country name, and then I have to contact another committee to get the dollar amount of the sale.”
Sometimes, Arabia said, she only gets figures because she has built relationships with specific committee staffers. She says that since the US midterm elections in November, when the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, she has been unable to get her usual flow of information.
However, bit by bit, Arabia has pieced together a database of commercial deals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Combining figures from both the government and commercial deals she has tracked, Arabia’s totals show that the US has agreed on over $54.1bn in weapons and training with the Saudis and more than $14bn with the UAE since the coalition’s intervention in the war.
Their figures only date back to 2015, making it impossible to know how many weapons the US sold commercially to the coalition pre-war. The commercial and government sales programmes both began in 1976.
While the state department attests to the accuracy of her numbers, Arabia suspects she may still be billions of dollars too low.
Attacks followed by deals
It is now clear, using SAM’s data, that the US has approved arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE just days after the coalition were shown to have used US bombs to kill civilians in Yemen and also after the brutal killing of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Most recently, on 6 December, two months after Khashoggi was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Trump administration approved a commercial deal for more than $195.5m in upgrades to Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile defence system.
The Saudis have used a Patriot system to defend against Houthi rocket attacks.
Deals made soon after coalition attacks using US weapons include:
On 9 August 2018, a coalition bomb hit a school bus in northern Yemen carrying boys on a field trip. It killed 54 people, including 44 children. A week later, Congress was notified of a commercial deal with the UAE worth $344.8m for spare parts for a Patriot missile defence system.
CNN reported on 17 August that the bomb used in the school bus attack was manufactured by US firm Lockheed Martin, the biggest arms maker in the world. Three day’s after CNN’s report aired, the Donald Trump administration made a deal with the UAE for $10.4m in rifle parts.
Saudi-led coalition pilots bombed a wedding northwest of the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 22 April 2018, reportedly killing 33 people, including the bride. Days later, Bellingcat proved that US firm Raytheon had made part of a bomb found at the scene of the attack. The Trump administration approved a commercial deal with the Saudis on 21 June for $2.1m in rifles and grenade launchers.
On 25 August 2017, a laser-guided bomb hit a residential area in Sanaa and killed a couple and five of their six children. A photo of five-year-old Buthaina – the only family member who survived – taken soon after the attack went viral. In it, swollen and bruised, she pulls her eyelids apart to see. Amnesty International proved a month later that a chunk of a bomb found amid the ruins was made by Raytheon. Weeks later, on 6 October, the US authorised a deal to send a THAAD missile defence system worth $15bn to Riyadh.
Similar Saudi-led coalition attacks and US weapons agreements happened throughout 2015 and 2016, when former US President Barack Obama was still in the White House.
The Saudis and Emiratis led a coalition of Arab countries into the Yemeni civil war in March 2015 to quell a Houthi uprising. The Saudis say the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, while analysts say the UAE seems to be attempting to crush opposition groups and gain territory in Yemen, particularly along the Red Sea.