Yemen in Focus: Trump gifts Saudi Arabia its own bomb factory

Yemen in Focus: Trump gifts Saudi Arabia its own bomb factory
This week we look at a development in Houthi military capabilities, Riyadh's 'stern' response, and Trump's new gift to the Saudis.
8 min read
14 June, 2019
Trump gifted Saudi Arabia its own bomb factory, despite Riyadh’s abysmal rights record [Getty]

As tensions soar in the Gulf, US President Donald Trump has gifted its most loyal ally in the Middle with its very own bomb factory, despite Riyadh's abysmal rights record. 

US politicians, and many other humans in the world, are worried that an emergency authorisation by the US leader allowing a top defence firm the right to build high-tech bomb parts in Saudi Arabia could see the kingdom build its own smart bombs for sale and use in Yemen.

The declaration came as part of the administration's response to rising tensions in the Gulf with Iran, in part stoked by hawkish Trump adviser John Bolton.

Arms sales, the declaration said, could now be expedited to states in the Middle East that need to "deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran".

While members of Congress initially opposed the emergency declaration on humanitarian grounds, it has also prompted fears that it will allow Saudi Arabia to build their own versions of high-tech US bombs with the assistance of top arms company Raytheon, The New York Times reported.

That provision within the emergency declaration was revealed to Congress last week.

Raytheon will be enabled to team with the Saudis and start assembling the control systems, guidance electronics and circuit cards that form the foundation of the company's Paveway smart bombs.

Such technology has until now been closely guards by the US government for national security reasons.

Last month, the Trump administration blocked attempts by Congress to stop the transfer of more than 100,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia with an emergency declaration that allows arms giants like Raytheon to bypass congressional approval for arms sales to the Middle East.

The Raytheon deal that Congress failed to block will mean the delivery of 120,000 precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, adding to a stockpile that is already tens of thousands strong.

"The Saudis and Emiratis have become so intertwined with the Trump administration that I don't think the president is capable of distinguishing America's national interests from theirs," said congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat who sits on the committee, adding that he thought the new arms would not be used to counter Iran but rather for use in the war on Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has been at the helm of an international coalition war on Yemen since 2015 which has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN - but it now has its own civilian toll to worry about.

Developed rebel military capability

Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have faced persistent coalition bombing since March 2015 that has exacted a heavy civilian death toll, have stepped up missile and drone attacks across the border in recent weeks, with reports suggesting the group has now used its own cruise missile.

On Friday, Saudi forces said they intercepted five drones launched by the rebels, the second such assault on an airport in the kingdom's southwest in just two days.

The drones targeted Abha airport, where a rebel missile on Wednesday left 26 civilians wounded, and the nearby city of Khamis Mushait, which houses a major airbase, the Saudi-led coalition said in a statement released by state media.

The airport was operating normally with no fights disrupted, the statement added.

Wednesday's missile strike hit the civil airport in the mountain resort of Abha, which is a popular summer getaway for Saudis seeking escape from the searing heat of Riyadh or Jeddah.

During a media tour of the airport on Thursday, Saudi authorities said they had closed a part of the arrival lounge after the missile tore a hole in the roof and disrupted flights for several hours.

Two passengers, including an Indian national, who suffered mild injuries recalled pandemonium and screams after a loud explosion triggered a blaze, leaving the lounge covered in smoke. 

A Saudi civil aviation official said authorities were still investigating rebel claims that they fired a cruise missile at the airport.

If confirmed that would represent a major leap in the rebels' military capability, which has so far been limited to drone strikes on the kingdom. The official also confirmed that it had not been intercepted by the kingdom's Patriot anti-missile batteries.

Read more: Middle East drone wars heat up in Yemen

In response to the first missile attack, the coalition vowed to "take stern action" to deter the rebels and protect civilians.

Stern action

Prince Khalid, a son of King Salman and the brother of notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unleashed a war-of-words with the Houthis in the aftermath of the  attack, which he blamed on the Yemen rebels' "patrons" Iran.

For those that have been following the decades-long rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it comes as no surprise to learn Riyadh has accused the rebels of being Iranian proxies ever since it led its allies in launching a military intervention against them in March 2015.

But the rebel group has consistently denied those claims - as it would - alleging the Houthis are "independent in our decisions and ... we are not subordinated to anyone", Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the president of the rebel's Supreme Revolutionary Committee said.

It also comes as no surprise that shortly after Prince Khalid bin Salman's comments, Saudi-led coalition jets pounded Yemen's capital on Thursday, according to residents and the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV.

The airstrikes targeted military camps west and north of the capital city, Reuters reported, with local media specifying 8 raids hit the Special Forces camp in the Sabahah area, while two others struck the Houthi-controlled Al-Siyana camp.

As we saw last week, the Houthis have increasingly targeted the kingdom with bomb-carrying drones and have blamed the attacks on Riyadh's rejection of peace initiatives in Yemen.

UN backs Houthi claims

Speaking of peace initiatives, the head of a UN mission patrolling the three Red Sea ports in Yemen confirmed the Houthis have had no military presence since their withdrawal a month ago - to the dismay of the government officials that have long doubted the rebels.

General Michael Lollesgaard confirmed in letters to Yemen's government and the Houthis that "since May 14, the Houthi military presence was not detected in the ports by regular verification patrols" carried out by the UN.

Lollesgaard asked the Houthis to remove "all military manifestations, including trenches" from Hodeida port, a key entry point for humanitarian aid to Yemen.

The rebel pullback from Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa last month marked the first concrete step to implement a ceasefire deal reached in Sweden six months ago.

The Houthis handed over control of the ports to a "coast guard," but Yemen's government said these forces were in fact rebel fighters in different uniforms.

Questions surrounding the fate of the three kidnapped from the mosque have exacerbated already prevalent concerns surrounding the UAE's intentions in the south

Lollesgaard said in a statement that the Houthi pullout from the ports was "significant" and had transformed the ports into a "civilian space" for Yemen's port authorities to carry out their work, with UN support.

Under the Stockholm agreement, rebel fighters and government forces are to carry out a two-phase pullback from Hodeida and the ports, but negotiations are continuing on further redeployments.

The pullback from the three ports represent only part of the initial phase of the redeployment. 

UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who has been sharply criticised by Yemen's president for his handling of the rebel withdrawal from the ports, is to report to the Security Council on Monday. 

UAE causes yet more trouble in south 

In Yemen's southern Dhale province, gunmen from a security force backed by the UAE stormed a mosque and killed at least five people, Yemeni security officials said on Sunday.

The attackers, who belong to a group called the Security Belt, kidnapped three others, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.

Tribal leaders in the district condemned that attack and called for those responsible to be held accountable.

But the Security Belt force claimed in a statement that the dead were Houthi rebels who refused to surrender amid ongoing battles between pro-government forces and rebels in Dhale.

The deadly battles, which have been largely overlooked as the world focuses on rising tensions in the Gulf, have killed many fighters from both sides of the camp, after rebels attempted to infiltrate the southern province following a failed attempt in 2015.

Although the battle pits rebels against government forces, it has seeped into the pro-government camp, with clashes being reported between units from Hadi's presidency brigades and the Security Belt Forces – a UAE-backed pro-government militia.

But questions surrounding the fate of the three kidnapped from the mosque have exacerbated already prevalent concerns surrounding the UAE's intentions in the south, where it has built a solid link of alliances and established control over major cities, especially Aden.

The Saudis and Emiratis have become so intertwined with the Trump administration that I don't think the president is capable of distinguishing America's national interests from theirs 

In 2017, an investigation by the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch revealed that the UAE was running a network of informal detention centres in southern Yemen where hundreds of people were detained and tortured.

FM shock resignation

Meanwhile, Yemen's government - the internationally recognised government, that is - was hit with its own turbulence this week after Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani announced his formal resignation from his post, local media reported on Monday.

Yamani submitted his surprise resignation to Yemen's Saudi-based President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi amid mounting criticism of the government over the failure of Yemen's peace negotiations.

Before assuming office as foreign minister in May 2018, Al-Yamani served as Yemen's permanent delegate to the UN.

He recently slammed the UN for failing to pressure Houthi rebels to comply with a hard-won truce deal reached in Sweden last year.

More news from Yemen, same time, same place – next week.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

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