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POLITICS: Russia, China Sustain Military Toehold in Yemen

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 5 2010 (IPS) - Russia has stolen a march over the United States in the multi-million-dollar arms market in cash-strapped Yemen, whose weapons purchases are being funded mostly by neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The Yemeni armed forces, currently undergoing an ambitious military modernisation programme worth an estimated four billion dollars, are armed with weapons largely from Russia, China, Ukraine and the former Eastern Europe and Soviet republics.

With the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day by a Nigerian student, reportedly trained by al Qaeda in Yemen, the administration of President Barack Obama has pledged to double its military and counterterrorism aid, to nearly 150 million dollars, to strengthen the besieged government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Currently, Yemen receives assistance under several U.S.-funded programmes, including Foreign Military Financing (FMF), International Military Education and Training (IMET), Non-Proliferation, Anti-terrorism and De-mining, and Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction.

But the proposed military aid to Yemen – all of it gratis – along with U.S. arms supplies, is negligible compared with weapons, military training and technical expertise from non-U.S. sources.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one of the world’s best known think tanks researching arms control and disarmament, Russia accounted for nearly 59 percent of all major weapons deliveries to Yemen during 2004-2008, followed by Ukraine at 25 percent, Italy at 10 percent, Australia’s five percent, and the United States at less than one percent.

Dr. Paul Holtom, director of SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Programme, told IPS that at the beginning of this year, the Russian media reported that Yemen had signed a deal to buy an estimated one billion dollars worth of arms from Moscow (with some reports giving figures as high as 2.5 billion dollars).

These weapons, he said, included additional MiG-29 combat aircraft, helicopters, tanks and armoured vehicles.

Holtom said there were also published reports suggesting these purchases were part of a proposed four-billion-dollar military modernisation programme.

But he said he does not have an update on the degree of progress made on these arms deals.

Dan Darling, Europe & Middle East Military Markets analyst at the Connecticut-based Forecast International Inc., a leading provider of market intelligence on the military, told IPS that in terms of primary arms suppliers to Yemen, “almost everything revolves around Russia”.

The core of the Yemeni Air Force is of Russian-legacy, including MiG-21s and MiG-29s and Su-22s, he pointed out.

From 2001 through 2008, Yemen received 1.4 billion dollars worth of arms, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), with 600 million dollars in weapons from Russia.

China provided 200 million dollars worth of armaments, while about 400 million dollars in arms were from a mix of former Soviet republics and East European nations (mainly Ukraine, but also Belarus, Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and others).

A resource-starved Middle Eastern nation, Yemen has negligible quantities of oil and is categorised as one of the world’s poorest nations.

The U.S. State Department has described Yemen as “desperately poor” but a “vital counterterrorism partner”.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had provided about two billion dollars in aid to Yemen last year – “an amount that dwarfs the 150 million dollars in security assistance that the United States will ask Congress to approve for the 2010 fiscal year”.

With the new terrorist threat from insurgents in Yemen, the United States is gearing itself for a virtual new battle front against al Qaeda – besides Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Darling of Forecast International Inc told IPS: “My take is that Washington understands how crucial Yemen is to regional security and stability.”

He said Yemen’s proximity to Saudi Arabia – from which many al Qaeda operatives are believed to have crossed into Yemen – and its importance in terms of shipping lanes at the mouth of the Red Sea and in terms of combating piracy in the area make ignoring Yemen a risk the U.S. is unwilling to take.

The recent spate of fighting with rebels in the north, combined with the pressures facing President Saleh and the belief that al Qaeda may have found a sort of sanctuary in Yemen, means that the country will garner more and more attention within U.S. government circles, he added.

“The State Department realises the looming potential for disaster in Yemen, where a combination of civil strife, an exploding population, negligible oil reserves, a structurally weak economy, high rates of poverty and unemployment, and deteriorating water supplies all threaten to turn the country into the proverbial failed state,” Darling said. “How they intend to combat this possibility is beyond my purview, but I’m guessing that you will see greater degrees of development assistance and oversight as to how the money is allocated,” he added.

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