Here’s Exactly Who’s Profiting from the War on Yemen

And how the U.S. could stop weapon sales if it wanted to.

Alex Kane May 20, 2019

A bomb crater marks a former market in the village of Mastaba, Yemen, March 16, 2016. Evidence of U.S.-made bombs were found in the aftermath of the bombing, which killed ninety-seven Yemeni civilians. (Amalal-Yarisi / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Priyan­ka Mota­parthy, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, arrived at a mar­ket in the Yemeni vil­lage of Masta­ba on March 28, 2016, to find large craters, destroyed build­ings, debris, shred­ded bits of cloth­ing and small pieces of human bod­ies. Two weeks ear­li­er, a war­plane had bombed the mar­ket with two guid­ed mis­siles. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report says the mis­siles hit around noon on March 15, killing 97 civil­ians, includ­ing 25 children.

“The [U.S. government is] now on notice that there’s a high likelihood these weapons could be used in strikes that violate the laws of war,” Motaparthy says.

When the first strike came, the world was full of blood,” Mohammed Yehia Muza­yid, a mar­ket clean­er, told HRW. Peo­ple were all in pieces; their limbs were every­where. Peo­ple went fly­ing.” As Muza­yid rushed in, he was hit in the face by shrap­nel from the sec­ond bomb. There wasn’t more than five min­utes between the first and sec­ond strike,” he said. Peo­ple were tak­ing the injured out, and it hit the wound­ed and killed them. A plane was cir­cling overhead.”

Sau­di Ara­bia, one of the world’s rich­est coun­tries, has been bomb­ing Yemen, the fifth-poor­est nation in the world, since 2015 — with sup­port from the Unit­ed States. Their mis­sion is to top­ple the Houthis, an armed polit­i­cal move­ment that over­threw Yemen’s pres­i­dent, Abdu Rab­bu Man­sour Hadi, a Sau­di ally, in Feb­ru­ary 2015. Sau­di Ara­bia (a Sun­ni monar­chy with an oppressed Shi­ite minor­i­ty) feared that the Houthi move­ment in Yemen (who are Zay­dis, a Shi­ite sect) was act­ing as an arm of its region­al foe, Iran, in an effort to take pow­er right across its south­ern bor­der. While the Houthis have nev­er been con­trolled by Iran, Iran deliv­ers arms to the movement.

Under Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion and, now, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s, the Unit­ed States has put its mil­i­tary might behind the Sau­di-led coali­tion, wag­ing a war with­out con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion. That war has dev­as­tat­ed Yemen’s infra­struc­ture, destroyed or dam­aged more than half of Yemen’s health facil­i­ties, killed more than 8,350 civil­ians, injured anoth­er 9,500 civil­ians, dis­placed 3.3 mil­lion peo­ple, and cre­at­ed a human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter that threat­ens the lives of mil­lions as cholera and famine spread through the country.

U.S. arms mer­chants, how­ev­er, have grown rich. Frag­ments of the bombs were doc­u­ment­ed by jour­nal­ists and HRW with help from Masta­ba vil­lagers. An HRW muni­tions expert deter­mined the bombs were 2,000-pound MK-84s, man­u­fac­tured by Gen­er­al Dynam­ics. Based in Falls Church, Va., Gen­er­al Dynam­ics is the world’s sixth most prof­itable arms man­u­fac­tur­er. One of the bombs used a satel­lite guid­ance kit from Chica­go-based Boe­ing, the world’s sec­ond-most prof­itable weapons com­pa­ny. The oth­er bomb had a Pave­way guid­ance sys­tem, made by either Raytheon of Waltham, Mass., the third-largest arms com­pa­ny in the world, or Lock­heed Mar­tin of Bethes­da, Md., the world’s top weapons con­trac­tor. An In These Times analy­sis found that in the past decade, the State Depart­ment has approved at least $30.1 bil­lion in Sau­di mil­i­tary con­tracts for these four companies.

The war in Yemen has been par­tic­u­lar­ly lucra­tive for Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, Boe­ing and Raytheon, which have received hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in Sau­di weapons deals. All three cor­po­ra­tions have high­light­ed busi­ness with Sau­di Ara­bia in their reports to share­hold­ers. Since the war began in March 2015, Gen­er­al Dynam­ics’ stock price has risen from about $135 to $169 per share, Raytheon’s from about $108 to more than $180, and Boeing’s from about $150 to $360.

Lock­heed Mar­tin declined to com­ment for this sto­ry. A spokesman for Boe­ing said the com­pa­ny fol­lows guid­ance from the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment,” while Raytheon replied, You will need to con­tact the U.S. gov­ern­ment.” Gen­er­al Dynam­ics did not respond to inquiries. The State Depart­ment declined to com­ment on the record.

The weapons con­trac­tors are cor­rect on one point: They’re work­ing hand-in-glove with the State Depart­ment. By law, the department’s Bureau of Polit­i­cal-Mil­i­tary Affairs must approve any arms sales by U.S. com­pa­nies to for­eign gov­ern­ments. U.S. law also pro­hibits sales to coun­tries that indis­crim­i­nate­ly kill civil­ians, as the Sau­di-led mil­i­tary coali­tion bomb­ing Yemen

did in the Masta­ba strike and many oth­er doc­u­ment­ed cas­es. But end­ing sales to Sau­di Ara­bia would cost the U.S. arms indus­try its biggest glob­al cus­tomer, and to do so, Con­gress must cross an indus­try that pours mil­lions into the cam­paigns of law­mak­ers of both parties.


Sau­di coali­tion spokesper­son Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri told the press that the Masta­ba mar­ket bomb­ing tar­get­ed a gath­er­ing of Houthi fight­ers. But because the attack was indis­crim­i­nate, in that it hit both civil­ians and a mil­i­tary tar­get, and dis­pro­por­tion­ate, in that the 97 civil­ian deaths would out­weigh any expect­ed mil­i­tary advan­tage, HRW charged that the mis­sile strikes vio­lat­ed inter­na­tion­al law.

Accord­ing to an In These Times analy­sis of reports by HRW and the Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights, the Sau­di-led coali­tion (includ­ing the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates [UAE], a Sau­di ally that is also bomb­ing Yemen) has used U.S. weapons to kill at least 434 peo­ple and injure at least 1,004 in attacks that over­whelm­ing­ly include civil­ians and civil­ian targets.

Most of the weapons that we have found and been able to iden­ti­fy in strikes that appear unlaw­ful have been U.S. weapons,” Mota­parthy says. Fac­to­ries have been hit. Farm­lands have been hit with clus­ter bombs. Not only have they killed civil­ians, but they have also destroyed liveli­hoods and con­tributed to a dire human­i­tar­i­an situation.”

The [U.S. gov­ern­ment is] now on notice that there’s a high like­li­hood these weapons could be used in strikes that vio­late the laws of war,” Mota­parthy says. They can no longer say the Saud­is are tar­get­ing accu­rate­ly, that they have done their utmost to avoid civil­ian casualties.”

Accord­ing to the For­eign Assis­tance Act of 1961, the Unit­ed States may not autho­rize arms exports to gov­ern­ments that con­sis­tent­ly engage in gross vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized human rights.” The Arms Export Con­trol Act of 1976 stip­u­lates that export­ed weapons may only be used for a country’s defense.

When a coun­try uses U.S.-origin weapons for oth­er than legit­i­mate self-defense pur­pos­es, the admin­is­tra­tion must sus­pend fur­ther sales, unless it issues a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to Con­gress that there’s an over­whelm­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty need,” says Brit­tany Benowitz, a for­mer defense advis­er for for­mer Sen. Russ Fein­gold (D‑Wis.). The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has not done that.”


Over the past decade, Sau­di Ara­bia has ordered U.S.-made offen­sive weapons, sur­veil­lance equip­ment, trans­porta­tion, parts and train­ing val­ued at $109.3 bil­lion, accord­ing to an In These Times analy­sis of Pen­ta­gon announce­ments, con­tracts announced on defense indus­try web­sites and arms trans­fers doc­u­ment­ed by the Stock­holm Inter­na­tion­al Peace Research Insti­tute. That arse­nal is now being deployed against Yemen.

Sau­di Arabia’s pre­ci­sion-guid­ed muni­tions are respon­si­ble for the vast major­i­ty of deaths doc­u­ment­ed by human rights groups. In These Times found that, since 2009, Sau­di Ara­bia has ordered more than 27,000 mis­siles worth at least $1.8 bil­lion from Raytheon alone, plus 6,000 guid­ed bombs from Boe­ing (worth about $332 mil­lion) and 1,300 clus­ter muni­tions from Rhode Island-based Tex­tron (worth about $641 million).

About $650 mil­lion of those Raytheon orders and an esti­mat­ed $103 mil­lion of the Boe­ing orders came after the Sau­di war in Yemen began.

With­out these ongo­ing Amer­i­can-ori­gin weapons trans­fers, the Sau­di coalition’s abil­i­ty to pros­e­cute its war would with­er. We can stop pro­vid­ing muni­tions, and they could run out of muni­tions, and then it would be impos­si­ble to keep the war going,” says Jonathan Caver­ley, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the U.S. Naval War Col­lege and a research sci­en­tist at M.I.T.

The war­planes the Unit­ed States deliv­ers also need steady upkeep. Since the war began, the Saud­is have struck deals worth $5.5 bil­lion with war con­trac­tors for weapons main­te­nance, sup­port and training.

The Sau­di mil­i­tary has a very sophis­ti­cat­ed, high-tech, cap­i­tal-inten­sive mil­i­tary that requires almost con­stant cus­tomer ser­vice,” Caver­ley says. And so most of the planes would be ground­ed if Lock­heed Mar­tin or Boe­ing turn off the help line.”


The U.S.-Saudi rela­tion­ship has its roots in the 1938 dis­cov­ery of oil in Sau­di Ara­bia, and Pres­i­dent Franklin Roosevelt’s ener­gy-for-secu­ri­ty deal with the Sau­di monar­chy. Today, in addi­tion to oil, U.S.-Saudi rela­tions are cement­ed by a geopo­lit­i­cal alliance against Iran — and by weapons deals.

Arms exports accel­er­at­ed under Oba­ma. By 2016, his admin­is­tra­tion had offered to sell $115 bil­lion in weapons and defen­sive equip­ment to Sau­di Ara­bia — the most of any admin­is­tra­tion in history.

Those arms exports used to be more of a sym­bol­ic thing, just pil­ing up the stuff,” says William Har­tung, direc­tor of the Arms and Secu­ri­ty Project at the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Policy.

But experts also say sell­ing the Saud­is so many arms incen­tivized the Arab monar­chy to use them in dev­as­tat­ing fashion.

If a coun­try, like Sau­di Ara­bia or the UAE, has no com­mit­ment to human rights — whether stat­ed or in prac­tice — it’s no won­der that those coun­tries would even­tu­al­ly mis­use U.S.-sold weapons by com­mit­ting war crimes,” says Kate Kiz­er, the pol­i­cy direc­tor of Win With­out War. The U.S. gov­ern­ment should be assum­ing these weapons of war­fare will even­tu­al­ly be used in a con­flict, even if one isn’t going on at the moment.”

With the Sau­di inva­sion of Yemen in 2015, the U.S.-Saudi arms pipeline became dead­ly. Despite reports that U.S. bombs were killing civil­ians, the Oba­ma administration’s sup­port for the Sau­di war drew only mut­ed crit­i­cism in Washington.

It was Obama’s war, and there was a lot of reluc­tance in Con­gress to take this on, par­tic­u­lar­ly among Democ­rats,” says Shireen Al-Adei­mi, a Yemeni Amer­i­can activist and pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty. Still, advo­cates with groups like Win With­out War, Just For­eign Pol­i­cy and the Yemen Peace Project worked to raise pub­lic aware­ness of the war’s hor­rors, lob­by­ing Con­gress and the White House.

In May 2016, Oba­ma can­celed the deliv­ery of 400 Tex­tron clus­ter bombs to Sau­di Ara­bia. In Decem­ber 2016, two months after a Sau­di airstrike hit a funer­al hall and killed more than 100 peo­ple in the Yemeni cap­i­tal of Sanaa, he halt­ed the sale of 16,000 pre­ci­sion guid­ed bombs from Raytheon, a deal worth $350 mil­lion. Those two deci­sions account­ed for only a frac­tion of over­all arms sales to the Saud­is, and the flow of most weapons con­tin­ued unchecked.


When Trump took office in Jan­u­ary 2017, he made it a pri­or­i­ty to strength­en the U.S.-Saudi rela­tion­ship, which had tak­en a hit after Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. As part of that bid, Trump reversed Obama’s deci­sion to halt the $350 mil­lion Raytheon order.

Trump’s first over­seas vis­it, in May 2017, was to Sau­di Ara­bia, a jaunt to strength­en the alliance against Iran and get Sau­di Ara­bia to sign on to Trump’s plans for an Israeli-Pales­tin­ian peace deal. Dur­ing that vis­it, the Unit­ed States agreed to sell Sau­di Ara­bia $110 bil­lion in Amer­i­can weapons, with an option for a total of $350 bil­lion over the next decade.

Trump boast­ed his deals would bring 500,000 jobs to the Unit­ed States, but his own State Depart­ment put the fig­ure at tens of thousands.

On May 20, 2017, Trump and King Salman bin Abdu­laz­iz Al Saud presided over Boeing’s and Raytheon’s sign­ings of Mem­o­ran­dums of Agree­ment with Sau­di Ara­bia for future busi­ness. Raytheon used the oppor­tu­ni­ty to open a new divi­sion, Raytheon Sau­di Ara­bia. This strate­gic part­ner­ship is the next step in our over 50-year rela­tion­ship in the King­dom of Sau­di Ara­bia,” Raytheon CEO Thomas A. Kennedy told share­hold­ers. Togeth­er, we can help build world-class defense and cyber capabilities.”

The ink was bare­ly dry before $500 mil­lion of the deal was threat­ened by a bill, intro­duced by Sen. Rand Paul (R‑Ky.) in May 2017, to block the sale of bombs to Sau­di Ara­bia. In response, Boe­ing and Raytheon hired lob­by­ing firms to make their case.

In the end, five Democ­rats — Joe Don­nel­ly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bill Nel­son (Fla.) and Mark Warn­er (Va.) — broke with their par­ty to ensure arms sales con­tin­ued, in a 53 – 47 vote. The five had col­lec­tive­ly received tens of thou­sands in arms indus­try dona­tions, and would receive anoth­er $148,032 in the next elec­tion cycle from the PACs and employ­ees of Boe­ing and Raytheon. Nel­son and McCaskill pulled in $44,308 and $57,230, respec­tive­ly. Weapons firms are aid­ed by a revolv­ing door with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Then-Defense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, a for­mer Gen­er­al Dynam­ics board mem­ber, warned Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham (R‑S.C.) that the Rand Paul bill would be a boon for Iran. Act­ing Defense Sec­re­tary Patrick Shana­han served as a senior vice pres­i­dent of Boe­ing pri­or to com­ing to the Defense Depart­ment, though it’s unclear whether he’s cham­pi­oned U.S.-Saudi arms deals.

The Wall Street Jour­nal reports that, in 2018, State Depart­ment staff, voic­ing con­cerns about the war on Yemen, asked Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo not to cer­ti­fy that civil­ian deaths were being reduced. Their con­cerns were over­rid­den by the department’s Bureau of Leg­isla­tive Affairs, which argued such a move could put bil­lions of dol­lars in future arms sales in jeop­ardy. The bureau is led by Charles Faulkn­er, a for­mer Raytheon lobbyist.


In Octo­ber 2018, the U.S. rela­tion­ship with Sau­di Ara­bia took cen­ter stage in Wash­ing­ton, when Sau­di agents mur­dered and dis­mem­bered jour­nal­ist Jamal Khashog­gi in their country’s con­sulate in Istan­bul. Khashog­gi, a Sau­di Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist, had been crit­i­cal of Sau­di Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The mur­der forced Con­gress to reck­on with Salman, who, as defense min­is­ter, had launched the Sau­di war on Yemen along­side a vicious crack­down on human rights activists. Sud­den­ly, lead­ing mem­bers of Con­gress, includ­ing Gra­ham and oth­er defend­ers of the U.S.-Saudi rela­tion­ship, were alarmed at the prospect of sell­ing more arms to Salman.

The Khashog­gi mur­der real­ly broke the dam on con­gres­sion­al out­rage about what the administration’s con­duct has been [toward Sau­di Ara­bia],” says Kate Gould, for­mer leg­isla­tive direc­tor for Mid­dle East pol­i­cy at the Friends Com­mit­tee on Nation­al Leg­is­la­tion.

This spring, the Sen­ate and House passed a bill cham­pi­oned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and Rep. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.) requir­ing the Unit­ed States to stop giv­ing the Sau­di coali­tion intel­li­gence and to pro­hib­it the in-air refu­el­ing of Sau­di war­planes. It was the first time in U.S. his­to­ry that both cham­bers of Con­gress invoked the War Pow­ers Act, designed to check the president’s war-mak­ing pow­ers by requir­ing con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion to deploy troops over­seas. Trump vetoed the bill on April 16.

Arms expert William Har­tung says the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate makes new deals unlike­ly: It’d be very dif­fi­cult [right now] to push a sub­stan­tial sale of offen­sive weapons like bombs. Any­thing that can be used in the war is prob­a­bly a non-starter.”

Still, bil­lions of dol­lars of approved weapons are already in the pipeline. If con­gres­sion­al anger at the Saud­is wanes, the arms spig­ot could reopen.

In Feb­ru­ary, a bipar­ti­san group of sen­a­tors — includ­ing Gra­ham and Chris Mur­phy (D‑Conn.) — intro­duced the Sau­di Ara­bia Account­abil­i­ty and Yemen Act of 2019, which would halt future sales of ammu­ni­tion, tanks, war­planes and bombs, and sus­pend exports of bombs that had been giv­en a pri­or green light.

Rep. Jim McGov­ern (D‑Mass.) wants to go even fur­ther. In Jan­u­ary, he intro­duced leg­is­la­tion that would ban all weapons exports to Sau­di Ara­bia, as well as main­te­nance and logis­ti­cal sup­port. The bill has 29 cospon­sors (most of them Democrats).

The bot­tom line is: We know for a fact that they’re bomb­ing school bus­es, bomb­ing wed­dings, bomb­ing funer­als, and inno­cent peo­ple are being mur­dered,” McGov­ern told In These Times. The ques­tion now is: Are we going to just issue a press release and say, We’re hor­ri­fied,’ or is there going to be a consequence?”

McGov­ern says that if a mea­sure like his is not passed, oth­er author­i­tar­i­an regimes around the world will say, Hey, we can do what­ev­er the hell we want.’”

To pass such bills, Con­gress mem­bers will have to mus­cle past the arms indus­try. In Lock­heed Martin’s 2018 annu­al report, the com­pa­ny warned, Dis­cus­sions in Con­gress may result in sanc­tions on the King­dom of Sau­di Ara­bia.” For Jehan Hakim of the Yemeni Alliance Com­mit­tee, the ongo­ing war comes down to the influ­ence of mon­ey in Washington.

We talk to fam­i­ly back home [in Yemen] and the ques­tion they ask is, Why? Why is the U.S. sup­port­ing the Sau­di coali­tion?’” Hakim says. Prof­i­teer­ing is put before the lives of humans.”

Nash­wa Bawab and Mar­co Car­tolano con­tributed research and fact-checking. 

This inves­ti­ga­tion was sup­port­ed by the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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