Russia, China keep toehold in Yemen
By Thalif Deen
NEW YORK - Russia has stolen a march over the United States in the
multimillion-dollar arms market in cash-strapped Yemen, whose weapons purchases
are being funded mostly by neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni armed forces, currently undergoing an ambitious modernization
program worth an estimated $4 billion US, are equipped with weapons largely
from Russia, China, Ukraine, eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.
With the attempted bombing of a US 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
Yemen’s military and counter-terrorism aid, to nearly $150 million, to
strengthen the besieged government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen receives assistance under several US-funded programs, including Foreign
Military Financing, International Military Education and Training,
Non-Proliferation, Anti-terrorism and De-mining, and Combating Weapons of Mass
But the proposed military aid to Yemen - all of it gratis - along with US arms
supplies, is negligible compared with weapons, military training and technical
expertise from non-US 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% of all major weapons deliveries to Yemen from
2004 to 2008, followed by Ukraine at 25%, Italy at 10%, Australia's 5%, and the
United States at less than 1%.
Dr Paul Holtom, director of SIPRI's Arms Transfers Program, said Russian media
have reported that Yemen has signed a deal to buy an estimated $1 billion worth
of arms from Moscow (with some reports giving figures as high as $2.5 billion).
These weapons, he said, included additional MiG-29 combat aircraft,
helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles. Holtom said there were also published
reports suggesting these purchases were part of a proposed $4-billion military
But he said he did not have an update on the degree of progress made on these
Dan Darling, Europe and Middle East Military Markets analyst at the
Connecticut-based Forecast International Inc, a leading provider of market
intelligence on the military, said 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-21 and
MiG-29 fighters and Su-22 fighter-bombers, he said.
From 2001 through 2008, Yemen received $1.4 billion worth of arms, according to
the US Congressional Research Service, with $600 million in weapons from
China provided $200 million worth of armaments, while about $400 million in
arms were from a mix of former Soviet republics and eastern European nations
(mainly Ukraine, but also Belarus, the Czech Republic and Poland) as well as
A resource-starved Middle Eastern nation, Yemen has negligible quantities of
oil and is categorized as one of the world's poorest countries. The US State
Department has described Yemen as "desperately poor" but a "vital
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had provided about $2
billion in aid to Yemen - "an amount that dwarfs the $150 million in security
assistance that the United States will ask Congress to approve for the 2010
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 said: "My take is that Washington
understands how crucial Yemen is to regional security and stability."
He said the country’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 US is unwilling to take.
The recent spate of fighting with rebels in the north, combined with the
pressures facing 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 US government circles, he said.
"The State Department realizes 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."