Conflict in Yemen: Canada’s Role
A UN Human Rights Council report recently named Canada as one of the parties fueling ongoing war in Yemen by means of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, one of the war’s belligerents.
The report received attention in Canadian news outlets, but with the media preoccupied by the COVID-19 pandemic and the American presidential election the stories quickly disappeared. Many Canadians are likely unaware that Canada is the second-biggest supplier of arms to the Middle East region, after the United States. This article examines the background of the war and the details of the Canadian arms trade, while future coverage will look at organizations in Canada working to end arms exports.
The War in Yemen
Like all civil wars, the war in Yemen is extremely complex, involving multiple parties with shifting alliances. It is further complicated by its international dimension and intertwining in a tangled network of geopolitical forces. The “messiness” of the war and the lack of a simple, clear narrative have led to it becoming a forgotten war, despite being one of the world’s deadliest ongoing conflicts.
The current war began with the Arab Spring protests of 2011 which led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s Vice-President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, ran unopposed in the 2012 presidential elections, and little changed. This did not satisfy many opposition groups, including Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthi movement.
The Houthis had been engaged in an off-and-on campaign of armed insurgency against the Yemeni government since 2004. Saudi Arabia and its allies view the Houthi movement as an Iranian proxy due to the Shi’a faith of the Houthi leaders. Iran has expressed political solidarity with the Houthi movement, but denies it has provided military aid.
The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has employed a massive campaign of air strikes, which have often indiscriminately hit civilian targets, including hospitals, weddings, funerals, and schools. In one particularly horrific incident, a school bus carrying children on a field trip was bombed, killing at least forty. The Saudi-led coalition has also implemented a blockade of Yemen, claiming to prevent arms from being brought into the country, at the same time preventing food, fuel, medical supplies, and other essentials from entering the country, resulting in widespread malnutrition and outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever.
Throughout the conflict, Western countries, in particular the U.S. and the U.K., have provided intelligence and logistical support to the coalition — refueling planes, for example, while selling military equipment to coalition members. UN reports have described the conflict as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis due to violations committed on all sides. Researchers estimated in 2019 that at least 100,000 people, including 12,000 civilians, had been killed since the start of the war, not including deaths due to famine and disease resulting from the war and blockade.
Canadian Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia & the Middle East
Although Canadian governments have long worked to establish Canada’s brand as a peaceful country, both Conservative and Liberal governments have been happy to profit from war. In 2019, Canadian arms exports to countries other than the U.S. reached a record high of approximately $3.8 billion. Of the reported exports 76% were to Saudi Arabia directly, totaling $2.7 billion, in addition to indirect support from other exports.
Most of the attention — and controversy — surrounding Canadian arms sales in recent years has centered around a $13 billion (U.S) deal for General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS-C) to provide hundreds of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. The deal was first announced in 2014 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, and terms of the deal have never been fully made public. The Trudeau government initially denied any responsibility for the deal going through, but it was later revealed that in 2016 then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion signed the required final approval for the export permits, despite receiving information about Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.
Global Affairs Canada suspended all new export permits to Saudi Arabia after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018, but this did not include the existing permits covering the LAV deal, and the suspension was lifted in April 2020. The government of Canada has defended the LAV deal on the grounds that there is no evidence of Canadian-made LAVs being used to commit human rights abuses. A less known Canadian manufacturer of armoured vehicles, Terradyne, also has a deal of unknown dimensions to sell its Gurkha armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, and another lesser known Canadian arms sale to Saudi Arabia involves a Winnipeg-based company which manufactures sniper rifles.
A number of aerospace companies based in Quebec have also provided significant amounts of equipment to members of the Saudi-led coalition since its intervention in Yemen began in 2015. Much of the equipment not considered military goods under Canada’s export control system and therefore does not require export permits, but consists of items like engines for combat aircraft.
Two other countries in the Middle East, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, have also received large exports of military goods from Canada, including armed drones. Both countries are involved in a number of conflicts across the Middle East and beyond.
The Big Picture
All of these arms deals together made Canada the second-biggest supplier of arms to the Middle East, after the United States, in 2016. Canada’s arms sales have only grown since then, as they set a new record in 2019.
What is the motivation behind Canada’s pursuit of arms exports? There is of course the purely commercial motivation: exports of military goods to the Middle East brought in over $2.9 billion in 2019. This is closely tied to the second factor, one that the government of Canada is especially fond of emphasizing, namely, jobs.
Another important factor motivating Canada’s arms sales is the desire to maintain a domestic “defense industrial base”, as internal Global Affairs documents from 2016 put it. Exporting military goods to other countries allows Canadian companies to maintain greater manufacturing capacity than could be sustained by sales to the Canadian Armed Forces alone. This includes facilities, equipment, and trained personnel involved in military production. In the event of a war or other emergency, this manufacturing capacity could be quickly put to use for Canadian military needs.
Finally, geopolitical interests also play a significant role in determining which countries Canada exports military equipment to. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long been close allies of the U.S., and Canada’s geopolitical stance in the Middle East has generally been aligned with that of the U.S. Perhaps most revealing is a mention in a Global Affairs memo that Saudi Arabia “has the world’s largest oil reserves and is currently the world’s third largest oil producer.”
The ongoing conflict in Yemen is clearly complicated, but Canada’s complicated role in it is also clear.