Arms at large

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 12 September 2003

SECURITY FORCES in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are collaborating in an unprecedented effort to cut off the flow of illicit weapons from Yemen to armed groups in the Kingdom.

Recent police raids in Saudi Arabia have reportedly uncovered large caches of weapons, many of which are thought to have been smuggled across the porous border from Yemen, where guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and even larger items can be easily purchased.

Prince Muhammad bin Nasser bin Abd al-Aziz, governor of Jizan, the southern province neighbouring Yemen, said last month that Saudi border guards seized smuggled weapons "every hour of the day".

"We are working with the Yemeni authorities to find and destroy the smuggling ring," he told the Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.

A few days earlier, police arrested at least 11 suspected militants and seized a large quantity of weapons in Jizan, according to Saudi newspapers. But Saudi officials have denied a BBC report that they also seized an unspecified number of surface-to-air missiles that had entered the Kingdom from Yemen. The RDX explosive used in various bombings in the Kingdom is also believed to have come from Yemen.

In June, in the wake of the Riyadh suicide bombings on 12 May which killed 35 people, the two countries agreed to cooperate more closely against weapons smuggling. They have also been exchanging suspected Islamist militants.

In August, according to Yemeni sources, four men were extradited from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, including two allegediy linked to the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast last year. Two Saudi suspects arrested in Yemen were also extradited to the Kingdom.

In early September Yemen arrested a Saudi man wanted for militant activities in the Kingdom.

Despite these efforts, one of the underlying problems is the apparent inability of the Yemeni government to stop the internal trade in weapons. There are thought to be about 50 million guns in private hands, more than three per person.

One reason for this is the existence of tribal militias, another is the lack of effective policing, which leads citizens to make their own arrangements for personal protection, and another the custom of regarding weapons as a status symbol.

In early September about half of Yemen’s MPs were involved in an attempt to delay debate on a law to regulate the possession of weapons.

This is by no means the first attempt to deal with the problem and will probably not be the last. A few years ago, parliament issued a law to curb possession and carrying of arms in the major cities - although it was never properly implemented.

"Arms markets spread all over Yemen, just like vegetable markets," the Yemen Times noted.