War in Yemen, made in Europe

The land war

The war in Yemen The air war The naval blockade and operations The land war Evaluation EN NL

In terms of boots on the ground by the Saudi-led coalition the UAE army has been the most active. They participated in military operations against the Houthis along the coast and inside Yemen, while also fighting AQAP in the East of Yemen. Saudi troops have mostly been active in the border area in northern Yemen and the northern coastal region towards Midi. In the early phase of the war its Special Forces and Marines also contributed to the defense of the Hadi government in Aden and the capture of islands in the Red Sea. In 2015 an effort was made to open an extra front inside Yemen by a mixed group of coalition forces and to march on Sanaa from the Marib province in central Yemen. Other coalition forces also supported Saudi Arabia in its border war. Especially Sudanese soldiers have been fighting in northern Yemen, while also fulfilling a role as holding forces in Aden and other places in the south.

However, the bulk of the fighting forces consists of Yemeni, trained and armed by the UAE or to a smaller extent by Saudi Arabia. They fight as member of the Southern Resistance/Alliance (a group of militias in South Yemen who want autonomy or independence for South Yemen), of the Hadi-allied Yemeni army or of local or tribal militia. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have transferred arms to such Yemeni forces. These alliances remain unstable and fluid, as they often have very different backgrounds and interests and are therefore prone to internal conflict. The lack of internal coherence and the disruptions caused by internal power struggles result in a limited ability of the Saudi coalition to keep the territory taken from the Houthis under control and to establish governance structures. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have diverging interests and strategies in their support policy. The UAE has supported the Hadi government but also the Southern separatist militia which competes with the government. Saudi Arabia on the other hand supports salafist militia, which the UAE abhors. The result is a fragmented landscape of fighting forces.

The first months of the Saudi-led intervention in 2015 included only limited land troops and consisted mostly in air bombardments and naval operations, while the Houthis continued their expansion in the South. The Houthis had taken most of Aden on 20 March and the Hadi government supported by the Saudi coalition only retained 2 small pockets in Aden. It had to relinquish most western Yemen as well. However, the Houthi also met with a lot of local resistance by tribal militias, which received arms supplies from Saudi air droppings.

Foreign forces got active on the ground from early May 2015 when Emirati Special Forces came to defend the Hadi government pockets in Aden. They were joined later on by 1500 soldiers of Yemeni origin who serve in the Saudi Army or were trained by the UAE. On July 18 these forces succeeded in capturing Aden and its airport. A further build-up of forces and materiel followed, including about 2800 Saudi and UAE troops. In early August a UAE brigade task force with Leclerc tanks and other heavy equipment had entered the fray. They supported the Yemeni force in its offensive to recapture several military bases.1 Their intention was to chase the Houthis from the south and to march on Sanaa, 400 km north of Aden. This push stranded around Taiz.

The coalition also opened an eastern front in the Marib province and an operating base was established at the Safir oil refinery. The 2 brigade strong battle group was built around a mix of coalition forces. This included UAE troops with Leclerc tanks and Yemeni soldiers, but also forces from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Bahrain. During August and September these went on the offensive towards Sanaa in the west. They have been able to take Marib city, but not to push much further.2

In October 2015 another coalition battle group, including UAE Leclerc tanks and Saudi and Bahraini mechanized units, advanced from Aden to the Bab al-Mandab Strait to take the coastline, while UAE and Saudi marines with Egyptian support captured the islands in the Red Sea. The city and port of Mokha were taken in 2017. A similar movement in 2016 from the north by Saudi and Sudanese forces, along with the remnants of the Hadi-led Yemeni Army, stranded near the port city Midi. Since 2016 Midi has remained a frontline and only in April 2018 did the coalition forces succeed in gaining control of the city.

After this initial phase of offensives, the land war turned into a stalemate. Over the 4 years since the start of the intervention, the inland front lines and battle zones with the Houthis have not changed much. In the mountainous inland the Houthi forces have been able to put up stiff resistance and have bogged down the coalition troops and militias. The situation is different along the coastline.
In 2018 UAE-backed forces advanced towards Hodeidah and captured most of the coast region. By the end of 2018 this offensive reached the port and city of Hodeidah. Since then, a UN-brokered ceasefire kept the fighting low while further negotiations are ongoing. Hodeidah is the main port for goods towards the Houthi-held territory, including for relief operations, giving Hodeidah a strong strategic but also humanitarian importance.

The northern border area between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, especially in Saada province from which the Houthi movement originates, has been a battle zone from the earlier conflicts with the Houthis. However, the start of the intervention in 2015 turned it into a full-scale war. The Houthis retaliated with raids on military posts in the border area and even captured Saudi cities near the border (such as Al-Raboah in 2016), while also conducting missile attacks on Saudi forces and cities.
Similarly, Saudi forces have been active with incursions into Saada province, but seemed to have difficulties to operate heavy forces in the mountainous area. In 2018 and 2019, Saudi Arabia augmented its offensives in an efforts to reach Saada city, but in practice the Saudi and Saudi-backed forces remained bogged down in the Baqim area and other Yemeni regions near the border. In these offensives both the Saudi army and Saudi National Guard are active with heavy equipment, while most foot soldiers are Yemeni. The Saudi Army also conducts regular bombardments of Houthi-held territory with its artillery units positioned near the border and is able to strike 40 km into Yemen.

The war with the Houthi is not the only war in Yemen. While the eastern provinces have not been embroiled in the conflict with the Houthi and have been spared from the disastrous humanitarian result of this war, it has nevertheless seen its share of armed conflict. Al Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) had been established in Yemen long before 2015. It took advantage of the disintegration of the Yemeni government and the start of the Saudi-led intervention to overrun several military bases in the eastern provinces of Yemen in april 2015 and managed to capture the harbour city of al-Mukalla. During 2015, AQAP expanded its territorial control along the southern coast and in the eastern provinces. In reaction the UAE trained and armed a force of Yemeni tribal fighters from these eastern provinces. In 2016 these Yemeni troops, reinforced with remnants of the Yemen Army and backed up by UAE forces, re-captured Mukalla and most of AQAP-held territory. Since then the war with AQAP has become less intense, yet did not end. This war also causes more influx of weapons in the region through UAE-trained militia.3

The ongoing land war and the resulting stalemate show that a military ‘solution’ to the conflict is not within reach. Meanwhile the humanitarian consequences are disastrous and the political forces are further militarized and fragmenting. This military intervention, even if conducted with more respect to international humanitarian law, primarily produces a failed state situation with a range of armed militias instead of restoring a Yemeni state structure. No easy solution exists, but ending the military intervention and the influx of weapons, including to allied forces, seems a necessary part of any solution.

Military materiel from European origin

The main foreign armed forces active in Yemen are the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while both countries are also heavily supplying their allied militias with military materiel.

The UAE Army uses French Leclerc-tanks in its offensives against the Houthis. These are made by Nexter, but include a range of German components like a MTU-883 Ka 500 diesel engine and HSWL 295 transmission from Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen (DE). During the war some of these tanks were upgraded with modular Clara reactive armor provided by Dynamit Nobel Defence GmbH.4 DST, (formerly owned by Diehl-Defence, but now by Krauss-Maffei Wegman) provides and maintains major components of the tracking system. This tank only uses French-produced munition, also provided by Nexter5.

Also spotted in Yemen is the Patria AMV 8x8 armoured personnel carrier.6 It is made by Patria (Finland) in its subsidiary Rosomak (Poland) and was exported in 2016. It also contains a DI-12 Scania Diesel engine (AV) from Sweden and a Fewas remote controlled weapon system developed by Dynamit Nobel Defence GmbH and produced under license by the International Golden Group in the UAE.7 Tatra T816 military trucks are used as well in Yemen.8 Furthermore, the UAE has older French-built army vehicles, like AMX-30 tanks or several types of armoured infantry vehicles, but it is not clear if those are still in use and there have been no observations of this equipment in Yemen.

Some equipment used by the UAE in Yemen also contains components of European origin. Oshkosh M-ATV has been frequently sighted in use by UAE forces and UAE-armed militia. Many of these have been equipped with a Fewas remote controlled weapon system developed by Dynamit Nobel Defence GmbH.9

Also spotted are M109A3 howitzers. These are US-built but were bought second-hand from the Netherlands in 1999. They were modernized by RDM Technology (NL), according to SIPRI with BF6M diesel engines from Germany. These are maintained by DST, a subsidiary of Krauss-Maffei Wegman.10 Varec, a Belgian company, provided tracks for these howitzers.

The UAE forces also use RG-31 MMP Agrab Mk2, a self-propelled 120mm mortar made by Denel (South Africa). Other mortar systems in possession by the UAE are 81mm and 120 mm mortars from TDA Armements (FR) and 81mm L16 mortars from Royal Ordnance plc (UK), but its use in Yemen is not confirmed yet.

Main battle tank of the Saudi Army is the M1A2/A2S Abrams tank, which were spotted in Yemen. These US-built tanks are equipped with a L44 120mm cannon from Rheinmetall Defence and a SOTAS communication system from Thales Netherlands11. The Saudi Army also has old French-built AMX-30 tanks still in use in defensive positions at the border.12

Also spotted in Saudi Army operations in Yemen is the M113. This armoured infantry vehicle was built by FNSS (Turkey). It contains a 6V53T Detroit Diesel engine made by MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH and tracks by Varec (BE). Saudi Aardvark demining vehicles, made in the UK, were noticed in Yemen13 and even in possession of a salafist militia in Taizz14. Saudi Special forces are also observed deploying with Bastion Patsas-vehicles made by ACMAT in France with a Volvo engine.15

Near the border with Yemen the Saudi Army has deployed artillery used to shell targets in Yemen. Some of this artillery is made in Europe or contains components from European origin. Recently acquired and still produced and exported is the Caesar 155m self-propelled artillery made by Nexter Systems, with a German engine and a Unimog Chassis U5000 6x6 made by Mercedes Benz AG.16 A much older system, but according to the French intelligence services still in active use near the border, is the FH70 155mm towed howitzer made by VSEL (UK), Rheinmetall (DE), OTO Melara (IT).17 Also in use is the Chinese PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzer made by Norinco, which contains a Deutz diesel engine.18 Among the suppliers of 155mm artillery munition Expal (ES) is known and probably also General Dynamics European Land Systems (ES)19. Further the Saudi army uses a variety of French-built mortars made by TDA Armements (81mm LLR, 120mm RT, 120mm 2R2M).20

A Cobra Artillery locating radar is used by the Saudi army in combination with its artillery. Originally it was ordered by Saudi Arabia as military aid for Lebanon, but this arrangement was cancelled when diplomatic relations soured. After the delivery in 2016 Saudi Arabia kept the radars for its own use.21 This includes active use for artillery fire on Yemen.22 3 such radars were also exported to the UAE from Germany, but whether they are used in Yemen is unknown.23

The Saudi army is equiped with more military equipment from European origin, like the Aravis armoured cars (FR) and the AMX10 APC (FR), but nothing is known yet about their use in Yemen. Further it has a range of French-built air defense equipment, with components from other European countries, like the Crotale/Shahine (Thales) or Mistral systems (MBDA, placed on MPCV vehicles from Soframe and with an X-TAR Air search radar system from Oerlikon Contraves). These play a role in the Yemen conflict to counter missiles fired by the Houthi. The Crotale and Shahine systems are also present on the Saudi and UAE warships.

Apart from the Saudi army, the Saudi National Guard is also fighting at the border with Yemen and inside Yemen's northern provinces. It uses LAV armoured vehicles built in Canada, of which several versions are equipped with turrets and cannons made in Europe. The LAV-AG has a 90mm turret made by John Cockerill (formerly CMI Defence), with munition from Mecar. The oldest type has a turret made by Nexter, with munition made by Mecar or Nexter Munitions. The LAV-M has a 120mm mortar. These have been built in several generations: the newest use a NEMO 120mm mortar turret (Patria, FI), the older versions a AMS 120mm Mortar turret (BAE Systems, UK) while the oldest have a MO-120-RT 120mm mortar (Nexter, FR). Also the newest generation of LAVs now under production have a John Cockerill turret with a 105mm cannon.

The Saudi National Guard also has French-built artillery and mortars, but nothing is known about their use in the Yemen conflict.

Both the Saudi and UAE forces have Belgium as a main supplier of small arms and use a range of weaponry made by FN. Another major supplier is Heckler & Koch in Germany. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE provide arms to allied militia and a range of these weapons have been observed in their hands.24

As for all military materiel in this report, we have only mentioned companies we could identify in open sources. However, we do not claim to have given a complete overview. This is especially the case for small arms munition, which can be obtained from a large range of producers. However, export statistics and licenses strongly suggest that other producers in European countries are still exporting to Saudi Arabia or the UAE.25


  1. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-saudi-uae-war-effort-in-yemen-part-1-operation-golden-arrow-in-aden
  2. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/gulf-coalition-operations-in-yemen-part-1-the-ground-war (March 25, 2016)
  3. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/gulf-coalition-operations-against-aqap-in-yemen;
  4. https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundesregierung-nickt-neue-ruestungsexporte-in-die-emirate-ab-a-1143157-druck.html; https://euarms.com/weapon/6cz6llnrlCY1e6ElUHidOx; https://euarms.com/news/5W7bjYryh3e9kb68KjCusX (overzichtsvideo mbt duitse wapens)
  5. French intelligence services DRM, note ‘Yémen – Situation sécuritaire’, 25 September 2018, on https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/en/documents.
  6. https://www.armyrecognition.com/december_2017_global_defense_security_news_industry/patria_amv_8x8_armored_combat_proven_in_yemen_with_uae_army.html
  7. https://www.army-technology.com/projects/patria/;
  8. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-saudi-uae-war-effort-in-yemen-part-1-operation-golden-arrow-in-aden
  9. https://euarms.com/weapon/4ieYmBKUYJMenieiq0JhsE
  10. Pax, Under the Radar, https://www.paxforpeace.nl/publications/all-publications/under-the-radar;
  11. Campagne tegen Wapenhandel, http://stopwapenhandel.org/node/2109;
  12. French intelligence services DRM, note ‘Yémen – Situation sécuritaire’, 25 September 2018, on https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/en/documents;
  13. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-escalating-northern-front-in-yemen
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/nov/28/arms-yemen-militia-were-supplied-by-west-find-analysts
  15. https://www.fidh.org/fr/regions/maghreb-moyen-orient/yemen/nouveaux-indices-de-presence-de-materiel-militaire-francais-au-yemen;
    SIPRI arms transfers database, https://sipri.org/databases/armstransfers
  16. https://euarms.com/weapon/68IZ3gHHlKTfhg3gmOXAxZ;
  17. French intelligence services DRM, note ‘Yémen – Situation sécuritaire’, 25 September 2018, on https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/en/documents.
  18. French intelligence services DRM, note ‘Yémen – Situation sécuritaire’, 25 September 2018, on https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/en/documents;
    SIPRI arms transfers database, https://sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.
  19. https://es.greenpeace.org/es/trabajamos-en/desarme/armas-espanolas
  20. 81mm (type?) by Saudi-armed militia, AP footage on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpEnwUz_Xbc;
    120mm RT Saudi Army, Wall Street Journal footage on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wc-9c4myPQ.
  21. SIPRI arms transfers database, https://sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.
  22. French intelligence services DRM, note ‘Yémen – Situation sécuritaire’, 25 September 2018, on https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/en/documents.
  23. https://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/idex-2009-the-other-purchases-05326/#more-5326; SIPRI arms transfers database, https://sipri.org/databases/armstransfers; http://www.deagel.com/news/United-Arab-Emirates-Becomes-First-Export-Customer-for-COBRA-Counter-Battery-Radar_n000005742.aspx
  24. https://arms-uae.amnesty.org/en/#group-diverted-arms-cfDDgZ0yPq;
    DW documentary ‘Yemen and the global arms trade’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=tkUv2R97I-Y;
  25. E.g. Czech ammunition transits in Rotterdam to the UAE, https://broekstukken.blogspot.com/2019/04/ammunition-for-war.html. However the exporting company could not be identified.