What role has Canada played in the War in Yemen?

Image of LAV-700 armoured vehicle on display at World Defense Show in Riyadh at the General Dynamics booth, March 6, 2022.

What is the background of the current conflict in Yemen? It is important to know what some of the causes are and who the main players are, so we’ll begin there.

Yemen is located at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia and Oman. The region is home to a scattered and segmented array of tribes that totals just over 30 million people. In the last century or so, parts of Yemen have been occupied by both the Ottomans and the British, the latter until the late 1960s. A fractured Yemen was united as the Republic of Yemen in 1990 which lasted until a combination of fallout from the Arab Spring of 2011 and domestic crises ignited a civil war.

Aftermath of air strike at a Unesco world heritage site in Sana'a.
Aftermath of air strike at a Unesco world heritage site in Sana’a. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Military Intervention

Saudi Arabia, in alliance with other Gulf monarchies such as Qatar, and at the direction of the United States, began a military intervention in the spring of 2015. The goal of this intervention has been to prevent Yemen’s popular progressive and secular Houthis from taking power over the maligned but US- & Saudi-backed government. The Houthis have had support from Iran but the destabilization of the region by US-backed Saudi Arabia along with ISIS and al-Qaeda, themselves monstrous creations of American intervention in the Gulf region, have made peace in Yemen a remote possibility.

The U.S. sees a multi-fold advantage to maintaining this conflict: it will be costly to Iran to keep supporting the Houthis which could destabilize Iran (who refuse to be told what to do by the US); it will prevent an anti-American, anti-capitalist, socialist-leaning egalitarian government from taking root and possibly spreading those ideals elsewhere in the region; and it keeps the never-ending flow of money from Saudi Arabia and their regional monarchy allies to NATO-member arms manufacturers in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The Houthis, with popular support, were able to seize power in early 2015 and form a transitional government. This enraged Washington and so, with their backing, the Saudis launched devastating airstrikes on March 25, 2015 which threw the country back into violent chaos. Extreme violence against the Yemeni people– in the form of military intervention, economic sanctions and blockades– continues to this day.

A Buck To Be Made

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010. AP

Canada has supported Saudi Arabia in its military attacks against Yemen. Not necessarily in their words (we’ll get to that) but certainly in their deeds.

In 2014, the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper agreed to a $15 billion arms sale (including maintenance) to provide Saudi Arabia with 928 modern light armoured vehicles (called the LAV 6) of which 317 will be ‘heavy assault’, ‘anti-tank’ or ‘direct fire’ armoured vehicles . The arrangement was carried forth by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in 2016 as they issued the approved export permits to begin the shipments of combat vehicles. All this despite the fact that Saudi Arabia had begun its violent assault on Yemen over one year earlier.

In 2017, after two years of heavy bombing of Yemeni infrastructure and a crippling shipping blockade, a UN report estimated that upwards of 17 million Yemenis were in urgent need of food. Remember this is a country with a total population of around 30 million, so that means over 60% of the entire nation lacked sufficient food. Of these, 7 million were in the most extreme need and were facing famine. The bombings destroyed the health care infrastructure, leaving half the population without access to care and medicine. A devastating cholera outbreak left nearly a million infected and thousands dead.

In just 2017 alone, at least 50,000 Yemeni children died from the combination of famine and no healthcare. The horrors of this genocide of Yemeni Houthis by Saudi Arabia were so stark that even the Canadian media began to quietly take note. Canadian companies–with government approval–were providing the Saudis with some of the implements of destruction that were being used to bomb hospitals, schools and funerals. War crimes were being committed and Canada was complicit.

Children sit in a classroom at Aal Okab school in the city of Sa’ada in 2017.
Children sit in a classroom at Aal Okab school in the city of Sa’ada in 2017. Giles Clarke, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Talk Is Cheap

Despite critical rumblings from the media in early 2018, Trudeau defended the arms sales and stood by the deal.

By October of the same year Trudeau made it known that ending the arms deal would come with a $1-billion price tag, a position that seems to indicate that the unofficial position of the Canadian government is that the deaths of 15,000 Yemeni civilians (due to war) and the deaths of 50,000 children (due to preventable causes) were worth less than that. The chorus of criticism from media and human rights groups grew louder–both regarding Saudi involvement in the Yemen war and the murder of Saudi journalist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi–placing increased pressure on the Canadian government to the point that, by December 2018, Justin Trudeau made the claim that they were looking to get out of the arms deal. The Liberal government even went so far as to place a moratorium on issuing new export permits. This seemed to be nothing more than a stalling tactic deployed in the hope that the criticism would calm down. For the most part, Trudeau was right.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman, looks towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bottom right, as they arrive at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman, looks towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bottom right, as they arrive at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2018. CP/Sean Kilpatrick

By spring 2019, the Canadian government was busy promoting arms sales to other repressive Middle East monarchies, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan, as well as other nations in the Gulf region (Kuwait). And why wouldn’t they? From 2018 to early 2019, under the Liberal Party, the Canadian government exported nearly $20 million worth of rifles and close to $400 million of heavy vehicles (tanks & LAVs), both a record amount up to that point in the arms deal. But they were just warming up.

Despite feigning concern as well as issuing the new exports moratorium (which has no impact on existing contracts and permits!) Canada managed to more than double sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia by the end of 2019, totaling around C$3 billion (US$2.2 billion). While the Made-in-Canada deaths of Yemeni civilians piled up, Canada continued to stand behind the Canadian peacekeeper myth and the Liberal “feminist” Prime Minister.

In 2020, Canada renegotiated the deal and lifted their exports moratorium. The new deal just meant more guaranteed jobs and not even reducing the monetary penalties to break the arms sale contract. So long as Saudi cash continued to pad the pockets of General Dynamics and made the Canadian government look good on jobs in depressed areas of the country (such as at the London, Ontario based GD plant), the Yemen war was just a minor inconvenience.

Canadian-made by General Dynamics, the LAV-700 on display. Source: Military-Today.com

By the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia had received $1.31 billion in Canadian military exports. That year, two-thirds of all Canadian arms exports not destined for the United States went to the Saudis and continued to fuel their assault on Yemen.

By 2021, the UN estimated that approximately 377,000 Yemenis would be dead due to this conflict. This outrageous possibility did nothing to slow down Canada’s export of death machines to the largest monarchy in the Gulf. It was a bumper crop of military export sales, jumping 30% from the previous year to top out at $1.7 billion.

Anti-War Movement Is M.I.A.

This past year has seen even less media coverage of the atrocities in Yemen as international focus shifted to the conflict between Russia and NATO-supported Ukraine. For the Yemenis, there has been no change in the actions of the Saudi aggressors and their arms-supplying partners in Canada.

In the first half of 2022 alone, the Saudi coalition hit Yemen with at least 150 airstrikes which led directly to the deaths of 24,000 Yemenis (9,000 of them civilians). By comparison, the U.N. estimates that there have been around 7,000 civilians killed during the entirety of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war. The combination of these two wars has led to a rosy outlook for the Canadian arms industry. Canada is exporting more weapons than ever despite its biggest recipients engaging in human rights abuses, war crimes and neo-Nazism. Despite these troubling facts we can expect the profits of the domestic arms and military vehicle manufacturers to reach new heights when data from this year is collected and analyzed.

The response from Canadian media, reflected in the general population of the country, has unfortunately been this: a shrug. Something must be done!