Yemen: The Difficulties of Curtailing Smuggling and the Regional Implications

Port city of Aden, Yemen, Wikimedia Commons

By Evan Thompson, Columnist

Eleven different intra- and inter-state conflicts have plagued Yemen since 1948, making it a very difficult nation to govern. Most recently, the Arab Spring swept Yemen, ousting long-time ruler President Ali Abdulla Saleh.[i] The consistency of conflict has weakened the Yemeni economy and other important institutions necessary for effective state capacity. Further, Yemen also lacks the administrative and maritime patrolling capacity to ensure the security of its borders and stop the influx of smuggling that fosters regional instability.[ii]

The Mandab Strait is an important route for international commerce, with approximately 3.3 million barrels of oil passing through the strait a day.[iii] It has also become a major corridor for illegal commerce and smuggling, as well. The Mandab Strait and the ports along it, including the major port city of Mocha, have all become main transits for arms and ammunition, drugs, and human trafficking. Diesel smuggling has also become a serious problem for Yemen. Smugglers buy government-subsidized diesel from the Western regions of Yemen, and travel to international waters where they sell it at international prices for a considerable markup. This denies the government much-needed revenue for controlling its borders and hurts the farmers and factories the subsidies intend to help.[iv]

This trend of black market smuggling has indeed continued over recent years. In 2013, Yemeni officials stopped a ship and found it to be carrying advanced weaponry, including missiles and explosives. Small arms are another problem, with major shipments of Turkish pistols and silencers seized in 2012 and 2013. Customs interdicted one shipment in the Port of Aden under the guise of Turkish chocolate and another intercepted in the province of Hodeida during land transit. Given the quality of the arms, experts presume that these weapons were destined for Houthi rebels and perpetuating the civil war.[v]

Unlike guns, which tend to enter Yemen through the Western coast, drugs are typically smuggled along the southern coast of Yemen. Typically, officials will find several large shipments of drugs each month in Yemen. In 2010, customs officials intercepted a shipment of hashish weighing 220 pounds near Sana’a, likely bound for Saudi Arabia, the greatest market for drugs in the region. Yemeni border tribes also make over $160 million each year on the illegal export of the drug qat.[vi] The drug trade is a contributing factor in the increased violence and instability along these border regions.[vii]

Finally, human trafficking is the last major smuggling-related problem for Yemen. Yemen acts a transit state between the extremely poor Horn of Africa and the extremely wealthy Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. African migrants in search of work in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states will pay smugglers to transport them across the Mandab Strait into Yemen where they will be smuggled across the Yemen-Saudi border.[viii]

These three categories of smuggling make up the greatest portion of smuggling that occurs in Yemen; however, such illicit channels open the market for smuggling of other contraband. In early 2014, authorities in the Hadramout governorate seized a ship smuggling pesticides and medications, four boats smuggling banned chemicals near Mocha, and a ship near Aden that was transporting advanced telecommunication equipment with military uses. These shipments were allegedly coming from Djibouti and other Horn of Africa countries.[ix]

While a lack of capacity to control its borders makes Yemen a prime smuggling corridor, the problem goes beyond Yemen. Djibouti is a key piece in the smuggling operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.[x] Djibouti acts as a major source and transit point for many of the illegal African migrants and goods that travel to Yemen. Smugglers often use the many small islands off the coast of Djibouti as a staging ground for their operations. Most are voluntary economic immigrants and pass through Djibouti while on their way to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for work, but criminals force a small number of women and girls into domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation upon reaching Djibouti City or the Ethiopia-Djibouti trucking corridor.[xi]

Other states in the region also feel the effects of smuggling. The porous nature and rampant smuggling within Yemen has created many problems and a great deal of tension for Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen. Saudi Arabia is often the final destination for many of the people and contraband goods that are smuggled into Yemen by sea. Approximately 400,000 illegal immigrants cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen each year, many of which are illegally transported African migrants.[xii] Saudi officials also expressed concern that many of the explosives and weapons that are smuggled into Yemen end up in terrorist hands in Saudi Arabia. They allege that many of the weapons and explosives used in terrorist attacks, such as the 2003 Riyadh compound bombing, are of Yemeni origin and doubt the capacity of Yemen officials’ capabilities to arrest infiltrators before reaching the Saudi border.[xiii]

The smuggling in the region is also partly responsible for propping up terrorist organizations. Al Shabaab profits in the way of millions of dollars from the smuggling of drugs, guns, and sugar into Somalia and then across the border to Kenya and Ethiopia. The UN Security Council banned the export of charcoal in Somalia, but trade continues in areas with little government control, such as the port of Kismayu, which continues to export more than 1 million sacks of charcoal every month. This commerce results in $15-16 million in revenue, a healthy percentage of which ends up in the pockets of al Shabaab.[xiv]

The smuggling problem in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, while having certain concentrations of concern, is a regional one. Steps taken thus far to address the issue have been largely stopgaps, such as the building of large fences along borders. These barriers have caused border disputes between Yemen and Saudi Arabia and smugglers still largely circumvent them. If the region is to address the problem, it must do so comprehensively and in a way that increases the capacity of states to address the instability that smuggling is causing in a sustainable manner.

[i] Laura Etheredge. Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Rosen Publishing Group. P.137 (2011).

[ii] Rani Geha. “Yemen faces increasing weapons, drugs smuggling problem.” Al-Monitor. March 14, 2014.

[iii] World Oil Transit Chokepoints. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy.

[iv] Geha.

[v] Mohammed Jumeh. “Yemen Seeks Maritime Arms Smuggling Crackdown.” Asharq Al-Awsat. May 23, 2013.

[vi] Brian Whitaker. “Saudi Security Barrier Stirs Anger in Yemen.” The Guardian. February 16, 2004.

[vii] Tom Finn, “Migrant Hunting, Smuggling on Yemen-Saudi Border,” Reuters, May 30, 2012,

[viii] Geha

[ix] “Yemen Cracks Down on Smuggling, New Cargo Seized in Hadramout.”Almotamar. March 30, 2014.

[x] Jumeh.

[xi] “Djibouti”. Trafficking in Persons Report 2010. U.S. Department of State, June 14, 2010.

[xii] Brian Whitaker. “Saudi Security Barrier Stirs Anger in Yemen.” The Guardian. February 16, 2004.

[xiii] John R. Bradley. “Saudi Arabia Enrages Yemen with Fence.” The Independent. February 11, 2004.

[xiv] Drazen Jorgic. “Smuggling Cartels, Militants Hinder Revival of Somali Port.” Reuters, December 4, 2013.

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