By: Michael Horton
The Jamestown Foundation
Arms trafficking via the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea has a long history. However, the wars in Yemen and the vast number of arms and materiel provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have ushered in a golden age for regional arms traffickers. The flow of weapons and materiel from Yemen to the Horn of Africa has increased over the last three years, as has the quality and variety of smuggled weapons (The East African, September 2019). This comes at a time when the countries that make up the Horn of Africa face growing threats to their stability.
The illicit trade in weapons and materiel between Yemen and the Horn of Africa has rarely been more lucrative. Weapons and materiel of all types are readily available in Yemen’s arms markets (Terrorism Monitor, June 16, 2017). Almost all of these small and medium arms are less expensive in Yemen than in the countries that make up the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. However, only some of the weapons and materiel trafficked from Yemen remain in the Horn of Africa. Many of the smuggled weapons are sold on via middlemen who move the illicit goods to countries like Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The markup on weapons and materiel—especially more specialized equipment such as night vision devices, rangefinders and RPGs—increases exponentially as they move inland. 
The price difference between Yemen and the Horn of Africa has set up the kind of arbitrage that is irresistible to smugglers and those who finance them. For example, the Saudi manufactured G3 rifle supplied in large numbers to Saudi backed forces in Yemen can be purchased in a Yemeni arms market for $500. In Somalia, the same rifle will sell for at least three times that amount. In Ethiopia, the rifle will sell for up to six times what it costs to purchase in Yemen. More advanced weapons like later variants of the RPG—widely available in Yemen—are sold for as much as ten times what they cost in Yemen. 
Low Risk and High Reward
At the Bab al-Mandeb strait, only 20 miles of water separate Yemen and Djibouti. Skiffs equipped with powerful outboard engines can cross from Yemen to Eritrea and Djibouti in hours in favorable weather. Larger vessels sailing from Yemen take only days to reach the extensive and thinly populated coasts of Puntland and Somalia. It is these desolate and largely uncontrolled coastlines that make the region ideal for arms traffickers and the illicit networks they operate within.
While the world’s navies patrol the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, these waters are home to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. They also support large numbers of artisanal and commercial fishermen. Smugglers use shipping traffic and fishing activity as an effective screen for their activities.
While skiffs are used to move illicit goods—including small weapons, materiel, and “custom orders”—to the lightly patrolled coasts of Djibouti and Eritrea, most weapons are smuggled on larger vessels to Somalia.  Somalia and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland are the easiest and most cost-effective places to offload cargo. Despite its proximity to Yemen, smugglers tend to avoid the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland’s coast due to Somaliland’s effective coast guard and civilian patrols. 
Instead, smugglers exploit Somalia’s vast uncontrolled coastline. Vessels, which are most often loaded with legitimate cargo in addition to illicit cargo, moor off the coast of Somalia where skiffs meet them and offload the illicit cargo and move it to shore. The vessels then continue on to official ports with their legitimate cargo.
Only a small percentage of the weapons offloaded in Somalia and Puntland remain. While there is some uptake of weapons by Somalia’s indigenous terrorist and insurgent groups, namely al-Shabaab, most of the weapons and materiel are destined for other parts of Africa where prices are even higher. Small boats transport smuggled weapons up and down the coast of Somalia and Puntland to points where they can be moved overland via road and, occasionally, via camel caravans. 
The two primary markets for these weapons are South Sudan and Ethiopia. South Sudan is mired in a civil war and Ethiopia faces increasing ethnic tensions. Both countries offer abundant opportunities for arms traffickers.
Ethiopia previously maintained relatively tight control over its lengthy border with Somalia. However, in the last year, there has been a marked decline in the number of patrols along this border. This is now being exploited by arms traffickers who are able move large cargoes via the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. From there, weapons and materiel are sold on to middlemen who market them to ethnically aligned groups operating in southern Ethiopia.
Weapons and materiel destined for South Sudan are most often moved via northern Kenya where government control is spotty. Where control does exist, well-connected and well-funded traffickers often bribe government and military officials. As well as being an end-use destination for weapons, South Sudan is also an arms trafficking hub in and of itself. From South Sudan, weapons and materiel, some of which originates in Yemen, are sold on to dealers and armed groups in neighboring countries like the Central African Republic and Uganda. Some Yemeni sourced weapons are also moved farther down the African coast to Tanzania and Mozambique via well-established smuggling routes.
While there are indications that Yemen’s wars are winding down, the weapons and materiel supplied to all sides in the conflict will continue to flow out of the country for years to come. Despite instability in places like Somalia, there has often been a dearth of arms and materiel due to what have been effective arms embargoes by the international community. If left unchecked, the trade in illicit weapons and materiel from Yemen will further fuel instability in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, and numerous other African countries.
Publication: Terrorism Monitor