Yemen: State and DOD Need Better Information on Civilian Impacts of U.S. Military Support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

GAO-22-105988 Published: Jun 15, 2022. Publicly Released: Jun 15, 2022.
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Fast Facts

According to the U.N., the conflict in Yemen is one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. The U.S. has long-standing security relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—2 primary actors in the conflict—and has sold them weapons.

There have been reports of extensive civilian harm in Yemen. However, DOD has not reported and State could not provide evidence that it investigated incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE.

State and DOD could use specific guidance for determining whether this equipment was used for unauthorized purposes. Our recommendations address this issue and more.

map with Yemen highlighted

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) administered at least $54.6 billion of military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from fiscal years 2015 through 2021. The vast majority of this support was defense articles and defense services, including training, purchased by these countries through the Foreign Military Sales program. For example, sales of defense articles included helicopters, missiles, and small diameter bombs. DOD also provided advisory services to Saudi Arabia and UAE, some addressing civilian harm reduction.

Examples of Defense Articles That May Be Purchased through Foreign Military Sales: Helicopters, Missiles, and Small Diameter Bombs

Examples of Defense Articles That May Be Purchased through Foreign Military Sales: Helicopters, Missiles, and Small Diameter Bombs

DOD and the Department of State have not fully determined the extent to which U.S. military support has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen. State officials said they consider civilian harm and use of equipment when considering potential Foreign Military Sales for Saudi Arabia and UAE. In addition, DOD and State officials said they have made some efforts to understand the extent to which U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen. However, despite several reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and UAE have caused extensive civilian harm in Yemen, DOD has not reported and State could not provide evidence that it investigated any incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE. According to DOD policy, officials overseeing security cooperation efforts should be alert to and report any indication that U.S.-origin defense articles are being used against anything other than legitimate military targets. Additionally, State investigates alleged incidents of unauthorized use. DOD officials told GAO they lack guidance for reporting such incidents, and State officials could not provide specific guidance. Without such guidance, DOD and State may not be able to assess the extent to which U.S.-origin equipment has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen.

DOD submitted its report regarding U.S. and coalition partners' operations in Yemen on time and fully addressed all required elements that we reviewed, but State has not submitted all required certifications on Saudi Arabia's and UAE's actions in Yemen. DOD's unclassified report fully addressed four relevant elements required in its mandate, including whether any coalition partners committed gross violations of human rights. State submitted an initial certification in 2018 that the Saudi and Emirati governments had made efforts to reduce harm to civilians in Yemen, but did not submit two subsequent, required certifications. Although State's initial certification was complete, its supporting documentation—not required by law—did not address all elements required in the certification.

Why GAO Did This Study

The United Nations has characterized the conflict in Yemen as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. The U.S. has long-standing security relationships with Saudi Arabia and UAE—two primary actors in the conflict—and has continued to provide them military support, including for operations in Yemen since 2015.

Public law 116-283 calls for GAO to review U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. This report examines the (1) total financial value of military support provided by DOD to Saudi Arabia and UAE in fiscal years 2015–2021, (2) extent to which DOD and State have assessed the use of U.S. military support in Yemen and to which this support contributed to or reduced civilian harm, and (3) extent to which State certifications and a DOD report submitted in response to two congressional mandates were timely and complete. GAO analyzed DOD data and State and DOD documents, and interviewed agency officials in headquarters, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.

This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in April 2022. Information that DOD and State deemed sensitive has been omitted.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that State and DOD, respectively, develop specific guidance for investigating and reporting whether U.S.-origin equipment was used for unauthorized purposes in Yemen, and that State provide current information to Congress. DOD concurred with the recommendations. State agreed to develop specific guidance and to continue to regularly update Congress.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, in consultation with DOD, develops specific guidance for investigating any indications that U.S.-origin defense articles have been used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE in substantial violation of relevant agreements with those countries, including for unauthorized purposes. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop guidance, in consultation with State, on how to implement DOD policy, including clarifying DOD roles and responsibilities, for reporting any indications that U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE against anything other than legitimate military targets or for other unauthorized purposes. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should fully assess the extent to which DOD's advisory and training efforts for Saudi Arabia and UAE facilitated civilian harm reduction in Yemen. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should provide current information to relevant congressional committees on each of the certification elements required by Section 1290 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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