The Saudi Arabian border guard is currently using Spanish-made mortars in combat zones on the border with Yemen, a joint investigation by elDiario.es and Greenpeace has shown. The mortars were exported in 2018, when the conflict between the two countries had been active for more than three years and Spanish and international regulations prohibited sending weapons that could be used in that war.
The results of this investigation are the first evidence that Spanish arms exported after the outbreak of the conflict are being used in Yemen, where since 2015 the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels face the Yemeni government and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates Arabs. Both sides have carried out human rights violations, according to numerous international organizations, in a war that in the last five years has claimed the lives of 7,700 civilians according to the UN, a figure that Human Rights Watch rises to 17,000.
In 2016, the Spanish armored launchers and grenade launchers were already found in the border area between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but the material had been exported before the start of the conflict and therefore its sale did not so clearly contravene national and international arms export legislation. .
Both Spanish and European legislation expressly prohibit sending war material when there are “rational indications” that it can be used to “disturb the peace” or “exacerbate latent tensions or conflicts”.
Mortars three kilometers from the border
In December 2019, a video of the Saudi Arabian border guard appeared on the TikTok social network in which members of this body are seen firing the aforementioned 120mm Spanish mortars, known as Alakran, produced by the NTGS company based in Collado Villalba (Madrid). These mortars have a range of up to 8.2 kilometers and can be easily integrated into any off-road vehicle. According to the company itself, the Alakran allows firing and quickly withdraw from the scene in 10 seconds after firing.
In the images, which reappeared in January 2020 on an unofficial Instagram account of the Saudi border guard, soldiers are seen moving these mortars in off-road vehicles as well as firing various projectiles. At the end of the video you can see the smoke produced by the shots, presumably in Yemeni territory.
This investigation has been able to geolocate images from the aforementioned video just three kilometers from the Yemeni border. The footage shows Saudi jeeps equipped with mortars heading for the border city of Najran. The orography of the other images, where the shots are seen, coincides with that of the Saddah region, in the north of Yemen, next to Najran and where there have been a large number of confrontations between the Houthi rebels and the soldiers of Arabia Saudi.
According the ACLED database (Armed Conflict Event and Location Data Project), between January 2019 and January 2020, the Saudi military carried out more than 300 artillery or missile strikes alone in the mentioned Saddah region. According to this internationally renowned observatory, many of the artillery attacks in the area are the work of the Saudi border guard.
Although it has not been possible to determine exactly when the video was recorded, the time span since the Spanish mortars were exported and first shown to the public in Saudi Arabia – in late 2018, at a military exhibition– allows to limit the recording on the Yemeni border between the beginning of 2019 and the end of that year, when it was uploaded to the network.
An export during the war
At the end of 2016, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior signed a contract with the Spanish company NTGS for the purchase of 100 Alakran 120mm mortars. A few months later, the Spanish Government – at that time led by Mariano Rajoy – authorized the sale and export of these mortars despite the fact that the conflict in Yemen escalated exponentially and the risk that they would eventually be used against the civilian population was high.
The production of the mortars began in 2017 and in 2018 the first 21 units were exported, as stated in the annual report that the Government must send as a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. The crossing of customs data on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2018 with the visits of the ships of the Saudi shipping company Bahri to the port of Motril (Grenada) suggest that this was, at least in part, the method of shipment of Alakran mortars to the Riyadh regime.
The contract with Saudi Arabia catapulted the turnover of the Spanish NTGS, which according to its annual balance of accounts went from billing 1.5 million in 2017 to billing 30.5 million the following year after closing the agreement to sell the mortars to Riyadh.
In a signed statement that appears in the balance sheet, the CEO of NTGS, Julio Estrella, assures that the contract with Saudi Arabia reported a turnover of 28 million euros in 2018, an amount that accounted for 90% of what the company billed that year.
In the same statement, the manager indicates that the renewal of this contract was suspended in January 2019, a few months after Pedro Sánchez arrived at the Executive. The change of government led to a freeze on most exports to Saudi Arabia, a policy that a few months later was reversed by going from suspending new authorizations to multiplying them by 30 in 2019.
Although it is unknown whether the authorization was renewed in 2019 – no mortar exports are recorded in the official statistics for 2019 – the visits of the Bahri shipping company to Motril were resumed from 2020 and until the time of publication of this article. It has made three stops in this Andalusian port so far this year.
A company and an opaque export system
The NTGS company maintains a policy of discretion and even dissimulation of its activities. The factory where the company has its registered office, in the polygon 29 of the Madrid town of Collado Villalba, does not even have a company label and hides behind a sign with the name of CyP imports. Images obtained through Google Street View and from photographs taken by Greenpeace members in the polygon show that, however, inside there are trucks from NTGS.
The company, which also participates in the shareholders of biotechnology, molecular diagnosis and DNA sequencing companies, has not responded to the multiple calls and emails from elDiario.es offering the possibility of commenting on this publication. Neither the consulting firm Everis, which holds 50% of this company, has responded to the requests of this newsroom alleging that the staff responsible for these matters was on vacation.
Nor are government decisions to export arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia transparent. The decision-maker in Spain on where to export arms is an agency called the Interministerial Board for Defense and Dual-use Material (JIMMDU), made up of representatives from the Ministries of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Defense, Economy and Finance and the Interior. The meetings are behind closed doors and the minutes are secret and inaccessible thanks to a 1987 decision based on the law of official secrets, approved during the Franco regime in 1968.
The most prominent non-governmental organizations in the country have for years denounced the need for greater transparency and ease of access to the minutes of these meetings in order to know what the criteria are for authorizing exports to according to which countries, given that sales that contravene are approved. openly what the legislation establishes.
“We are not aware, either in the Secretary of State for Trade or in the JIMDDU, that there are indications of the use of material from Spanish companies outside of Saudi Arabia”, said a month ago the Secretary of State for Commerce, Xiana Méndez, in the Defense Parliamentary Committee. “The situation in Yemen is an essential concern of the JIMDDU,” he added.
From the Ministry of Industry, the body to which the Interministerial Board of Defense Material is attached, they respond that the Government is “firmly committed to the national and international regulations” for arms exports and they ensure that Spain has one of the control mechanisms of “more robust” defense material both “at the legislative” and “procedural” levels.