DUBAI // The shipment of 16,000 pistols headed for Yemen but seized by Dubai Police may have been tribal gifts or bound for an "international arms superhighway", but would not have helped rebels succeed against government forces with bigger and more powerful weapons, analysts said yesterday.
Nevertheless, the guns would have further destabilised a nation already wracked with unrest and overloaded with weaponry, the analysts said.
"The shipment is of a significant size, especially given the current situation in Yemen," said Paul Burke, a former British counter-terrorism officer who operated in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is now based in Abu Dhabi.
But Mr Burke cast doubt on whether the weapons could be useful to anti-government forces in the country, which must contend with separatist movements, al Qa'eda militants, Houthi rebels and an uprising that has threatened the long rule of the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"Pistols are not an effective weapon choice for conducting an insurgency, as they are very close-range by nature," said Mr Burke. "They are unsuitable for operations such as group ambushes; neither are they suitable for engaging the security forces in battles. I'd be surprised if a shipment consisting solely of pistols would be destined for rebel groups to conduct anti-government attacks."
Other analysts agreed.
"For the kind of warfare we see in Yemen, pistols are not the first choice. Pistols are more personal-defence weapons, short-range," said Pieter Wezeman, a Middle East expert at Sipri, an arms control think tank. "They are not very effective in combat against anyone with a rifle or anything bigger."
Dr Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, agreed. "Pistols will not change the military balance in the country," he said.
Mr Wezeman said the apparent cheap make of the weapons probably indicated they were not very reliable "and therefore even less useful to anyone involved in a serious rebellion". He said they may have been intended as a "sort of cheap male jewellery", like the traditional Jambiya daggers worn by many Yemeni males.
Mr Burke said it was possible the weapons were intended for distribution among tribes as gifts to reinforce patronage.
It remains unclear exactly who was likely to use the weapons, which Dubai Police said were bound for Sa'dah, a stronghold of the Houthi rebel movement.
The pistols might have been for internal use or part of an "international arms superhighway" responsible for the proliferation of illegal small-arms sales in Yemen, the Gulf and East Africa, said Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "It's a fact this type of ungovernable territory is conducive to this kind of trade."
There is no shortage of guns in Yemen. A report published last year by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group, estimated the number of small arms and light weapons in Yemen to be about 10 million - nearly one weapon for every two civilians.
Mr Wezeman said photographs of the cache showed they were small pistols with gold and chrome details, which "have very little to no value for rebel forces fighting Yemeni and Saudi military, and would make little difference in Yemen, where there are plenty of much more powerful weapons around".
He said the police interception of the weapons was a sign that Dubai is taking its responsibility in controlling arms flow seriously, even if it is unlikely to make any difference in conflicts within Yemen. "My sense is that the UAE really have improved their controls on shipments of arms in recent years."
Dr Alani said Yemen's neighbours had a responsibility to restrict arms flow to the private sector in Yemen, particularly since they could be re-exported to other countries, fuelling instability across the region.
"Once these people have the capability, and arms is one of those capabilities, it will end up on our door sooner or later," he said.