Military base, checkpoints, secret prison: report reveals "militarisation" of Total's infrastructures in Yemen

November 07, 2019

PARIS, FRANCE - A report published today by L'Observatoire des armements and SumOfUs, in collaboration with Les Amis de la Terre France, documents the militarisation of Total's activities in Yemen since the 1980s. Open sources and witness testimony reveal that Total’s gas liquefaction site at Balhaf has been set up as a military base (since 2009) and a secret prison (2017-2018). The report also questions the role of the French government, which was involved in the militarisation of the site, and is the guarantor of Total’s Yemen LNG gas liquefaction project.

Despite civil society campaigns and media attention, the French government continues to sell weapons to the Saudi-led Coalition engaged in Yemen. After the failure of a resolution in the Assemblée nationale calling for a parliamentary commission of inquiry into French arms sales last year, no further attempts have been made to scrutinise the government’s activity in this area. In this context, L'Observatoire des armements and SumOfUs, a global consumer group set up to challenge corporate power, sought to find out whether Total's operations in Yemen could explain this political standstill. In collaboration with Les Amis de la Terre France, on the question of climate financing and impacts, they led an investigation into Total's control of Yemeni oil and gas resources, and the extent to which this has been supported by successive French governments.

The report reveals that the French government's military strategy and Total's energy policy in Yemen have been closely linked since the 1980s, and more recently in East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, etc.). In conflict areas, the company reinforces its position, aided by the establishment of a military-style infrastructure (gas site turned into military base, checkpoints, etc.) and French military policy (training of special forces and Yemeni coastguards, involvement of private military companies, investment by the French Navy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, etc.). According to the authors of the report, the extent of this "militarisation" goes as far as Total’s Balhaf site housing a militia from 2016, and a secret prison between 2017 and 2018.

The existence of a military base and a prison in the town of Balhaf has already been mentioned in other reports; this report establishes for the first time their presence on the Total-run site, providing detailed evidence. The report also interrogates the foreign policy implications of France's dependence on oil and gas.

According to the authors, Total’s Yemen LNG Balhaf site is partly in the hands of the United Arab Emirates, which has been accused of war crimes by the United Nations. The report is draws on several accounts of arbitrary detention and inhuman and degrading treatment – such as torture and denial of medical care – by Emirati soldiers. Certain aspects of the report also suggest that the French government must logically be aware of what was happening on the Total site between 2017 and 2018.

“These revelations must push French parliamentarians to act. The French government’s policy in Yemen is carried out in the name of the war on terrorism, under its agreement with the United Arab Emirates on military cooperation, but the facts uncovered in our report tell a different story. The Assemblée nationale must urgently launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry to shed full light on the involvement of France and French companies in the war in Yemen. According to a YouGov survey conducted for SumOfUs in March 2019, 7 out of 10 French people are in favour of strengthening the French parliament's role in arms sales,” said Eoin Dubsky, Campaigns Manager at SumOfUs.

"It is essential to establish effective parliamentary scrutiny of defence policy, including strategic partnerships with countries such as the United Arab Emirates. This could be the function of a standing parliamentary committee, which would regularly review and report on France's military cooperation agreements," said Tony Fortin, Researcher at the Observatoire des armements.

The report also reveals that the French state is now financially exposed if construction of the Yemen LNG gas liquefaction site – currently on hold – does not restart, because the French government has granted a public export guarantee for its construction.

"We find ourselves in a grotesque situation, in which it is public money that could pay off part of Total's debts to banks for a gas project transformed into a military base, with the complicity of the State," said Cécile Marchand, Climate Campaigner at Friends of the Earth France. French export subsidies are currently being discussed in the Assemblée nationale as part of the 2020 Finance Bill. The authors of the report ask French parliamentarians to take this opportunity to put an end to the public guarantees granted to the oil and gas industry.

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Notes to editors:

Access the executive summary of the report in English here: Operation Shabwa: France and Total at war in Yemen?

Access the full report (in French) here: Opération Shabwa : La France et Total en guerre au Yémen ?


L'Observatoire des armements is an independent centre of expertise founded in 1984 based in Lyon, France. Its objective is to support civil society's work on defence and security issues with a view to gradual demilitarisation. The Observatory is active in two priority areas: the arms and security industries, and nuclear weapons and their consequences. It publishes studies and a newsletter, Damocles.

SumOfUs is a global movement of consumers, investors, and workers all around the world, united together to hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable and just path for our global economy.

Created in 1970, Les Amis de la Terre France (Friends of the Earth France) helped to found the French environmental movement and Friends of the Earth International, the first global environmental network, today present in 75 countries and with 2 million members. It campaigns for a transition to sustainable societies in both the global North and South.