After President Trump pledged an $8 billion deal to provide Saudi Arabia with weapons last month, the Senate passed three rare bipartisan resolutions intended to prevent the sale from going through. The very same day, the High Court in the United Kingdom—Saudi Arabia’s second-largest arms dealer after the United States—delivered a landmark ruling declaring arms sales to Saudi Arabia illegal on the basis of the Saudi government’s war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, a series of actions by trade unions and community organizations in European ports has been blockading arms shipments on the ground. In a political landscape overwhelmed by increasing militarism and right-wing nationalism, the actions in Europe remind us of the possibilities available to us to build another kind of world through working-class internationalism and solidarity. Government involvement is crucial—but these blockades show that grassroots organizers also have an important role to play.
It started in 2017 at the Port of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country, where the Saudi shipping line Bahri was making regular visits to load arms and explosives from Spain. Bahri is Saudi Arabia’s national shipping carrier and an important player in the global shipping industry: It’s the exclusive transporter of weapons purchased overseas by that country. The company’s logistics division operates six vessels connecting the country to the rest of the world, four of which make regular visits to ports of call in North America and two of which make regular visits to ports of call in Europe.
In March 2017, Ignacio Robles, a fireman employed by the Port of Bilbao, refused to collaborate in the loading of a Bahri vessel with arms to Saudi Arabia and was disciplined. Over the course of the next year, a range of grassroots groups in Bilbao—including the refugee-rights organizations Pasaje Seguro and Ongi Etorri, Greenpeace, and the local feminist movement—undertook a series of actions at the port, including scaling Bahri ships. They were protesting Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which has left 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance, with over half of those suffering at risk of famine. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have died of starvation since 2015. Additionally, more than 3 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict.
The activists’ choice of tactic—essentially a port blockade—was a fitting one: The Saudi blockade at the Port of Hodeida and other measures have deprived much of Yemen’s civilian population of necessities. As a result of the protests in Bilbao, Bahri made the decision in March 2018 to pull its business out of the port entirely.
But although this was an important victory, it’s not been enough to thwart the shipments completely: Ships have regular routes, making multiple stops on any given journey, and Bahri has transferred business to the Spanish Port of Santander, where they continue to pick up weapons. Later in the year, in Canada, members of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 273 in the Port of St. John respected peace activists’ picket line set up to protest the export of Canadian-made light armored vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia—but the union received little solidarity from the Canadian labor movement, and was threatened with legal action by its employer for engaging in an unlawful strike (political strikes are illegal under Canadian labour law).
Separate but analogous actions have since spread to Italy and France, with port workers playing a key role through their trade unions. A look at recent Bahri ship itineraries shows how government action and port worker activism can be complementary—and which regions are still complicit with Saudi Arabia’s actions.
Because Germany has adopted an embargo on the arms trade to Saudi Arabia as a result of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, arms presumably were not loaded onto the Bahri Yanbu when it docked in its first European port of call, Bremerhaven, a regularly scheduled stop on the shipping route, on April 30. But at its next stop, on May 4, in the Belgian Port of Antwerp, six containers of ammunition made their way onboard. It is unclear whether arms were loaded when the ship arrived at the Port of Tilbury in England on May 5 before proceeding to Le Havre in France, though given the extent of the British arms trade with Saudi Arabia, it seems quite likely (this was more than a month before the High Court ruling).
Well before the ship’s arrival in France, the French investigative collective Disclose had leaked a government report making it clear that weapons sold by France to Saudi Arabia are likely being used offensively against civilian populations in the conflict in Yemen. In response to news of that the ship would be onboarding eight Caesar howitzer cannons at the Port of Le Havre, civil society groups jumped into action. Two French human rights organizations filed a lawsuit arguing that the shipments of weapons would violate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which regulates the international weapons trade. At the same time, a protest was called for May 9 by Mouvement de la paix and Ligue des droits de l’Homme and attended by members of the CGT, the left-wing trade union representing French dockworkers. The CGT asked the port employers for a guarantee that the weapons were being sold and transported according to international rules. Because the employers would not give assurances, the CGT informed them that they would not load the weapons.
The Bahri ship left Le Havre without docking and the weapons were removed from the port. Like the 2018 action in Bilbao, the 2019 effort to blockade cargo in Le Havre has been a major victory for activists in Europe concerned with ongoing human rights violations in Yemen.
After leaving Le Havre on May 10, the ship then proceeded to the Port of Santander in Spain on May 12, where, despite protests by Pasaje Seguro and Amnesty International, the crew was able to successfully onboard a ceremonial cannon bound for Saudi Arabia. From there, the ship headed to the Port of Genoa in Italy. Inspired by the example of the French activists and port workers, the Italian dockworkers jumped into action. A rank-and-file political collective of dockworkers, known as the Collettivo Autonomo Lavoratori Portuali, involved in anti-fascist and international solidarity work in Genoa, pushed for a blockade of Saudi cargo. Working together with activists from the national trade union CGIL and the political group Potere al Popolo, they made plans to block the embarkation of two generators bound for Saudi Arabia that they argued could be used for military purposes.
Their strike on May 20 was a success, though it was rumored that the ship made a stop at the nearby Italian military terminal in the Port of La Spezia to pick up the cargo that had been blockaded in France before beginning its journey back to Saudi Arabia.
Rather than the movement’s having cooled off once the ships left, subsequent actions targeting other Bahri vessels suggest that it may have staying power. On May 28, at France’s largest port, Fos/Marseille, CGT dockworkers declared that they would not unload a Bahri vessel, despite the French government’s continued promise that arms sold to Saudi Arabia were not being used offensively in the war in Yemen. The CGT argued that regardless of whether this was true or not, the ship was already transporting Canadian armed vehicles to Saudi Arabia, so servicing the ship would contravene the ATT. It worked: The ship left without its anticipated cargo. Then, on June 20, a second action at the Port of Genoa prevented another Bahri ship from loading the generators the company had failed to load the previous month.
The tactic of “following the ships” has a long history within the world of dockworker labor internationalism. In the late 1990s, amid a long-standing dispute intended to break the union at the Port of Liverpool, dockworkers around the world targeted the Neptune Jade, a ship loaded by strike breakers, first in Oakland, then in Vancouver, and finally in Yokohama. More recent international solidarity actions at the Port of Oakland, however, have been led primarily by community-based activists.
Perhaps the most well-known recent example was the “Block the Boat” protests in 2014 following the Israeli siege of Gaza. A large coalition of community activists sought to blockade Zim Shipping Line, an Israeli carrier, following the call by the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and worked hard to educate and win over unionized dockworkers from the ILWU to their cause. When ILWU members refused to cross the picket lines established by community members, citing health and safety concerns, the shipping line pulled out of the US West Coast entirely—a major victory for the movement.
Today, Bahri ships might usefully be targeted in North America as well. The company’s vessels call regularly at the ports of Pensacola, Corpus Christi, Houston, New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington (North Carolina), Sunny Point military terminal (North Carolina), Baltimore, Wilmington (Delware), and Saint John (New Brunswick).
Community-based activists and dockworker trade unionists around the world should take note: Direct action can create significant momentum for the growing international movement in the ports begun in Spain, France, and Italy. It also sends a strong message both to policy-makers in the United States and the Saudi government that workers and activists are willing to do whatever they can to prevent further disaster in Yemen.
Editor’s note: this post has been updated with additional details about protests in Canada.