How to Influence People: Saudi Arabia, Yemen and British Bombs
The government's intransigence on Saudi arms sales is leading to catastrophe in Yemen writes Chris Nineham
Pressure is mounting for an end to British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Germany has suspended theirs. Save the Children have spelt out the terrible cost in Yemini lives of continuing to supply weapons. Aid experts are predicting the worst humanitarian disaster anywhere in the world since the Second World War if the Saudi-led war continues.
But the British establishment is digging in and refusing to even consider a suspension of arms sales. The cynicism and double standards on display here are breathtaking. If an 'enemy nation' like Iran was leading this kind of assault on a neighbour and had conducted a state assassination of a foreign journalist, we would have moved way beyond sanctions to threatening war.
But Saudi Arabia is a friend, and so the government does nothing. Its attempts at justification are so disingenuous they border on unintended satire. But however bizarre they may seem, they need to be challenged because British intransigence is leading to catastrophe.
Amazingly their central argument is that arms sales give us leverage with the Saudi Regime. This is mind bending. We need to supply Saudi Arabia with the means to kill Yemenis in order to be able to persuade them to do what? Presumably stop killing Yeminis. Perhaps sensing a flaw in the argument, Colonel Richard Kemp gave it a twist in a radio interview on Monday night saying that the advantage of British weapons is that they are the most accurately targeted in the world. If the Saudis don't get high quality missiles from us they will get low grade weaponry from elsewhere. Arms sales as a humanitarian strategy then. Our weapons are actually saving innocent civilians' lives.
This kind of Orwellian war speak is being deployed to cover up the government's real concerns. The British establishment has many strong ties to Saudi Arabia. The arms industry is a major player in British capitalism and is being promoted vigorously by the government with a view to an expanded post-Brexit role. Saudi Arabia is Britain's most lucrative market for arms anywhere in the world. And the volume of sales is rising. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has agreed orders for more than £3.75bn worth of British defence equipment – mainly bombs and fighter aircraft – up from just £160m in the 22 months before the 2015 general election.
Don't underestimate the importance either of the bribes on offer from the regime to British politicians and others. Figures released by parliament show that Tory members of Parliament have collected £99,396 in gifts, travel expenses, and consulting fees from the government of Saudi Arabia since the Yemen war began. The Daily Mirror has documented how many of the MPs who have been on lavish trips paid for by the Saudis have spoken out in the countries defence. After a £3,187 trip to Saudi in 2017 for example Simon Hoare MP told parliament “Saudi Arabia is going through self-authored and hugely welcome modernisation and change.”
The underlying reason for inaction is that Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally in Britain and the West's efforts to maintain control of the Middle East. Ever since the 1945 meeting between President Roosevelt and Saudi founder King Abdulaziz in 1945, Saudi Arabia has been the key guarantor of oil supply to the Western powers and a mainstay in stabilizing the region and making it safe for Western exploitation. In the last few years both US and UK governments have been tightening their relations with the Saudis and supporting the Saudi led struggle to push back Iranian power.
At a time of international revulsion with the regime, when other countries are suspending sales, when the architect of the war Mohammed bin Salman is in deep trouble at home, a principled stand by Saudi's second biggest arms supplier could change the game, possibly even head off catastrophe. If our government really wants influence, that would be the thing to do.