UK involvement with the brutal bombing of Yemen in favour of the deeply repressive Saudi dictatorship exposes British foreign policy

Daniel Jakopovich


“In addition to highlighting the consequences of Britain’s unethical arms’ sales policies, the tragic conflict in Yemen has further revealed the strength of the alliance between the British political and economic elite and the most brutal and reactionary dictatorship in the Middle East.”

On 21st March 2015 the Houthis, a predominantly Shia religious-political armed movement allied with forces loyal to the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital Sana’a from forces loyal to the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, subsequently based in Aden and other parts of southern and eastern Yemen. Both Saleh’s and Hadi’s governments had failed to heal the rifts caused by decades of political violence and economic hardship. Both political elites failed to put an end to corruption, severe human rights’ violations and the economic and other forms of deprivation of the Yemeni population, which helped to create a fertile ground for armed conflict.

Just four days following the Houthi overtaking of Sana’a, on 25th March, a Saudi-led international military coalition (also including the Sunni states United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Sudan and, ostensibly in a slightly more arms-length manner, the US and the UK) began air strikes on Houthi-controlled territory – greatly intensifying the conflict. Although there is evidence that atrocities and war crimes have been committed on all sides, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in densely populated residential neighbourhoods – which (as reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also emphasise) clearly breach international law – have very probably caused the greatest civilian casualties. One of the largest death tolls in a single incident since the beginning of the coalition’s bombing campaign happened on 8th October 2016, when the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed more than 100 people attending a funeral in Sana’a, injuring more than 500. UN-sponsored talks, which lasted half a year, had broken down a month before this incident.

Britain has been providing important political, military, technical and logistical support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased by 11,000 per cent in the three months following the start of its bombing campaign against Yemen in March 2015. Close to £3.8 billion worth of UK arms have been sold to the Saudi regime since the beginning of the war. The UK’s technical and logistical assistance to the Saudi military includes assisting with target selection, allegedly just in a training capacity but possibly also in concrete military operations. In January 2017 an ITV news report revealed that UK ‘liaison officers’ sit at the back of the Saudi Arabian Air Operation Centre from where the bombing raids on Yemen are directed. This highly intimate level of cooperation indicates that the UK’s role in the war in Yemen is probably much more substantial than the government is leading the public to believe.

In February 2016 the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Even the US administration under Obama, while continuing to support the Saudi war on Yemen, withdrew almost all of the US military personnel in the Saudi operational command centre in Riyadh. Furthermore, in December 2016 Obama blocked some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, thus apparently putting pressure on the Saudis to seek a new, political solution to the intractable conflict. Trump’s administration has sought to renew the alliance with Saudi Arabia and has restored the overtly belligerent stance towards Iran. One of the rationales that was offered for this approach is the claim that Iran has been backing the Houthis, although there is apparently only very limited evidence for this. Furthermore, in a sharp reversal of the US’s stance at the end of the Obama presidency, Trump has agreed a $110 billion arms’ sales deal with Saudi Arabia.

Throughout this period, the UK government has continued to ignore substantial evidence that the Saudi bombing, which it is supporting, is violating international humanitarian law, and that it is a major factor in deepening a humanitarian crisis which the UN has declared to be a Level 3 emergency. Britain’s nonchalant stance towards Saudi human rights’ abuses is not unusual: 20 out of the 30 countries deemed to be of ‘priority concern’ by the Foreign Office due to their human rights’ abuses are also major customers of British arms’ exports. However, in the Summer of 2016 rifts were exposed on the issue of arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia even in the ranks of the ruling Conservative Party, when two (Conservative Party-dominated) Commons Select Committees – the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the International Development Committee (IDC) – published a joint report which concluded that an arms embargo was needed.

The report (BIS/IDC, 2016, p.13) stated that ‘the UK government has not responded to allegations of IHL breaches by the Saudi-led coalition in any meaningful way and we are concerned that our support for the coalition, principally through arms sales, is having the effect of conferring legitimacy on its activities’. Furthermore, the report (BIS/IDC, p.31) emphasised that the British state also maintained other, more direct, forms of involvement in the conflict: ‘Our involvement extends from providing the planes and bombs for airstrikes to UK personnel in the Joint Combined Planning Cell and Saudi Air Operations Centre. This level of involvement without being a party to the conflict is unprecedented and is a result of the “privileged” relationship the UK has with Saudi Arabia and its armed forces’. As the report notes, even the Parliamentary Select Committees were not able to get clarity from the government about the scale and precise nature of the activity of British personnel and BAE Systems’ employees involved in joint UK-Saudi military operations in Yemen.

The UN estimated in March 2017 that 13,000 civilians have been killed in the war, and that more than 3 million have been displaced. The UN is also estimating that around 40,000 people have been injured. Many more have been dying as a result of the break-down of the health care system and the rest of the social infrastructure. Only 45 per cent of health facilities are functioning, and around 14.8 million people lack access to basic medical care. UNICEF has warned that around 20 million people in Yemen are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, including around 11 million children, especially as they lack medical care, adequate nutrition, fresh and uncontaminated drinking water, sanitation and education.

In 2017 a massive cholera outbreak occurred. According to World Health Organization estimates, by August 500,000 Yemeni people had been infected, and almost 2,000 have died as a result. An article published in the Lancet noted that the main cause of the cholera outbreak is the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Houthi-controlled areas. As a major supporter of the coalition bombing, Britain also bears a large part of the responsibility for this humanitarian catastrophe. Especially through its joint military activities with the Saudi-led coalition, Britain has also supported the starvation blockade of Yemen, which is one of the main causes of the humanitarian crisis. More than a million children under the age of 5 in Yemen are currently suffering from acute malnutrition and are at risk of dying from the massive cholera epidemic. The amount of human and animal suffering is of course unquantifiable.

In addition to highlighting the consequences of Britain’s unethical arms’ sales policies, the tragic conflict in Yemen has further revealed the strength of the alliance between the British political and economic elite and the most brutal and reactionary dictatorship in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s regime even executes juveniles for taking part in peaceful protest, yet the UK government has also been training Saudi forces in techniques which the dictatorship can apply to its violent repression of its own population.

UK support for and involvement with the brutal and illegal bombing of Yemen in favour of the deeply repressive Saudi dictatorship further exposes British foreign policy as devoid of authentic ethical content. Despite the limited public awareness of this conflict, the UK government’s stance has already caused much political damage to the Conservative Party, especially during the 2017 election campaign, which highlighted the issue of arms’ sales to the Saudi dictatorship. As a result of the evident ethical indefensibility of the government’s position, it has received criticism even from some ordinarily pro-war currents of political opinion. Despite the recent high court decision (largely based on last-minute secret information presented in a closed court) that arms sales to Saudi Arabia can continue, it is likely that this issue will continue to serve as a potent example of the cynicism and hypocrisy that form the basis of Britain’s foreign policy.

Stop the War demands that the UK government immediately stops all its support for the Saudi-led aggression in Yemen, including immediately ending arms sales to the Saudi regime. Instead of continuing to provide military, economic and diplomatic support to the Saudi-led military intervention, Britain should support the peaceful resolution of this intractable, brutal and devastating conflict.

This article is taken from Stop the War’s Autumn 2017 briefing. You can get your copy here.

25 Jan 2018

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