Skip to Content

The Civil War in Yemen: Britain Supports Our Bastards

The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen (part of which was the former British colony of Aden) has endured years of instability and poor governance. After the 2011 revolution toppled President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been in power for more than 30 years, a new president, Hadi, was sworn in with international backing – but he was never able to fully establish authority. Yemen descended into civil war in September 2014 when the Houthis, a Shi’ite sect, seized power. A coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia launched an air campaign in March 2015, to restore the exiled government of Hadi. The Saudi-led bombardments have resulted in massive loss of life, and damage to infrastructure and millions have been driven from their homes. 10,000 people have been killed, many more thousands injured. In addition, many more are indirect victims of the conflict, including those who suffer from chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and diabetes, and are unable to get treatment. Fewer than half of Yemen’s health facilities are operational as aid agencies struggle to access war-torn regions with lifesaving medicine, and around 1,000 children die every week from preventable diseases like diarrhoea and respiratory infections.

The Houthis are endeavouring to take complete control in what is what Boris Johnson has confirmed is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In his words: ‘There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different  strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives... That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars’ (Guardian, 8 December). Saudi Arabia and its regional partners have used the spectre of Iran to justify an extensive bombing campaign over the country. Despite the extent of suffering, the war in Yemen receives less media attention than conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many people in the UK are still unaware of the extent of the bloody civil war there and the wide-scale bombing by Saudi Arabia.

Arms sales

Back in early 2016, it was revealed that British military personnel were embedded in the command and control centre for the Saudis. Naturally, this carried the standard disclaimer that the UK’s guidance was to assist the Saudi regime to comply with international humanitarian law. Advice that, if it was given, has been ignored in view of the regime’s bombing of civilians and hospitals, dropping internationally-outlawed cluster bombs (made in Great Britain). Cluster bombs release dozens of small ‘bomblets’, which often lie unexploded and can cause horrific injuries long after the initial attack. When ‘our’ allies commit war crimes, a convenient blind eye is turned to it by the government which remains complicitly silent. Parliament’s International Development Committee has said the evidence is ‘overwhelming’ that the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels violates humanitarian law. ‘We are shocked that the UK government can continue to claim that there have been no breaches of humanitarian law by the coalition, and continue sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. We are convinced that there is more than a clear risk that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The evidence that we have heard is overwhelming that the Saudi-led coalition has committed violations of international law, using equipment supplied by the UK.’

There is a reluctance by the UK or its media to condemn the military intervention of the despotic Wahhabi dictatorship. Imagine a boat full of innocent refugees, men, women, and children, being machine-gunned by a helicopter gunship, leaving dozens dead and many more wounded. Wouldn’t that make the headlines in the media and lead to very vocal condemnation by the government? Not in the UK. Could the reason be that the perpetrators of the crime happened to be one of Britain’s biggest weapons customers.

Theresa May continues a policy of bending over backward (or is it forwards?) to cosy up to the corrupt Saudi sheiks in order to sell weapons. ‘Riyadh is a key trading partner,’ says George Joffé, a research fellow and professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. ‘The main answer as to why the United Kingdom supports the coalition is as simple as it is shameful: contracts’.

Since the bombing began in March 2015, Britain has licensed sales of arms to the regime that are worth billions. Raytheon’s factories in Essex and Scotland produce the Paveway IV guided bomb which, according to its manufacturer, has proved itself ‘time and again, as the weapon of choice by the end users’. One enthusiastic end user is Saudi Arabia, bombing hospitals, schools, markets, grain warehouses, ports and a refugee camp to turn Yemen into a living nightmare.

Britain doesn’t just sell arms to those dictatorships – it sells its diplomatic silence as well. While Saudi Arabia pulls the trigger, it is Britain and the US which ever-faithfully reloads and replaces its weapons. Calls to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia over war crimes have been ignored. The UK has given political cover to the Saudi regime by preventing various resolutions and investigations from happening. Under UK arms export law, it is illegal to sell arms or munitions to a state that is at ‘clear risk’ of committing serious violations of international humanitarian law. To date, the United Nations has recorded coalition attacks that have violated international law, many of them including shelling civilian installations such as hospitals, schools, mosques or markets. However, the British government is firmly opposed to an arms embargo against its ally, claiming there is no conclusive proof of human rights violations. It also blocked a proposal by the Netherlands that the UN Human Rights Council set up an independent inquiry into war crimes in Yemen.

Oxfam has said the UK has violated the International Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates the transfer of conventional arms to ensure there are no violations of international humanitarian law. Governments who sign the arms treaty are obliged to review their weapon sales and ensure that they are not being used for human rights violations. Oxfam accused British politicians of being in ‘denial’ over the selling of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen. Penny Lawrence, Oxfam UK deputy chief executive, told a conference. ‘It has misled its own parliament about its oversight of arms sales and its international credibility is in jeopardy as it commits to action on paper but does the opposite in reality.’ Addressing MPs in the House of Commons, Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, dismissed evidence from a UN report that the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen had targeted innocent civilians as predominantly based on hearsay and may have been falsified by Houthi rebels. UN Security Council resolution 2216 reads as if Saudi Arabia is an impartial arbitrator rather than a party to the conflict with no mention of the Saudi-led intervention. There was similarly no call for a humanitarian pause in the fighting or safe corridor for aid.

Civilians pay the price

After two years of civil war, the country is on the brink of famine, of Yemen’s 25.6 million people, almost 19 million are in urgent need of assistance. Almost seven million are severely food insecure, meaning they need food aid immediately. UNICEF has calculated that a child is dying every 10 minutes from a preventable illness. Two million children are acutely malnourished. Less than half Yemen’s hospitals are functioning at all, and those that are face daily shortages of staff, medicines, and electricity. Humanitarian groups struggle to deliver aid to large parts of the country. Not only are people starving. Those who try to alleviate the situation are prevented from doing so. ‘Clearly, Yemen is one of the hardest places in the world today to work – massive security concerns, escalation in the fighting and the violence across the country.’ WFP’s Deputy Regional Director Matthew Hollingworth said several medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed. While arms sales to the warring factions are thriving, the key port of Hudaydah, which aid agencies describe as ‘a lifeline’ for Yemen, is now virtually closed, due to a naval blockade by coalition forces and the destruction of its cranes in air strikes is proving devastating for the civilian population in a country that depends heavily on imports of foodstuffs. Imports are essential as only 4 percent of the country’s land is arable and only a fraction of that is currently used for food production.

This Saudi economic strangulation is preventing the import of food and medicine and the targeting of vital infrastructures such as roads and bridges has contributed to the dire situation Yemenis are now facing. ‘If restrictions on the commercial imports of food and fuel continue, then it will kill more children than bullets and bombs...’ said UNICEF’s spokesman, Christophe Boulierac.

The Western states are showing that they value the profits of their weapons industries over the lives of Yemenis, otherwise they would immediately stop providing the bombs, the bombers, the armoured cars and tanks, the Apache attack helicopters, the missiles, the howitzers, the training, the refuelling, and all other military support to the Saudi coalition. The reality is that the Saudi Air Force, roughly half UK-supplied and half US-supplied jets, could barely function without the ongoing assistance from Washington and London. Without a ceasefire between Houthi factions and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and the opening of sea-ports and airports so vital supplies can enter the country to allow for the rebuilding infrastructure, the crisis is unlikely to let up, and it will be civilians who pay the price.

Saudi Arabia does not operate on its own but receives logistical support from Britain and the US. European manufacturers also contribute to the armaments orgy. The media looked the other way when Saudi Arabia blackmailed the United Nations by threatening to pull funding if the country was not dropped from the secretary-general’s ‘list of shame’ of states that kill children. A UN report had revealed that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for over 60 percent of the children killed in the conflict. Yet the country was able to use its position on the UN Human Rights Council (how they got there when there’s no pretence in Saudi Arabia is a mystery) to thwart an investigation into violations committed in Yemen. David Wearing, a researcher on UK-Saudi-Gulf relations with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade report, said: ‘Successive governments of all political colours have prioritised arms sales over human rights. The toxic UK-Saudi alliance has boosted the Saudi regime and lined the pockets of arms companies, but has had devastating consequences for the people of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. For the sake of those people, the UK government must finally stop arming and empowering the brutal Saudi monarchy.’

Britain supplies the Saudi dictatorship with weapons and it provides the diplomatic smokescreen to protect the mediaeval Saudi regime’s war-crimes. The current Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon shamelessly backs arms manufacturer BAE to sell more weapons to the Saudi Arabian government. ‘Are we supporting them? Absolutely.’ A past foreign secretary Philip Hammond pledged to ‘support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.’ Nor should we forget that about 100 Labour MPs failed to support a motion moved by shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry to withdraw support for the Saudi regime. Thornberry was subjected to interruptions from Labour MPs. Labour MP John Woodcock, for instance, who claimed that British support is ‘precisely focused on training Saudis’ to improve their targeting, so as to ‘create fewer civilian casualties’, was parroting the official government line. The idea that the Saudi regime’s ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks as stated by the UN on civilian targets are just a series of well-meaning errors is one that lacks credibility. And if decades of training provided by Britain to the Saudi pilots hasn’t prevented these supposed errors by now, it seems rather unlikely that it will in the future.

ALJO