While our political class obsesses over Brexit, the government is getting away scot-free with doing something infinitely more destructive; something so lacking in basic humanity that it almost defies comprehension. As a leading backer of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) throughout their nearly four year long war in Yemen, Britain has played a highly significant role in the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
At a conservative estimate, 85,000 infant children are thought to have starved to death since the war began, mostly due to a blockade imposed on the impoverished country by Britain’s allies. And, in another highly conservative estimate, 56,000 are thought to have been violently killed, mostly by Saudi-UAE bombing. If this were not bad enough, the country is now on the brink of the worst famine seen anywhere on earth for decades, perhaps a century. Starvation now threatens a staggering 14 million people. The British government has played a significant, active role in making this happen.
“This is Britain’s war”.
The Yemen war is complex, but its fundamentals are not hard to understand. An uprising in the context of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 led to an internationally brokered deal, whereby the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down in favour of his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi was to oversee a national dialogue and transition to democracy, but the process faltered, whereupon a rebel movement from the north of the country – the Houthis – seized the capital in 2014. Hadi was formally deposed in March 2015, and fled south, where his cause was taken up by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Their intervention, aimed at restoring Hadi to power, comprised three elements: aerial bombing, blockade and support for a disparate group of local forces on the ground (few of whom were strictly loyal to Hadi himself, an increasingly diminished figure). Iran’s fairly modest support for the Houthis was cited as the main justification for the intervention, as part of the wider Saudi-UAE regional rivalry with Tehran.
This Saudi-UAE intervention simply could not have happened without both the approval and practical support of the British and American governments. Saudi aerial power is perhaps the leading component of the campaign, and is totally dependent on the US and UK, who provide not only the planes but also the training for the pilots, resupply of ammunition, spare parts, and more important forms of maintenance. Without this support, sooner or later, the planes cannot fly and the bombs cannot fall.
As the then foreign secretary Phillip Hammond said at the start of the war, “we have a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force … We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. British Typhoon and Tornado jets make up a sizeable proportion of the Royal Saudi Air Force’s total assets, alongside those supplied by the Americans. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, said in 2016 that “if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow, because the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support”. The idea that these complex weapons systems (and the wider military relations that come with them) could be swiftly replaced by the Russians or the Chinese is simply a nonsense.
So the US and UK may not be combatants in the war, but they are active and indispensable participants in it. British ministers may prefer now, in light of everything that has happened since 2015, to portray themselves as innocent bystanders, but this is Britain’s war every bit as much as it is the Saudis’ or the Emiratis’.
Complicity in catastrophe.
Within months of the first Saudi airstrikes, a widespread consensus emerged amongst the leading humanitarian and human rights NGOs, as well as UN officials, that all parties, including the UK-armed coalition, were engaged in repeated violations and atrocities, up to and including potential war crimes. UN investigators documented “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets by the coalition, who had bombed hospitals, schools, residential homes, weddings, funerals and all manner of other civilian targets. The US and UK claimed that these were all innocent mistakes and that continued Anglo-American training was the answer, but years have passed and the atrocities have only continued, including the bombing of a school bus in August killing 40 children aged between six and eleven, along with eleven adults, and wounding a further 79.
The tens of thousands killed by coalition bombing are outnumbered by those effectively killed in the man-made humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Saudi-UAE blockade. Save the Children conservatively estimate that 85,000 infants have already starved to death, while 14 million people are poised to follow them if the situation deteriorates further. Yemen has also seen the worst cholera outbreak on record, with 10,000 new cases every week and at least 2,500 deaths so far. The coalition appears to be using starvation and the collapse of public health quite deliberately against the civilian population, which constitutes a war crime. In this and in the bombing, our own government is an enabler, and therefore an accomplice.
To understand the extent of Anglo-American complicity, and the extent of our own responsibilities as citizens of the UK, look at how the fallout from the killing of the mildly dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, has affected the situation in Yemen. The scandal around Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, almost certainly at the direct order of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), crystallised two things. First, wider public disquiet about the nature of British and American support for the Saudi regime. And second, wider disquiet within the Anglo-American governing elite about the competence of MBS as de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. The scandal therefore escalated to encompass the entire UK-Saudi and US-Saudi relationship, including the war in Yemen, shining a brighter spotlight on the conflict and increasing the political cost to the British and American governments of maintaining their support for the war.
This political pressure has had a concrete effect on the ground in Yemen. For the past few months, fighting has concentrated around the key port of Hodeida, which the Saudi-UAE coalition seek to wrest from Houthi control. Throughout that time, aid agencies and the UN have warned that if the war consumes the port city itself (Yemen is almost entirely import-dependent) the country will topple into the abyss, triggering the famine currently threatening 14 million Yemeni lives. Those warnings were effectively ignored by the parties to the conflict and their foreign sponsors for several months, but once the Khashoggi scandal broke, the calculus changed. Pressure from Washington and London on their allies resulted in a temporary lull in the fighting, and a return to tentative talks between the two sides. Lives have undoubtedly been saved, at least for now.
However, the risks remain severe. Few are optimistic about the current talks, and the pressure the White House and Downing Street have placed on their allies to de-escalate the fighting and participate in talks has been limited and half-hearted. That pressure will only be sustained – let alone increased to the point where it could have a real effect on the war and save millions of Yemenis from starvation – if domestic political pressure on the British and American governments is not just maintained, but ramped up considerably.
A crisis ignored.
The reality is that the Saudi-UAE intervention would have ended a long time ago if there had been sufficient political pressure on the British and American governments to pull the plug on it. Recent events have proven that such pressure can make a difference. And yet from March 2015 until today, Yemen has been treated as a side issue in Anglo-American politics, not only by much of the media and many politicians but also, sadly, by much of the left.
Many brave journalists have done exceptional reporting from Yemen, and many NGO workers have carefully analysed and documented the situation on the ground and the conduct of the warring parties. But there has been an almost universal failure by the leading newspapers and broadsheets to give this information the sustained prominence it plainly requires, and by almost all mainstream opinion writers to take up their own responsibility to turn this story into a scandal. As a result, public awareness of the war in Yemen has lagged far behind awareness of the war in Syria despite their comparable severity and Britain’s direct and extensive complicity in the Yemen case.
And while the left would be right to highlight and critique these failures, perhaps we should look in the mirror before doing so. Yemen is not substantively less of a disaster than Iraq was after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, and yet as far as Yemen is concerned, we have seen nothing resembling the energetic and powerful opposition to that earlier conflict. There are surely good reasons for this at the level of each of us as individuals. But at a collective level it is a serious failure, and one that has had a price.
The Saudi-UAE coalition have only been able to fight their war because of Anglo-American support, and Washington and London have only been able to provide that support because the domestic political cost of doing so has not been prohibitive. It is the job of the left, and of wider civil society, to raise that cost to the point where it is unbearable. That needs to happen, and it needs to happen right now. If it doesn’t, no one will be able to say that they weren’t warned about the consequences.
David Wearing is the author of ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain’ and is a teaching fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.