The United Kingdom’s (UK) relationship with Saudi Arabia slips too readily into sycophancy. Remember when David Cameron ordered flags to half-mast on all government buildings after King Abdullah’s death in 2015, and chartered a jet, at £101,792 to the taxpayer, to Prince Charles and the rest of his exceptionally high-powered delegation to Riyadh. Or, back in 2006, when the British establishment forced the Serious Fraud Office abruptly to drop their investigation into the Al Yamamah arms deal, which had seen BAE Systems secure ‘the biggest sale of anything to anyone’ thanks to, yes, over a billion in corrupt payments. This year, a desperate London Stock Exchange has shown itself ready to bend the rules in Saudi Aramco’s favour after plans of its flotation were announced. Apparently, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, normal rules don’t apply.
But this mutually fawning ‘security relationship’ should not extend, as it does now, to UK complicity in Saudi war crimes. For nearly three years, Saudi coalition forces in Yemen have been systematically destroying vital civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, electrical grids, and water supplies, triggering what the UN refers to as “the world’s worse humanitarian crisis.” Beyond this immense human cost, fighting in Yemen has boosted ISIS, allowed Al Qaeda to become ‘stronger and richer’ than it’s ever been, and inspired acts of terrorism against the West. The response of the UK government: to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat,” as then Defence Secretary Philip Hammond dutifully pledged. An astonishing £4.6 billion of arms exports has followed over three years, with British military advisers relocated within the Saudi command and control headquarters.
Theresa May recently displayed great consternation about the fate of the Yemeni people when preparing to visit Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman: “We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Yemen.” Meanwhile UK-built jets are using UK-supplied weapons to destroy the very ports through which UK humanitarian aid, paid for by the taxpayer, needs to pass. A case of logic against logic. These are not her crocodile tears then, but an exercise in strategic self-deception learnt also by her ministerial colleagues.
The United Nations, European Parliament, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and other independent agencies have linked hundreds of Saudi-led military missions to violations of international law in Yemen. But the UK government prefers to conveniently ignore or deny the weight of this evidence. Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood has dismissed evidence as hearsay and Hammond has repeatedly stated, “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition.” The government later quietly admitted to misleading parliament on the issue.
Then Defense Secretary Michael Fallon moaned to parliamentary colleagues that criticism of Saudi “isn’t helpful” when there are arms deals to be made. The government has licensed more than £4.6 billion of UK arms exports to Saudi since the war began in 2015, including precision-guided weapons, general-purpose bombs, and fighter jets. They admitted in December 2016 that UK-made cluster bombs had been used in the conflict. Simultaneously the government claims to have one of the world's strictest and most scrupulous control of arms exports. These declarations, forgotten whenever inconvenient, can be drawn back for just as long as is needed.
Earlier this year, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) tried to force the government to suspend the export of weapons for use in Yemen by taking a legal challenge to the High Court. CAAT argued that current UK policy makes clear that arms should not be licensed if there is a ‘clear risk’ of their use in violation of international humanitarian law. By any reasonable interpretation, this requires the banning of arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.
So why, then, did the High Court decide that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue to be lawful? That’s too secret for us to know, apparently. More than half of the three-day hearing of the judicial review case was held in closed court under the imposed veil of national security. No doubt the government elaborated over-hopeful assertions by Theresa May, busy distracting everyone from Saudi’s ties to extremis, that Saudi arms sales ‘keep people on the streets of Britain safe.’
Part of the problem with our broken arms control policy has to be the British arms industry’s extensive political connections. “The same [government] department tasked with getting the evidence together,” CAAT’s Tom Barns said after hearing the High Court result, “is the department that is pushing and promoting these sales in the first place.” He is referring to Whitehall’s arms sales agency, euphemistically known as the Department for International Trade Defence and Security Organisation, which forms part of the distinctly murky system that underpins UK arms sales. A ‘revolving door’ creates a self-reinforcing network at the intersection of government, the military, and the arms industry, which mutually synchronise towards the same end: arms exports. UK arms companies have cashed in on the suffering of the people of Yemen, earning revenues from Saudi Arabia during the war exceeding $8bn, generating profits estimated at $775m.
On her last trip to Riyadh, May gushed about the “changes taking place in Saudi Arabia,” complimenting the Crown Prince’s “very clear vision of 2030.” She should not let these distract her from the 50,000 Yemeni children believed to have died so far this year as a direct result of the bombing campaign that she facilitates and supports.
No player in the wretched Yemeni war holds any moral high ground. Not the Houthis in Sana’a supported by Iran; not Hadi’s government forces in Aden supported by Saudi and the West. UK ministers are at pains not to offend, least of all now, the new Saudi Crown Prince. UK ministers may think they need to play realpolitik for righteous reasons of national defence and the lesser evil. But our government is not solving the problem: it is the problem. It has become oblivious to its own manifest complicity through delusions of righteous rescue. British ministers are continuing the Yemeni civil war and simultaneously ending it. Doublethink.
The views and content expressed herein represent the positions of the author only and not Beyond Violence.
Sophia Turner recently graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with an MSc in Violence, Conflict & Development. She is particularly interested in the role of the arts in conflict and post-conflict situations, and runs activist filmmaking organization Eye Want Change.
Written by Sophia Turner and published on 01-January-2018