Yemen: Five Years of War

By Adam Peggs

Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest countries and a former UK colony continues to be ravaged by the Saudi-led coalition. As of this week, the war in Yemen has been ongoing for five years and despite a ceasefire, the country is continuing to face bloodshed.

On average three civilians have been dying every day since the December ceasefire, primarily from ‘airstrikes, shelling, by sniper or landmines’. Low estimates suggest the war has killed over 60,000 people, a very significant proportion of which have been civilians, with Amnesty reporting indiscriminate killing by the Saudi led coalition from the beginning of the intervention. Higher estimates suggest that the number killed in just the last three years is in excess of 67,000, with the total potentially a good deal higher. Additionally, the country is undergoing a severe humanitarian crisis dubbed the ‘worst in the world’ by the United Nations and a ‘humanitarian hellscape’ by SOAS’s Helen Lackner.

UK arms sales to the Saudi regime have risen fivefold since 2016 – including jets, bombs and missiles. Providing military advisors, training and logistical support to the Saudi war effort. Overall, British arms account for around half of Saudi Arabia’s jets, the US applies most of the remainder. Even British made cluster bombs have been dropped over Yemen –  despite Britain being among the 100 countries to have prohibited cluster bombs, since the government maintains a policy of selling them abroad. David Wearing describes this overall policy of direct support as an ‘indispensable, enabling role’ in the Saudi intervention. In short, British and American arms exports ensure the Saudi war effort remains viable. Without this role, the assault on Yemen would grind to a halt. On the subject of arms sales, our government has emphasised the possibility of the Saudis simply buying weapons elsewhere as the consequence of suspending arms exports, arguing that our complicity is limited. But this ignores the vast unlikelihood that the Saudi air-force could easily replace all its jets and weapons in the middle of a war.

Likewise, Trump’s America and Macron’s France also have a relatively small number of troops on the ground. And Germany has been found by its courts to bear some culpability for US drone strikes operated from bases on German soil. The war has essentially become an exercise in European and American military adventurism, just with these countries leading from behind.

Back in 2016 a large swathe of the parliamentary party boycotted a vote on the war in Yemen, in which Emily Thornberry and the Labour leadership had sought an end to UK involvement. With the boycott apparently intended as a way of ‘trying to beat Jeremy’. The UK’s involvement in the conflict has essentially become an issue of the left versus the right and centre, with the 2016 boycott a sign that Labour still requires a shift on the backbenches.

The causes of the war underline the kind of inequity that runs through much of the international order. Yemen has long served as a semi-vassal of Saudi Arabia, while the UK has long been the Saudi’s superior ally. Thus, Saudi attempts to impose order in Yemen are linked back to the foreign policy status quo in Britain, which treats Saudi Arabia effectively as a client regime and maintains the right to interfere in former colonies like Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is treated as an invaluable ally by British elites but the benefits of this alliance to those living in the UK is almost exclusively confined to the arms industry, the City and the oil industry. With Saudi’s key military infrastructure dependent on the UK, our government has in effect prioritised the narrow interests of UK arms manufacturers over the victims of war. Perhaps nowhere else is there such a clear illustration of this government’s unwillingness to move on from amoral foreign policy. This government is not just complicit, it’s a participant in the war.