Britain's War in Yemen

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has sparked much international outrage. Less examined is Saudi Arabia's genocidal war in Yemen, heavily supported, at every stage, by the British government.

Yemen is the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, and it’s man-made. Over the last three and a half years, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have carried out an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign and imposed a punishing blockade on this desperately poor country. Although around 6,600 civilians are known to have been killed in the violence, the real figure is likely to be much, much higher. Many more have died from hunger and preventable disease. Though their opponents are no less likely to be guilty of war crimes themselves, the Saudi-UAE coalition is responsible for most of these deaths. Up to fourteen million people now teeter on the brink of starvation, with the UN warning that the world’s worst famine in 100 years (comparable to those in the USSR, Bangladesh and Ethiopia during the twentieth century) could unfold within the next three months.

Take a moment to read that last sentence again.

Yemen is not just one political issue among many, it’s an emergency. And it should be a leading priority for the British left because the British state is playing a leading, enabling role in causing the disaster. When Yemeni civilians are killed it is often by British-supplied bombs and missiles dropped from British-built planes flown by British-trained pilots, and with maintenance provided on the ground by British technicians. These planes comprise around half of the Royal Saudi Air Force’s combat jets, with the United States supplying the remainder. 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’. So this is not just someone else’s war. It is very much ours as well.

To empower people in the UK to engage more with this issue, it may be helpful to set out a brief account of the background to the war and the UK’s involvement. Suggestions for further reading are listed at the end of the article.

What is now southern Yemen, including the strategically valuable port of Aden, was held by the British Empire from 1839 until 1967, and through the 1960s the British fought a losing colonial war to retain the protectorate. As the historian Mark Curtis describes in his indispensable work, ‘Web Of Deceit’, the war was fought through a mixture of overt and covert means. The SAS set up plain-clothes hit squads while the RAF bombed villages and crops, displacing tens of thousands of people. Torture – like collective punishment, a standard counter-insurgency technique - was widely used.

Meanwhile in the independent north, a 1962 coup against the monarch Imam Muhammad al-Badr resulted in the creation of an Arab nationalist Yemeni republic. Royalist forces rallied, and civil war broke out with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt supporting the republicans and the Saudis backing the monarchists. Egypt committed thousands of troops together with aerial power, while Saudi support was limited to money and weapons. Britain also secretly provided intelligence, arms and funding to the Saudi-backed royalist forces. After its devastating defeat by Israel in June 1967, Egypt was forced to pull out of Yemen, but the republic remained in place.

Also in 1967, the British were forced to withdraw from Aden, having been defeated by the Marxist National Liberation Front who established the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen, committed to the overthrow of all Arabian peninsula monarchies. With north and south divided, the Saudis saw the Marxists as the greater threat, and began backing their erstwhile republican enemies in the north. The Saudis also responded to these new realities by beefing up their armed forces, especially the air force, and coup-proofing the regime against the threat of nationalist officers taking over. Britain supplied a fleet of Lightening military jets, and helped to establish and train the praetorian National Guard.

As the Cold War wound down, 1990 saw the unification of the capitalist north with the socialist south. An attempt by the new republic to remain neutral over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait that same year saw 800,000 Yemeni workers expelled from Saudi Arabia and another 50,000 from the other Gulf monarchies in an act of collective punishment that dealt a major blow to Yemen’s economy. Remittance income from those workers was lost and the population swelled with incoming unemployed. In 1994, a southern secessionist movement attempted to break away from the republic, but the north reasserted control after a brief civil war.

By the mid-2000s, almost half the population of Yemen were living on less than $2 a day, and a substantial number was surviving on not much more than that. The poorest country in the region, its GDP per capita was dwarfed by that of the oil and gas rich monarchies on the rest of the Arabian peninsula. The country had been run for decades by a republican government rooted in the military, with a nominally civilian president cementing his role with powers of patronage, giving rise to a form of crony capitalism that bred inequality and alienation. These socio-economic conditions, though exceptionally severe, closely resembled those elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and when the region caught light in the winter of 2010-11, major protests shook the Yemeni regime from January and February onwards.

The principal target of the uprising, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been president of North Yemen from 1978, and then of the whole country after unification. From 1999 onwards he had been elected by popular suffrage. But in the context of extensive patrimonialism, corruption and deep authoritarianism, his rule could not be described as democratic. The influence and power of Saleh’s family and cronies penetrated deep into the security forces, the state and the economic sphere, but they did not enjoy total dominance. The president’s efforts to manoeuvre his son into a position to succeed him served to antagonise other elements of the power structure.

Yemen contains multiple tribal, sectarian and regional divisions. Of course, no nation state is homogenous, but authoritarianism, corruption, poverty and foreign intervention are bound to accentuate divisions which might otherwise be accommodated. In the Yemeni case, these divisions were an impediment to the popular uprising of 2011, and later became a feature of the mutating current war.

When the 2011 uprising occurred, the power structure cracked, with those tribal and political elements opposed to Saleh’s efforts at power consolidation now coming out openly against him. They joined an array of other forces, from southern separatists to socialists, revolutionary youth and the northern religious ‘Houthi’ movement with whom the Saleh regime had fought a number of short wars in the preceding years. Because the emerging cracks ran through the military as well, the country was now on the verge of civil war.

Fearing state collapse and realising their ally Saleh’s days were numbered, the Gulf Arab monarchies brokered a deal whereby the president and his associates would step down in return for legal immunity, to be replaced by long-term vice president and former Field Marshal Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. This resembled events in Egypt where the president, Hosni Mubarak, was sacrificed in order to preserve the state and demobilise an uprising that had briefly threatened to develop into a full-blown revolution. The socio-economic conditions that were among the principal root causes of that uprising therefore remained unaddressed.

Hadi ran unopposed for a two-term transitional presidency in February 2012, while Saleh continued to wield power behind the scenes, with his son in command of the republican guard and his nephew director of national security. The transition process and accompanying national dialogue were supposed to lead to a new consensus on the make-up of the state and polity beyond Hadi’s two-year interim term, but a lack of progress on core issues, and the undermining of the process by continued corruption and intra-elite squabbling, caused a general loss of faith among the public and the forces involved in the 2011 uprising, many of whom came to view the supposed transition as little more than an elite stitch-up.

In this context, the Houthis sought to present themselves as uncorrupted outsiders, the antidote to the political malaise. Forming an unlikely alliance of convenience with military forces still loyal to Saleh, they now confronted those tribal and political forces that had broken with the ex-president in 2011. Taking advantage of the stalling transition, the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, formally deposing Hadi in February 2015. Hadi then fled south to Aden with Houthi-Saleh forces in pursuit, now attempting to seize the rest of the country in a disastrous case of overreach.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states (with the United Arab Emirates as the other leading member) intervened against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, seeking to reassert their preferred order and restore Hadi. The Saudi view, or claim, was that the Houthis were acting as the long arm of Iran, reaching into their backyard, but Iranian involvement is fairly limited, and far from a decisive factor in the war. Certainly the Houthis are nobody’s puppets.

A fair summation would be that the Houthi-Saleh forces started the conflict, and that the Saudi-UAE intervention escalated it at a time when – as scholarly experts on the country argued - what was needed was truce, de-escalation, national dialogue, and above all a credible transition. The Coalition intervention reversed the Houthi-Saleh push south, and both sides have been locked in a degenerating stalemate for three years. As one might expect, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (the branch of the franchise that is by far the most dangerous to the West) and the local chapter of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ both benefitted immediately from the outbreak of conflict and the collapse of the state, as they have done elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile the Houthis have launched rocket attacks into Saudi territory, achieving little militarily except to allow the Saudis to portray themselves as acting in self-defence. As for Saleh, he attempted to break with the Houthis and switch sides in December 2017, whereupon they promptly killed him.

Beneath the Coalition, anti-Houthi forces include fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood variety (loosely speaking), southern separatists, and other tribal and religious forces. This is an extremely disparate grouping, within which the exiled Hadi government is a very weak player, perhaps only retaining any political relevance due to its external support. Nevertheless, its continued status as the internationally recognised government of Yemen is what both the Coalition and their Western allies point to by way of justification for the continued intervention. Even if the Houthis were to be defeated, it is difficult to see in practical terms who would rule the country next, or how.

The Saudi-led intervention was an early act of the new King Salman and his young son, the then defence minister and now crown prince and effective regent Mohammad bin Salman. It is certainly the starkest illustration of a reign characterised by belligerence and bad judgement, including a farcical attempt to instigate a coup in Lebanon and a failed attempt to isolate Qatar. For its part, the Iranian regime must be highly amused that in return for a very modest investment, they have helped to draw their Saudi rivals into military quagmire. But in terms of culpable external parties, the real focus needs to be on the British and American governments.

As noted above, Washington and London are playing an indispensable, enabling role in the war. They provide not only the planes, bombs and missiles but an entire supporting infrastructure including technical and logistical support that allows the Royal Saudi Air Force to function. The world’s leading humanitarian and human rights NGOs, as well as the relevant UN agencies, have been delivering a consistent message since the very start of the conflict: that the Coalition is carrying out ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks on civilian targets, up to and including possible war crimes. The British and the Americans could have pulled the plug on the Coalition war effort at any point, but there has not been sufficient political pressure on them to do so. Now, Yemen stands on the edge of the abyss.

The scandal following the disappearance and likely murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has now escalated to the point where an existential controversy surrounds the alliances between Riyadh and the West. This is perhaps the greatest crisis that those alliances have suffered in the modern era, with the Khashoggi incident crystalising a widespread, simmering disquiet about the nature of the Saudi regime, which concerns have now burst into the open. It is not too late for the resulting political pressure to end London and Washington’s support for Coalition’s war in Yemen, thus saving millions of Yemeni lives. Whether that pressure is brought to bear depends entirely on the efforts of civil society in the US and UK. If we do not act now, we will not be able to say later on that no one warned us what the consequences would be.

Suggested further reading