As American police fought to quell the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, on June 2, Emily Thornberry gave the UK government a simple request: the shadow UK international trade secretary urged to suspend the sale of British riot control equipment to the United States – including tear gas and rubber bullets – that could very well have been used by American police in the violent crushing of demonstrations.
In a letter to her government counterpart, Liz Truss, Thornberry said “If this were any other leader, in any other country in the world, the suspension of any such exports is the least we could expect from the British government in response to their actions, and our historical alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now”. This would seem reasonable – after all, the British government did just that in June 2019, when it suspended the sale of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong amid charges of police brutality in the city. However, it obscures a far darker truth.
The expectation that the British government would halt arms sales for “any other leader, in any other country in the world” due to moralistic reasons has a false ring to it, and nobody knows this better than Emily Thornberry herself. After all, she has been one of the most potent voices for years protesting the sale of British arms to another state with which the British have shared a “historical alliance” – Saudi Arabia.
The ties between Britain and the al-Saud family are deep – originating even before the formation of the modern Saudi state. They found their root in the British desire to hold dominion over the Middle East, to maintain trade routes to British India, which in the early twentieth century meant encouraging rivals to the ailing Ottoman Empire. By the late 1920s, the dominant power in Arabia was the al-Saud, having fought and massacred their way across peninsula – with British arms and assistance – to finally create a unified state in 1932, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.
British-Saudi relations since then have remained strong – in particular, in the arms dimension. According to a Department for International Trade report released last year, on a 10-year rolling basis “the UK remains the second largest global defence exporter after the USA … [winning] defence orders worth £14bn” in 2018, amounting to 19% of the global arms export market. Arms exports have shown a clear upward trend since the early 1980s with “2018 as the best year ever”, the report cheerfully notes.
Saudi Arabia remains far and away Britain’s largest customer, importing more than four times the volume of US imports from the UK. Since March 2015, the UK government has approved the sale of at least £5.3 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, predominantly fighter jets and precision-guided missiles.
Since March 2015, the world has also been getting a clear view of just how Saudi Arabia intended to use those jets and missiles. That month, a Saudi-led coalition – involving the UAE, among others – began a massive aerial bombing campaign in neighbouring Yemen. The previous December, the Houthi militant group, allied with regional rival Iran, had ousted the government from Yemen’s capital Sana’a. The spectre of Iranian influence in its underbelly drove oil-rich Saudi Arabia to rain down American and British-made bombs on the poorest country in the Middle East, spawning a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions.
The bombing of hospitals has collapsed Yemen’s healthcare system. The targeting of agricultural land has worsened a widespread famine. The coalition even imposed a blockade on Houthi-controlled ports, depriving many Yemenis of food and medicine. According to a Yemeni NGO report published last year, “14 million people are now threatened by famine and even more depend on humanitarian assistance. … an estimated 50,000 people have been killed as a direct effect of the war and 85,000 children may have died of hunger and preventable diseases”.
The suffering of the Yemeni people has been caused in large part by the horrendous record of war crimes that have taken place there since 2015. Although committed by all sides, it is the damage caused by the Saudi-led coalition for which the United Kingdom arguably bears some responsibility.
In October 2016, the coalition bombed a funeral hall in Sana’a, killing 140 civilians and wounding about 600. In August 2018, it bombed a school bus in Saada, killing at least 40 schoolchildren. On June 28, 2019, a US-made Paveway II bomb was dropped on a house in the village of Warzan. It liquidated the entire al-Kindi family from 62-year-old Abdelqawi Abdu Ahmed al-Kindi to his six-year-old grandchild, Ayman. Rasha Mohamed of Amnesty International was driven to state that “the USA and other arms-supplying countries such as the UK and France remain unmoved by the pain and chaos their arms are wreaking on the civilian population”.
In what ways does the UK enable these bombings? Firstly, by supplying the jets. A tally reveals that Typhoon and Tornado jets, manufactured jointly with Germany, Italy and Spain, account for 153 out of the 351 combat aircraft in the Royal Saudi Air Force inventory.
However, it is not just the initial sale of the jets themselves – the UK continues to provide ongoing support. In March 2015, then-foreign secretary Phillip Hammond stated that the UK has “a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force generally and if we are requested to provide them with enhanced support – spare parts, maintenance, technical advice, resupply – we will seek to do so … We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. In fact, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute said in April 2016, “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told [Saudi Arabia’s] King Salman ‘this war has to end’, it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support”.
So, given this rather grim record, why does the UK continue to supply Saudi Arabia with weapons? Armida van Rij and Benedict Wilkinson of King’s College London place this arms relationship in the context of a wider British-Saudi security cooperation, in which the UK has two primary objectives. The first is related to security: the belief that “Gulf security is our security”, with David Cameron arguing in October 2015 that “it’s because we receive from them important [counter-terrorism] intelligence and security information that keeps us safe. The reason we have the relationship is our own national security”.
The second objective is economic and has been made stronger as a result of Britain’s departure from the European Union. The loosening of ties with Europe necessitates the strengthening of ties elsewhere, and what better place than the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf? As Theresa May said in a December 2016 press release, “The Gulf is already our largest investor and our second biggest non-European export market and I think there is huge potential to expand this relationship in the years ahead … As the UK leaves the EU, we should seize the opportunity to forge a new trade agreement between the UK and the Gulf”. Whether one agrees with UK policy towards Yemen or not, one ought to know about it, especially the taxpayer who is financially supporting it. The results of a balanced YouGov poll carried out in August 2018 are striking. A full 20% of respondents have “never heard” of the conflict in Yemen, with a further 53% only “know[ing] very little”. Only 36% were aware that the UK government was approving the sale of weapons that could be used in Yemen. A measly 13% gave their support to these arms sales, revealing that UK policy rested not on the consent of the British people, but on their ignorance.
If there is a principle to be found in continuing British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, it’s that the UK is willing to buy its economic and security relationships with the repression of peoples abroad. As the UK seeks a post-Brexit trade deal with our friends across the Atlantic, this principle applies to the United States as well. However, this need not be taken for granted. As the recent protests over racial injustice remind us, change can come from below – and it may be time to show the British government that they can no longer rely on our ignorance.
This article was originally published on UCL Pi Media in June 2020: https://uclpimedia.com/online/yemen-or-the-british-war-crimes-we-prefer-to-ignore