Comment: Saudis are using UK weapons against the people of Yemen
By Andrew Smith
With the death toll reaching 600 and over 2,000 wounded, the humanitarian situation in Yemen is going from bad to worse. The threat of prolonged war is being escalated, with Saudi tanks lining the border and the army refusing to rule out a ground invasion.
Saudi Arabia has led the bombing; with the Saudi owned Al-Aribiya network claiming it is providing 100 fighter jets and 150,000 soldiers for the military campaign. This is more than the other countries in the coalition put together.
The military campaign is being supported by the US and the UK, with both governments giving political and military support to the Saudi regime. The Obama administration has provided logistical support and intelligence, while, in the UK, defence secretary Philip Hammond has pledged to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”.
Both countries have provided war planes, with UK-produced Typhoons coming into use over recent days and UK weapons likely to play a role in any ground invasion. This isn’t the first time UK aircraft have been used against Yemen. Research from Amnesty International shows that UK weapons were very likely to have been used by Saudi Arabia in the 2009 bombing too.
Saudi Arabia has led the campaign in neighbouring Yemen
One factor that has driven support for the Saudi bombing is the political and military relationship that the UK enjoys with the regime. Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of UK weapons, with the coalition government alone having licensed £3.9 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia.
The maintenance and support of the UK-supplied Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets is provided by arms company BAE Systems, which in its own words is “involved in the training of pilots, ground crew and technical staff for the Royal Saudi Air Force”.
This relationships is underpinned by the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Project (MODSAP), a 200-strong UK civil service team operating in Saudi Arabia and working closely with the Saudi authorities.
The air strikes have led to a humanitarian crisis and atrocities like the bombing of the Al-Mazrak refugee camp, which killed at least 45 people, and the destruction of a dairy farm that killed 31. The UN high commissioner for human rights has highlighted the civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure to warn that the country is “on the verge of total collapse”.
The violence has created a vacuum that many commentators believe could push people towards supporting the Houthi fighters and allow extremist groups like Al-Qaeda to flourish. There are already signs of this, with AQAP, short for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, gaining territory.
UK-made Typhoon fighters have been used in recent days
Yemen is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with over half of all Yemenis living in poverty. The UN agency for refugees has said that up to 150,000 people have been displaced over the past three weeks. Countries like the UK should be calling for a peaceful and negotiated solution and working to ensure aid reaches those in need.
The situation is desperate, with the International Committee of the Red Cross appealing for an immediate 24-hour halt to hostilities. This would definitely alleviate some of the immediate suffering, but, as the International Crisis Group has argued, this can’t be a stand-alone event. The UN secretary general has called for an immediate ceasefire, but the resolution makes no mention of the air strikes.
The position of the UN is precarious, with the envoy to Yemen having resigned following criticism of his role in handling the conflict. The international community has taken further action by voting to support an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels, which is definitely welcome, but if the violence is to stop then it has to apply to both sides.
Weapons fuel conflict, exacerbate tensions and are impossible to control when they enter a war zone; only two months ago the Pentagon lost large quantities of weapons to the Houthis. Further than that, there cannot be a military solution to the conflict, there can only be a political one, and that becomes more distant with every bullet that is fired or bomb that is dropped.
The last four weeks have seen over 2,000 airstrikes, and if things continue as they are then it is hard to see any short term or peaceful solution. A number of commentators are characterising the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Iraqi prime minister warning it could spark a wider sectarian war in the region.
The bottom line is that as long as the Saudi campaign has the political and military support of some of the most powerful Western nations then the death toll will continue mounting, the destruction will get worse and Yemeni civilians will continue to pay the price.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk’s Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.