By Lochlann Atack
In the space of hardly 3 years in Yemen, 10,000 civilians have been killed, almost 40,000 injured, with 3 million forced from their homes. Conflict that broke out in 2015 has left the healthcare system in “near collapse”, with almost 19 million (two-thirds of the total population) Yemenis lacking access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and 14.1 million lacking access to basic medical care. Unicef estimates that 400,000 children are in need of “urgent life-saving food”. By the close of 2017, 1 million people are expected to be affected by what is now the world’s worst cholera outbreak on record. While the conflict which began in 2015 was a civil war, the catastrophic degree of suffering that is unfolding presently in Yemen has everything to do with the political and economic interests of the USA and the UK.
On the ground, there are two sides to the conflict: the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels. The coalition, composed of the UAE, Jordan, Qatar, Sudan, and Bahrain, endorses the exiled former Yemen President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and receives key intelligence and logistical support from the USA and the UK. The Houthi rebels stormed the capital, Sana’a, in 2015, after three years of rule under Hadi, with the aim of reinstalling Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president and de facto dictator, who had been in power since the country’s founding in 1990, and was ousted in 2012 in the wake of the Arab Spring. Just two weeks ago, however, Saleh was assassinated by the Houthis after he recently put his support behind the Saudi coalition.
However, it would be a gross oversimplification and patently incorrect to characterise this as a merely regional and sectarian conflict. Yes, all eight members of the Saudi-led coalition are Sunni majority countries, and the Houthi are Shia. But, lest we forget, the modern history of the Arabian Peninsula has been shaped by the interests of international powers. The identity of the Saudi Arabian state has been essentially determined by the interests of US foreign policy. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was only founded in 1932. One year later, American oil companies agreed an oil concession with the Kingdom. In other words: from its very inception, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US was one of mutual interest. Saudi Arabia is a store of vast potential wealth, but requires its raw resources to be processed.
Today, the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, is the world’s largest corporation, worth possibly $2 trillion “dwarfing Apple, Google, Amazon or ExxonMobil”. Moreover, by making Saudi Arabia a regional hegemon, arms-dealing countries essentially created their own bonded customer. Hence a new ten year, $350 billion contract between Saudi Arabia and the US (with Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin prime beneficiaries). This also explains Theresa May’s high regard for Britain’s cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia – what with “the Saudis being the UK’s best customer for armaments by a factor of at least four”. For the world’s biggest arms trader, this is a seriously valuable relationship indeed. Is it any surprise that recent legal challenges to the legality of such a trade relationship was overturned by the UK high court?
Most ironic, perhaps, is that the US is now adopting the approach of attempting to evidence a direct link between Iran and terrorist groups. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, a few days ago presented evidence that the Houthis are using Iranian armaments in the conflict. Specifically, Ms. Haley pointed to a missile that was aimed at a civilian airport in Riyadh – asking “just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dallas airport, or JFK”, or other G20 countries. This rationale is supposedly the justification for continued and increased – and hence more public – US intervention in the conflict.
I would very much like to ask Ms. Haley and her colleagues, how exactly she sees direct support for a country that blockaded humanitarian imports into a country that relies on 90% of its food during peacetime, as justifiable. How is supplying cluster munitions to a country who has bombed 1,500 civilian sites in barely three years, justifiable? Saudi belligerence is dependent on US support – both materially and diplomatically. Instead of prioritising ending the apocalyptic suffering of millions upon millions of civilians, the US sees Houthi violence as an opportunity to justify, yet again, its imperial ambitions by essentially baiting Iran into a proxy war. And the UK, in arming Saudi Arabia and remaining virtually silent on the atrocities they are committing, is directly complicit in the untold misery of countless Yemeni civilians. The ethical logic at play here is so perverse, and so overtly inconsistent that it is almost unbelievable.