The conflict on the Arabian peninsula shows that our hysteria is selective
In a region beset by bloody and pointless conflicts, this one is especially disgusting. And yet it has largely escaped our attention, it being in a poorer and smaller and blacker part of the world than Syria, with less of the traditional Cold War appeal.
I speak of Yemen, which has been engulfed in what is nominally a civil war since early 2015. In fact, and much like Syria, to call it a civil war is to do truth an injustice; it is, rather, a world war in microcosm. Local factions include (but are not limited to) the insurgent Houthi rebels, allies of the corrupt former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of the lesser-known ‘victims’ of the Arab Spring; government forces loyal to incumbent President Addrabuh Mansour Hadi; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State. The Houthi rebels have allied with the forces of the ex-President, and that side allegedly receives support from Iran, and Iran’s allies – principally Eritrea – in North Africa. The government forces are backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which includes Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and others, and that coalition has been lent military, logistical, tactical and financial support by the United States and the United Kingdom.
I say that the conflict lacks traditional Cold War appeal, yet in truth it is reminiscent of the worst aspects of that conflict. Whilst Russian influence is subtle and slight when compared to the role it plays in Syria, the Putin regime enjoyed warm relations with Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has been a reliable ally to Iran, often representing its interests on the UN Security Council. It is unwise to put such contrivances down to coincidence, and the support lent by the UK and US to the Saudi-led efforts in support of the incumbent regime complete the homage. Yemen, like so many before it, is being pulled apart by competing imperial interests.
That the world is so easily enraged by atrocities and war crimes being committed in Syria is somewhat surreal to those of us who strive to look beyond the headlines, for the people of Yemen can tell many stories of ordeals at least as cruel and vicious as those inflicted upon the people of Idlib.
This is not to make the best the enemy of the good; rather, it is a reminder that our hysteria is selective, and that true evil is camera-shy. Some 80% of Yemen’s population are thought to qualify for humanitarian assistance. 17 million people, out of a population of 28 million, are judged by the UN to be one step away from famine, a disaster for which the war is almost certainly the sole cause. As of March this year, the UN’s appeal for relief funding had amassed just £20 million of the estimated £1.6 billion required to redress the crisis. Even if these figures are inflated, as they often are in appeals for charity, it is impossible to underestimate the scale of the disaster; a disaster about which we know little and say nothing.
It is a conflict to which we should be offering nothing but condemnation. And yet, our government is amongst those leading the effort to prosecute it. This is despite the fact Parliament (and the US Congress) have never held a meaningful vote on the issue, hiding behind a technicality. We are not, they say, at war in Yemen; we are merely lending support to the wars of other people. Yes, the Saudis may use our planes and our bombs. We might give them targeting information. We might train their pilots. We might refuel their jets. We might even indulge in the odd drone strike. Last month, the US carried out 45 airstrikes in just 8 days. But we are not at war in Yemen.
This is nonsense. It is British weapons that are being used on the people of Yemen, British ‘advisors’ helping plot the bombing raids from Riyadh, British diplomats making the excuses for a campaign of indiscriminate killing on the part of our dear, sinister allies.
Accusations of war crimes have been levelled against all sides, yet particularly at the Saudi-led coalition – the people we fund, support, arm and assist. Given its actions, this is not surprising. This is the coalition which declared the whole of Saada governorate (population 838,000) a military target, which routinely bombs hospitals and medical facilities, humanitarian convoys and refugee camps. Again – and I’m not at all sorry to bang on about this – they do so with our bombs, our planes, our training, and our guidance.
We’re told that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is essential. We’re told it’s fantastically successful, that it’s incredibly lucrative and that we reap huge gains by its sustenance. Moreover, we are told of the importance of trade in general, and of being open and outward looking, and of spreading our values around the world. It was in aid of this image that Theresa May visited the kingdom of fanatics and grotesques earlier this week, where she found time to weigh in on a debate about Easter eggs. She said nothing of Yemen or the atrocities committed there daily. Some glib fools praised her apparent refusal to don a headscarf. But our continuing subservience to these stunted monarchs has never been a matter of fashion. Like the rivers and tributaries of black gold which so entice us, our chains to the Saudi oligarchy run deep.
So it is that, at a time when we are complicit in war crimes, our Prime Minister can return from the culprit’s lair having committed us to even closer defence ties and contracts.
Doubtless these are worth some considerable amount of money. You might then think that the very least we could do, having secured these contracts for the small price of driving the people of Yemen to famine and disease, is to spend some of our profits on alleviating the suffering there. We might, as it were, do something to clean up the mess we’re complicit in creating. We might, for example, lead a vocal and passionate and committed international campaign to provide the basic medicines and foodstuffs — and they are so staggeringly basic; 14.4 million people have been denied clean drinking water by the Saudi naval blockade — the people of Yemen so desperately need.
And we might pursue these ends at least as deliberately and with no more compromise than that with which we defend our support of Saudi Arabia’s actions.
But, of course, we don’t. And we won’t. And we might one day ask why it is that these people are so lame and unresponsive to our values and good intentions, and become incensed by their ignorance and their intolerance of our ways.
Well, the answer is already there, for those with the wit to see it.