Mohammed Bin Salman Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, First Deputy Prime Minister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The government’s attempts at justification for its conduct in the Middle East are becoming more and more desperate, argues Chris Nineham

The media are suggesting that on her visit to the Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Theresa May will be talking tough about human rights and the conduct of the war in Yemen, as if Britain is an innocent bystander that has just stumbled across wrong doing.

Saudi Arabia has been waging a war in Yemen since early 2015 that has created the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. Tens of thousands have been killed in the war, mainly by Saudi bombing. The devastation of the country has led to a cholera epidemic affecting 300,000 people and a famine that threatens the lives of millions.

All this is widely known. But the idea that May is in a position to lambast the Crown Prince for the situation in Yemen is to misunderstand the relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia, and its connection to the war on Yemen. BBC security expert Frank Gardiner gave the game away on the Today programme when he admitted that there are British service personnel actually working in the Saudi control centre that co-ordinates the bombing raids. 

Britain has long been a close ally with Saudi, a country which it courts partly because of its massive oil wealth and its almost unquenchable thirst for weapons, but partly too because of the political role it has played over the years in countering Arab nationalism and resistance to Western imperialism across the region.

Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia went up by 1,000 per cent in the first few months of the war on Yemen. But from the start, Britain has been providing military support for the bombing campaign in Yemen that goes way beyond selling weapons. A joint report published by the Parliamentary Committees for Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development last year complained that the government’s behaviour was ‘conferring legitimacy’ on the war in Yemen. ‘Our involvement’, it went on to say ‘extends from providing the planes and bombs for airstrikes to UK personnel in the Joint Command Planning Cell and Saudi Operations Centre. This level of involvement without being party to the conflict is unprecedented and is a result of the ‘privileged’ relationship the UK has with Saudi Arabia and its armed forces.’

Britain’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, in other words, is driven by more than the desire for arms sales, important though those are for the British state. If anything, recent events in the region are likely to tighten relations between the two countries. A central part of Mohammed Bin Salman’s strategy for Saudi Arabia is to forge a region wide alliance against Iranian influence in general and the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon in particular. This strategy dovetails with the aims of the US-led coalition, also concerned about growing Iranian influence, and smarting from failure to impose its will in Syria. 

No wonder then that Frank Gardiner admits that Bin Salman is unlikely to take much notice of any mild criticisms that Theresa May makes of the conduct of the war in Yemen. He know that they are weasel words because Britain is on board with the campaign and has been from the start. May seems to think that the pseudo liberalisation and the economic opening up signalled by bin Salman will make the Saudi regime more palatable to Western opinion. As May said on her way to Riyadh, “We’ve already seen some changes taking place in Saudi Arabia, for example women being allowed to drive. It’s important we work with him on delivering that vision.”

The government’s attempts at justification for its conduct in the Middle East are becoming more and more desperate. Covering for Theresa May on her trip to the Middle East on Wednesday, Damien Green justified continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia at parliamentary question time on the basis that it would be good for employment. An arm sales ban would ‘lead to a significant loss of jobs’ he said. 

People are beginning to understand the horrors of the situation in Yemen and the complicity of our government. But we need to urgently step up the level of campaigning to stop the catastrophe in the Yemen and to head off a new drive to war in the Middle east that Theresa May is helping to encourage.

Demonstrate in London this Saturday!

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.