Economic ties shape the UK’s government’s attitude towards the Saudi led intervention in Yemen. The result is counterproductive and a hard Brexit is not likely to change it.
Backing War crimes
The war in Yemen has generated a humanitarian catastrophe. An epidemic of Cholera as affected more than 30,000 people and 70% of the total Yemenite population is in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of widespread famine. The Saudi led coalition is not the only responsible party. All the belligerents have been accused of committing war crimes in this deep rooted and complex conflict. However, a report presented to the UN Security Council affirms that air strikes are the cause of 60% of civilian casualties, which can be mainly attributed to the coalition.
The unconditional support brought by the UK’s two successive Conservative Governments to the Saudi intervention appears as a double standard policy regarding to statements made about other conflicts: the advocating of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the criticism of repressive regimes, is made only when economic interests are not at stake.
Indeed, the UK provided technical assistance and support to the Saudi air force and was highly active in supplying Gulf States with arms as munitions. In 2015, the first year of the intervention, a total of £17 billion worth of goods and services was traded between UK and the Middle East, whilst defence exports amounted to £7.7 billion. In particular, more than £2.7 billion of licenses for air related defence exports were granted to Saudi Arabia. Exchanging weapons against Oil is not something recent for the UK. However, backing indiscriminate strikes is a step too far.
A needed relationship
Theresa May, during a visit to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in December 2016, praised the importance of cooperation between Britain and GCC for Economic and Security matters, focusing on stability, war against Terror and the “Iranian threat”. She also announced the deployment of “more British warships, aircraft and personnel deployed on operations in the Gulf than in any other part of the world” and mentioned the support to the development of the GCC defence capacity, including, quite ironically, “its capacity for humanitarian operations and crisis response planning”.
The hard Brexit option defended by May’s Conservatives is not innocent to this position. Her new “Global Britain” strategy, turning back from Europe to develop free trade with the rest of the world, ties her hands with the fate of the Gulf Monarchies. With the growing instability on Britain’s future relationship with the EU, Gulf imports and investments are more important than ever for the British economy. But this is not inevitable. By promising a smoother Brexit, both Labour and Liberal Democrats have the flexibility to condemn the export licenses to Saudi Arabia.
Selling weapons is not only an economic act; it also implies political support for the purchasing country. In the case of Yemen, it implies vetoing independent UN investigations on war crimes and supporting the sectarian discourse leading to the monarchy’s intervention. This deepens the divide among the Yemenite population and destroys the hope of re-establishing a Republic. The UK’s double standard policy has heavy consequences for civilians, undermines its credibility and feeds the terrorist groups based in Yemen – perhaps the only clear beneficiaries of the State’s collapse. Britain’s interests would therefore be served better if Politics were brought back as first priority.
This blog post is part of a blog series about the UK General Election by the emerging think tank Agora in London. Agora will be launched in autumn 2017 as part of the foraus-global network of open think tanks.