World attention on the conflict in the Middle East is primarily focused on Syria and Iraq, and much less so on the catastrophe in Yemen, which has cost the lives of thousands of people and forced millions to flee their homes. The Saudi monarchy, with Britain's open support, has been waging war on Yemen for a year, and yet few Britons know anything about it.
Since Saudi Arabia and a coalition of regional Sunni allies launched their military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels who deposed the US-backed Yemeni president Mansur Hadi, around 8100 Yemenis have been killed. A recent comprehensive report, State of Crisis: Explosive Weapons in Yemen, suggests that 93 per cent of the deaths and injuries are civilian, a stark reminder of the willful brutality of this war and the indiscriminate fashion in which it is being conducted. All sides in the conflict bear responsibility for the destruction to a certain degree -- such is the nature of any civil war with sectarian dimensions -- but according to the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, a "disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of air strikes carried out by [Saudi-led] coalition forces." No wonder that upon his return from the war-ravaged nation, the head of the International Red Cross, Peter Maurer, stated that "[t]he images I have from Sanaa and Aden remind [me] of what I have seen in Syria. So Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years."
Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe. Relentless bombing raids have shredded the country's most basic infrastructure. With the country under a naval blockade that has choked its fragile economy, the UN warns of "staggering" food crises. More than half of the population is facing food insecurity, and the country is at risk of slipping into famine. Airstrikes have targeted everything from aid agencies to weddings to hospitals, including those run by Médecins Sans Frontières, demonstrating a "total disregard for the rules of war," as MSF says itself.
More than 110 sorties were categorized as "widespread and systematic attacks on civilians" by a United Nations panel investigating the Saudi-led bombing. The sheer volume of these targeted attacks confirms the fact that they are intentional and part of the broader military strategy of total war, setting a dangerous precedent for future conflicts. Putting relief workers under threat by normalizing these institutions as acceptable targets while further diminishing civilian casualties with meaningless terms like "collateral damage" only serves to desensitize such atrocities in people's minds.
Rather than condemning this fundamentalist dictatorship which, chillingly, kicked off the year with mass beheadings, Britain stands firmly behind its ally. Since Prime Minister David Cameron has taken office, the UK government has supplied Saudi Arabia with upwards of £6 billion worth of arms and military equipment. Remarkably, more than 100 new arms licences have been approved since the Saudis began their bombing campaign. The connection between the UK and the conflict in Yemen through Saudi Arabia is direct. When shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn (who was a staunch supporter of the airstrikes in Syria) says he is concerned about the war in Yemen and the extent of British involvement, you know it is serious. Yemen needs a peaceful, diplomatic solution, not more bombs.
Britain is a proud signatory and effective co-author of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which imposes very specific duties on the government to ensure that exported weapons are not used in a way that would be outside the terms of the treaty. David Cameron himself hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would "save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world." Incidentally, Saudi Arabia is not just purchasing military support, it is also securing a diplomatic and political umbrella. We have seen the UK government's instrumental lobbying role to get the kingdom (laughably) onto the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an unequivocal example of how easily rational security interests are sacrificed for profit.
Britain's alliance with Saudi Arabia rarely gets the scrutiny it deserves. It is a country with a long history of human rights abuses in basic areas such as freedom of expression and assembly. It denies women the most basic life functions under the discriminatory male guardianship system, which essentially gives men complete control over women's lives. Internal repression and human rights abuses inside the kingdom are one thing. Perhaps even more troubling, is the monarchy's support for radical extremism, which poses a direct threat to UK national security.
The British-backed Saudi onslaught is not only devastating Yemen and inflicting mass suffering, it is also building strong resentment towards Britain. When innocent people die in "collateral" damage caused by UK-made arms, those who survive will naturally start thinking of revenge, providing a fertile environment that is susceptible to extremist ideology. In a 2014 speech at Harvard, Vice President Joseph Biden criticized Saudi Arabia, saying "those allies' policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qaeda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State." The idea that one of the main pillars of Britain-Middle East long-term strategy hinges on Saudi tyranny exemplifies how broken and outsourced UK foreign policy has become in this region.
The horrors in Yemen should not just assault our emotions, they should provoke us to end the silence and indifference displayed by our government. In our silence we are implicated. The British government may not wish to recognize the incontestable fact that its own arms are escalating this brutal civil war, but nothing is more obvious to Yemeni people.