By Marcus Halaby
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned prime minister Theresa May for her silence on Yemen prior to her recent visit to Saudi Arabia, pointing to the UK government’s “complicity in the Yemeni people’s suffering”. He has called for an end to the Saudi naval and air blockade of Yemen, which began on 6 November, and for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia pending “an independent investigation”.
In a public letter to May on 20 November, Corbyn noted that “At least 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict started in 2014 and 7 million people are in extreme hunger”, adding that “Food shortages and the cholera outbreak are a direct result of the continuing blockade of Yemen by the US and UK backed Saudi-led coalition”.
Indeed, Yemen has been suffering one of the largest cholera outbreaks in recent history since October 2016, as the Saudi blockade has exacerbated shortages of food, fuel, and medicine, while a Saudi-led bombing campaign has damaged water treatment facilities and has disrupted the electricity supply needed to pump clean water.
A statement from Medecins Sans Frontieres on 17 November protested that they had been prevented from flying personnel and medical aid to the capital Sana’a, hindering their ability “to provide life-saving medical and humanitarian assistance to a population already in dire need”. The World Health Organisation estimates that 15 million people “lack access to basic health care and potable water and sanitation”, while 17 million “face food insecurity” and 7 million are at risk of famine. The United Nations Children’s Fund claimed on 27 November that 2 million children “suffer acute malnutrition”. And this in a country of only 27 million people.
As the region’s most backward country sitting alongside one of the region’s richest, Yemen has long faced Saudi interference in its internal politics. Under the recently-deceased former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, this partly took the form of Saudi backing for Saleh’s regime against an armed insurgency by Shiite Houthi rebels in the far north of the country. The large number of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have also often been held hostage to Saudi-Yemeni relations, as for example after the Gulf War in 1991, when Saudi Arabia expelled around a million Yemenis after Saleh backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
The most recent Saudi intervention however has resulted from the aftermath of the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolutions, which saw a popular uprising against Saleh’s dictatorship. Yemen’s short-lived revolution was effectively brought to an end by a Saudi-brokered “managed transition”, through which Saudi Arabia pressured Saleh to stand down in favour of his own former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in February 2012. The Saudi ruling class hoped in this way to preserve Yemen’s repressive state apparatus - and with it Saudi Arabia’s domination of Yemen - by replacing Saleh with a less unpopular and less unreliable figurehead, if also an equally dictatorially-inclined one.
And there things might have remained, had the notoriously mercurial Saleh not returned from his Saudi exile and effectively switched sides in the central government’s civil war with the Houthis. Taking a large part of the army with him, Saleh enabled a Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 and forced Hadi to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia himself in March 2015.
Since that time, a Saudi-led bombing campaign has attempted to restore Hadi’s rule, with Sana’a subjected to repeated Saudi bombing and the Hadi regime’s provisional capital Aden under regular siege from the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Yemen’s divided and third-largest city Taiz in particular has become a deadly battleground, with Corbyn’s letter citing a Red Cross report that it has run out of clean water as a result of the Saudi blockade. The Saudi intervention in turn has drawn in an Iran that was not initially that involved, giving the Iranians a relatively low-cost means of tying up their Saudi rivals for regional domination by by providing the Houthis with some limited but effective support.
The situation however has very recently become even more complex, with a breakdown in relations between the Houthis and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC). This forced Saleh to make public peace overtures to Saudi Arabia on 2 December, offering to “turn the page” in his relations with the Saudi kingdom in return for an end to the blockade.
Saudi-led forces were reportedly bombing Houthi positions in Sana’a in support of the GPC less than 24 hours afterwards, in the course of clashes between the Houthis and the GPC for control of the capital in which Saleh himself was killed two days later. And while relatively few will mourn Saleh’s death, it will very likely be used as a pretext for an escalated bombardment of the rebel-held regions by the Saudi-led coalition, depriving the Saudis as it does of a route to a quick “political victory” in a war that they have so far proved completely unable to win militarily, despite their overwhelming air superiority.
Corbyn’s letter rightly points to the UK’s “strong support for all Saudi military action to date” and its “continued authorisation of arms sales for use in the conflict”. In this, the UK has followed the lead of US President Donald Trump. On 23 November, US arms companies agreed the sale of precision guided munitions worth $7 billion to Saudi Arabia. That deal, however, created embarrassing political divisions in the USA. Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had held up part of a previous $1.29 billion deal in November 2016 over criticisms of the Saudis’ war crimes in Yemen. In June, legislation that would have prevented this and other previously-agreed arms sales was defeated in the US Senate only by the narrow margin of 53 to 47.
David Des Roches of Washington’s Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies has even commented that the Saudis “are one errant strike away from moving five or six senators over to the other side”, although he is sceptical that this would change Saudi Arabia’s behaviour. Similar pressure in the UK, on a weak government that is already facing collapse over Brexit and Northern Ireland, could easily force a change in UK policy towards Saudi Arabia. Socialists in the Labour party should therefore back Corbyn’s call for an immediate end to all arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia.