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Britain's role in Yemen: Radical change must happen now Open in fullscreen

Joe Odell

Britain's role in Yemen: Radical change must happen now

A Saudi-led coalition airstrike kills six members of the same family near Sanaa [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 May, 2018

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Comment: Through weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, UK arms dealers continue to profit handsomely from the tragedy in Yemen, writes Joe Odell.
Earlier this month, in a boost to the anti-war movement, the UK's Court of Appeal granted activists the right to launch a fresh legal challenge against the sale of British weapons to Saudi Arabia amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Activists from Campaigns Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) are hoping to overturn a High Court decision last July which ruled UK export licences to the Gulf state to be lawful.  

In the coming months, CAAT campaigners - represented by Leigh Day Solicitors, and supported by humanitarian charities and agencies such as Save the Children, Oxfam and Amnesty International – will hope to persuade the courts that the decision to grant licences to British companies selling fighter jets, bombs and other weaponry to Saudi Arabia contravene UK arms policy.

This policy prevents a government from granting export licenses
"if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law".   

This certainly seems to ring true when it comes to the Saudi-led coalition's brutal offensive in Yemen, which, according to UN estimates, has already claimed over 10,000 lives and led to the internal displacement of over 3.1m people.

The three-year conflict has pushed one of the poorest countries in the region to the brink of widespread famine and led to a cholera epidemic reaching 100,000s of people and claiming over a thousand lives.  

The British government has so far remained steadfast in the face of such protest

As of January 2017, the UN verified over 325 attacks on schools, health facilities, densely populated markets, as well as other key infrastructural sites such as roads, and even water points, concluding that "violations of international humanitarian and human rights law continue unabated and largely with impunity".

In light of such evident injustice, pressure has grown on arms supplying states across Europe to implement embargoes on coalition members involved in the conflict. In a landmark move earlier this year, Norway suspended arms sales to the UAE amid humanitarian concerns following pressure by human rights groups inside the country.

Barely a month later, the topic took centre stage at the
Finnish general election after an image appeared purporting to show a Finnish made armoured vehicle in Yemen being used for combat activities by the UAE. After a public outcry, all eight presidential candidates pledged to cut weapons exports to the Emirates.

Read more: The quiet collapse of Yemen's economy

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough came just two weeks ago, with the announcement that Germany, one of the world's most prominent arms manufacturers, was set to follow suit - cancelling export licences to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

By contrast, the British government has so far remained steadfast in the face of such protest. Despite UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson describing the situation as "the world's largest humanitarian crisis", UK arms dealers continue to profit handsomely from the tragedy.

Since the conflict begun in 2015, over $8bn has been generated in revenue for British arms manufacturers in weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, despite much public protest in March surrounding Bin Salman's visit, Theresa May put the finishing touches to the sale of
48 Eurofighters in a contract worth billions of pounds - a deal very much in keeping with the broader post-Brexit export strategy.      

Indeed, it is with Brexit on the horizon, that the UK arms industry has obtained increased importance to this administration.

In a clear signal of intent, following the EU referendum,
the Defence and Security Organisation - a government body that promotes the defence industry - was swiftly moved from UK Trade and Investment to the Department of International Trade. Since then, UK weapons exports to repressive regimes around the world have soared to dizzying heights.

This reflects the growing importance of the general arms trade to the British economy. In an increasingly uncertain economic landscape characterised by low productivity, falling real wages and stagnant GDP growth, the defence industry provides a sticking plaster to disguise this general malaise.

It is, therefore, in the interests of the UK establishment to promote a hawkish foreign policy which generates weapons sales. This economic imperative, which lies at the heart of British capitalism, effectively relegates the humanitarian issues to that of marginal idealism.

This is not the case in Germany, Finland and Norway, who have far more diversified economies. Consequently, their politicians are more open to sacrificing revenue in the interests of morality.

Of course, in the real world, the result of this rigid thinking in the UK is that many thousands die as "collateral" because of this export policy. In October 2016, the Saudi-led coalition brazenly admitted to bombing a funeral Sanaa, killing 140 people and injuring hundreds more.

In the six months that followed, the British government
approved $383m arms sales to the Gulf state. This is not to suggest that the UK government is necessarily evil, but that the sales of arms is so integral to their economic model that they do so unquestionably.

In light of the current High Court case, it would seem that Britain now stands at a crossroads. A shift in arms sales policy necessitates a transformation of the British economic model; the two are inseparably linked.

A shift in arms sales policy necessitates a transformation of the British economic model; the two are inseparably linked

In the near future, there is an opportunity for Britain to become a leading exporter in high-tech and green industries, which could create thousands of jobs and stimulate a flagging economy.

At the same time this could generate a more ethical and positive foreign policy - one that is centred around peace and social justice rather than destruction. Obviously, this would demand a radical rethink by the current administration.

Currently, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party are offering a diversification and redevelopment of the British economy, while pledging to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia and reshape UK foreign policy.

Will the current Conservative government go partly down this road? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure though: in the meantime - Yemenis will continue to suffer.  

 Joe Odell is Press Officer at the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Politics and regularly writes and speaks on the Middle East, especially the Gulf region.

Follow him on Twitter: @JoeOdell3

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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