British involvement in the Saudi bombing campaign: An interview with Arron Merat
The carnage of the Royal Saudi Air Force campaign in Yemen continues. We spoke to Arron Merat, Tehran correspondent for the Economist (2011-2014) and author of a recent article on the subject, to find out more.
What has been happening in Yemen/Saudi Arabia for the last four years?
“In March 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war in the first sustained air campaign by the Kingdom in its history.
The air war has killed 100,000 people and destroyed much of Yemen’s food and water infrastructure. Saudi Arabia has also implemented a blockade on the Red Sea ports, routing boats to Djibouti where food and medicine has been reported to perish. As Yemen is water scarce and heavily reliant on imports for its survival as the intervention has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are starving and displaced. It has also created a war economy as smugglers and aid hoarders from all sides of the conflict have become more powerful, thereby exacerbating the catastrophe.
The war has failed to meet its military objectives of rolling back the Houthis, a domestic guerilla insurgency who seized the capital in 2014, following a rushed political settlement following the Arab Spring, which had in 2011 deposed Yemen’s longstanding strongman president, Saleh. Salah joined the Houthis in 2014 in their seizure of the capital, and was subsequently killed by the group. The Houthis appear to be entrenched as the defacto leaders of north-western Yemen, the capital and most of the country’s population.
The Saudi intervention took place two months after the 30-year old Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) became Defence Secretary and is believed to be partly about bolstering his claim to the crown; in 2017 he became crown prince. In doing so, he saw off the favourite Nayef branch of succession, reportedly by securing the backing of the UAE and the Trump administration. The dynastic politics is important here as Saudi observers believe Muhammad bin Nayef, who was deeply familiar with Yemeni politics and its tribal leaders, would never have committed the kingdom to such a foolhardy air war against the Houthis, a battle-hardened insurgency. An incident in 2015 was illuminating: MBS held a meet and greet in Saudi Arabia for Yemen’s sheiks; they had to wear name tags.”
What is the general Yemeni view?
“Yemenis in the capital and parts of the south were against the occupation by the Houthis but, like the vast majority of Yemenis, are also against the Saudi bombing. My sense is that most Yemenis feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
..and the general Saudi view?
“The Yemen war is popular as MBS has presented the war as a nationalistic struggle against Iran, whose support of the Houthis has grown as the war has dragged on.”
And the British Government view?
“Other than some handwringing by the Tories, the government is 100% supportive of the Saudi intervention. Policy in this regard is decided at the National Security Council.”
How many people have died?
“Over 100,000 by bombing but probably considerably more indirectly.”
What would you predict will happen if it continues as it is?
“The UN has estimated a quarter of a million dead by the end of this year of the war goes on.”
What has the RSAF’s role been in the war?
They are the principle foreign belligerents of the war.
What British made/or part British made equipment/weapons does RSAF use in this campaign?
“Paveways, Typhoons, Tornadoes.”
Is it legal for Britain to support this RSAF equipment?
“The Court of Appeal has made a procedural determination on the rationality of the government’s licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that could be used in Yemen and found it to be irrational and unlawful. This means that ministers have been illegally signing arms export licences to Saudi Arabia. But, in negotiation with the government, the court ordered only that new licence be rejected until a government review is done on existing licences. This means that arms can keep flying under existing licences until they expire. Clearly the courts don’t want to constrain the government too much. So, in my view the government will find a fudge to keep the arms shipments going, despite the fact that they are clearly illegal under UK law. It does this because of a belief in government that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. FCO lawyers now say Britain is a party to the conflict.”
How does Britain support RSAF?
“Along with the Americans, provides their air force. It provides political cover when Saudi Arabia commits war crimes in Yemen and it provides an open business environment for the House of Saud to invest its petrodollar in the uk economy and for their sons to be educated at elite private schools and military academies.”
What do you think of the German government’s response re. military equipment support to RSAF?
“Germany is still supplying Typhoon components to BAE Systems for export to Saudi Arabia, following intense lobbying by former FCO secretary Jeremy Hunt.”
Should Britain be supporting RSAF, in not, why?
“Britain should be engaging in the legal provision of arms to its allies. Saudi Arabia is systematically violating International humanitarian lawby targeting civilians recklessly or deliberately, which means that our arms sales are illegal. Aside from the legal point, arming Saudi Arabia with Storm Shadow cruise missiles to fight a future war with Iran is reckless in the extreme because it gives them the capacity for disproportionate military action, which they have demonstrated they could use. Contrary to what ministers say, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia creates instability, not stability, in the Middle East.”
Some would argue that Europe not supporting RSAF’s needs could lead to a closer relationship with the US or, in the long term, the creation of an advanced indigenous aerospace industry? Are these valid concerns?
“I think this is already happening. I would be surprised if the MoI for the 48 Typhoons turns into an arms deal. At the moment the RSAF combat fleet is 50-50 US and British. But civil society in the UK and embarrassing judicial interventions is likely to push Saudi towards the US.”
What should happen now?
“Britain should suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which may be used in Yemen and pull out any special forces operating in Yemen against Houthi military sites. This will provide much needed strength to its diplomatic initiatives, which have been considerably weakened by the fact that Britain is a party to the conflict. (see my Private Eye piece).”
How easy was it researching your article and did anything surprise you?
“Unlike their US counterparts, the MoD is extremely cagy talking about its multibillion pound contract with BAE Systems to keep Saudi planes bombing Yemen. Getting people to talk was difficult. I think most people know that the whole business stinks but military cooperation is a cornerstone of UK foreign policy. In my view this policy is largely bought by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has traditionally financed UK and US covert ops in the middle east, which implies opportunities for diplomatic blackmail, probably tacit.”
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