If you stop people on the street and ask them to think of conflicts in the Middle East, many will talk about Iraq and Syria in relation to ISIS, some will talk about the quagmire that is Israel/Palestine, and the most astute will mention something about Iran’s nuclear deal. However what is rarely mentioned in the media in the conflict in Yemen, which is essentially a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This conflict should concern people in Britain as not only are many civilians being killed which is always a tragedy, but much of the killing is being done with weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by British companies. The chaos in Yemen is being facilitated by the British government’s geopolitical interests and the fact that Saudi oil makes Britain the oppressive kingdom’s lapdog.
The situation in Yemen is incredibly interesting because, although the two dominant regional powers are both asserting their authority, the internal politics of the conflict are not what you would assume. A natural human response to disagreements or conflicts is to pick a side and jump to the defence of ‘out team’; in the West’s case, their side is that of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition trying to remove the Houthi rebels from power.
As citizens we look at the conflict by determining who the ‘good guys’ are and we tend to do this through countries human rights records and the nature of their governments. For example nobody as an individual says we should be allied with France because they buy loads of British manufactured goods, we say that France believes in political values, like pluralism, tolerance, and liberty, that we also agree with.
However for us normal citizens the conflict in Yemen is a difficult one because, if we look at the conflict from purely an outside perspective, the choice is between a Wahhabi absolute monarchy that has ideological sympathies with ISIS or an actual theocracy that sponsors terrorism around the region. Irrespective of this difficulty the British government has thrown its support behind Saudi Arabia, providing the Saudis with intelligence, logistical support, and weaponry. As I’ve said in a previous article, this is clearly because of Britain’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil, which comes almost entirely from Saudi Arabia and their allies.
Let’s have a look at what Saudi Arabia have been getting up to with Britain’s blessing. In October 2015 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, released a report that claimed that the Saudi-led coalition has killed 1,641 civilians. This number of obviously too high and there is only so much that collateral damage can account for before the more sinister conclusion, that Saudi forces are targeting civilians, has to be examined.
I am aware that this is a strong statement, but over the last few months there have been a series of bombings on schools and hospitals, most notably the destruction of Shiara Hospital which was operated by Médecin Sans Frontier. If there was one instance of a civilian target being hit it could be attributed to human error, but there is a systematic bombing of civilian buildings which can only be seen as deliberate.
I’m not alone in thinking that there is something out of place here. A UN report on Yemen said that there have been “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilians by the Saudi-led coalition. The UN said that that there were “119 sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law”. The same report said that the coalition’s airstrikes have targeted “camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes”. As I said, one such incident would be a mistake, but the above list is proof that Saudi Arabia and their allies must be targeting civilians.
It’s important to talk about what Saudi Arabia is doing because Britain is actively supporting them. Britain isn’t the only Western country involved but Britain’s role is more directly involved. Saudi involvement in Yemen was welcomed by the Arab League, because most countries in the organisation are Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, but the European Union opposed the intervention. It is worth pointing out that the EU condemned the involvement but Britain ignored this condemnation, resupplied the Saudi military, and is currently providing logistical support along with the French and Americans. Essentially what I am saying is that Britain, in a proxy war between two regional powers who dislike each other primarily for religious differences, has sided with people bombing civilians.
Up to this point I haven’t spoken much about the Houthi rebels that are being backed by Iran. Iran’s attitude toward the Houthis is the same as their attitude toward Hezbollah in Lebanon: Iran will support the group because they claim that they are fighting terrorism. This is a deliberate lie from the Iranian regime as these groups are militant Shia organisations, and Iran’s real reason for supporting these groups is to change the balance of power in the Middle East. Their rationale is that if more governments are sympathetic Iran, Saudi Arabia’s influence shall be diminished.
The thing I find interesting about the relationship between Iran and the Houthi rebels is that their aims are not the same. Iran is a theocracy with clerics comprising the government executive, however the Houthis have stated to the Yemen Post that, if successful, the government they would establish is “a civil state in Yemen. We want to build a striving modern democracy. Our goals are to fulfil our people’s democratic aspirations in keeping with the Arab Spring movement”.
A spokesman for the rebels, in comments referring to the group by its official name Ansar Allah, outlined the their preferred political system in an interview with the Yemen Times: “Ansar Allah said Yemen is a republic and elections are the way to reach power. They also said women have the right to hold any position even that of president. Their vision was so civil in comparison to other parties. Ansar Allah was liberal and open more than any other party in the NDC. So let us put Ansar Allah on a test. Returning to the imam’s rule is absolutely unacceptable”. It appears therefore that the Houthi rebels, despite being hard-line Islamists, are essentially a guerilla army seeking to make Yemen into a democratic republic, rather than a Shia theocracy like that of Iran.
This is a discussion about the Middle East so naturally it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning how everything is more complicated than that. The Houthi rebels have been condemned by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for shelling civilian areas, recruiting child soldiers, forced evacuations, executions, and human shielding. There are also claims that the group is systemically anti-Semitic and has evicted Yemeni Jews from their homes in the countryside which is something that cannot be ignored. The group denies that it is sectarian and many Yemeni Jews have a mixed attitude towards the Houthis, although this is probably because many ethnic minorities, including Jews, are concerned by an oppressive Saudi backed government.
I would like to advocate that the West get out of this civil war. The West likes to tout its support for liberty and democracy yet have chosen to support an authoritarian regime against a group that has openly stated that, although ideologically similar to Iran, wants to create a democratic government. Surely if the West was sincere in its commitment to human rights and democracy etc. it would be backing the Houthis.
I’m not supporting that Britain should be supporting the rebels, even though I would argue that they are less extreme than the Saudi government, I’m arguing against Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia. If people supportive of Britain’s approach in Yemen castigate the Houthis for being anti-Semitic, which could well be true, they should also castigate the Saudi government as they also deride and discriminate against Jews. There is no moral basis upon which Britain can participate in the Yemen conflict, and therefore the answer should be clear to everyone: stay the hell away from it.