British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s personal comments on the Middle East and in particular Saudi Arabia, highlight the manner inconsistencies and contradictions in UK foreign policy towards the Middle East.
Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.
In particular, the Saudi’s proxy war in Yemen, and the human cost of this deliberate use of political violence. Recently the forgotten war in Yemen has featured in the current debates about how proportionate the use of force is.
This war of attrition is by no means appropriate, and it has caused a human catastrophe that has been neglected in news coverage, and also excluded from foreign policy debates here and elsewhere.
This humanitarian crisis has been caused by the excessive force of Saudi Arabia’s military action. In accordance with being a member of the international community, and an upholder of international law, the UK government must take more notice of the conflict both in the cost of lives, and also our indirect role – in this case through military procurement of British military hardware.
The Western media, including the UK media establishment does not seem to want to talk about conflict, but it has important political, and regional geopolitical contexts which impact on international relations. Moreover the UK and United States in particular are indirectly engaged in the conflict by both being suppliers of weapons to the Saudi regime, but also implicitly approving the use of force. Yemen has become the latest front line in a two level conflict in the Middle East which does transcend national boundaries. But at the same time, it has provided considerable benefits particularly to UK’s military – industrial complex, with one of its best customers Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia does not have its own national military industrial complex, and as such as dependent upon importing military technology.
Firstly, it is necessarily to examine the intricacies of the conflict itself. It features the extremist Al Qaeda group who have capitalised on the power vacuum and internal instability. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a product of a wider ‘Cold War’ sectarian religious power struggle in the Middle East between two competing regional powers Shia Iran, and Sunni Saudi Arabia- who are both attempting to dominate politics in the region. Firstly, Iran is backing the Houthi rebels who are Shia Muslims.
Iran wants to gain a foothold in Yemen which borders Saudi Arabia, and shift the balance of power against the Sunni majority Saudi government. Secondly, Saudi Arabia who have built up a Coalition backed by other Gulf partners including United Arab Emirates have decided to militarily intervene against the rebels and attempt to restore the government friendly to its regime, and also attempt to dominate the region supporting Sunni based political entities both in Yemen and elsewhere.
Most of Saudi-led Coalition action has centred on bombing the rebel seized capital of Yemen by air, causing civilian casualties and displacement of individuals.
This has both an international and a political dimension. Although airstrikes by Saudi-led Coalition are backed by United National Security Council against military targets, what has happened in effect is indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure. What is more concerning is that this act of violence is made possible by the military infrastructure supply chain.
In this case Saudi’s import of Britain and American made military technology.
The bombing of civilians is both a violation of the resolution and breaking of international law. It is worth pointing out that both Britain and the United States support the Saudi-led Coalition and have supplied them with weapons including military hardware such as fighter bombers. Most of the bombing by Saudi forces and their Coalition partners have been through the use of American or British made aircraft such as the Typhoon Eurofighter, Tornados and F15s.
Although the US and UK are not directly involved, they are at risk of breaching the Arms Trade Treaty of 2014 if knowingly their military hardware is being used against civilians.
The UN has called on all sides to stop the fighting and come to a ceasefire, and allow peace talks of all warring parties to assume. However this realistically will not happen unless greater pressure is put on Saudi Arabia by both the United States and United Kingdom.
The concern is that the bargaining power of the United Kingdom to hold Saudi Arabia into account, has largely been diminished as the commercial interests of our military industrial complex overrides our government’s moral judgements about how UK made munitions and military hardware potentially being used to kill civilians. Secondly, there is a lack of scrutiny between the UK’s government with the Saudi regime. As Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to create new economic relationships following the Brexit vote, one can predict that concerns over humanitarian concerns would not feature centrally in future trade deals. However, democratic states, such as the UK should hold Saudi Arabia into account over its military actions, and rather than being a one way relationship based on purely economic imperatives, this can actually change.
In terms of policy the British government could attempt to reset relations and add more of a two way relationship where scrutiny and holding the Saudi regime to account would feature more prominently. However, I am pessimistic. I predict that military and economic ties will override any attempt to hold Saudi Arabia to account. While the UK may not be consenting to the violence, we can observe that the UK is not willing or feel able due to its perceived national economic interest to challenge this behaviour.