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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.

32 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t disagree but the article fails to address the double sided nature of the conflict. Simply stating Iran is involved and ignoring her influence is insufficient. Pressurising Saudi in public is defacto support of Iran. Iran is fighting to displace Saudi, if Saudi falls, this will cause the greatest war in the middle east we’ve ever seen and it will reach into every home on Earth. Britain and the US have no option but to support Saudi and ensure she wins. This is the domino effect of our age. If Yemen falls to Iran we are talking about protracted conflict on the peninsula, more blood shed and the eventual fall of Saudi Arabia, the consequences of which would be horrific.
    Any such outcome would likely draw in Israel, Turkey, Egypt and many others in to a fearful regional conflict and the release of unheard of Islamic terrorism. I wouldn’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons by a failing Saudi state (they pretty much paid for and own the Pakistani deterrent). Turkey could well roll across the middle east to prevent the fall of Islam’s holy sites to Iran, potentially forcing Russia to intervene to prevent the re-emergence of the Ottoman empire…
    The various possible outcomes of a Iranian victory are quite terrible. We have no option but to support the status quo.

    • Iran got the better of Obama and this war is the result. Iran would both flank Saudi Arabia and have a key position to interdict further vessels using the Gulf and Red Sea. It would upset the balance in the region like nothing else. No Saudi government is going to allow this to happen. The west’s interests (and those of India and China also) depend on Iran being kept in its box. Yemenis have fought each other for centuries; intervention in Yemen by Egypt brought down Gamal Abdul Nasser. Iran has waded into the fight not to right a wrong but to further its own plans for dominance of the Islamic world and the crushing of Israel. Ironically, it may actually led Arab states to look for a proven military ally in the region against a common ally,unlocking some intriguing possibilities.

      As for the paper, Mr Steward should do well. Blaming the west for everything will ensure he goes far in today’s academia.

      • In the absence of an edit facility:

        Correction: “it may actually lead Arab states to look for a proven military ally in the region against a common enemy, unlocking some intriguing possibilities.”

  2. Good analysis Nath.

    That certainly is a possibility of the worst case scenario, but the USA would never let Saudi fall so I don’t think Iran would try topple Saudi Arabia even if they were stronger militarily.

    I also think Irans endgame is a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Syria, Yemen is a sideshow to that aim.

    It’s a clusterf**k of epic proportions in the Middle East.

  3. Or we could all remember that both sides of this conflict are to put it bluntly scum. The rebel groups especially the Houthis have conducted terrosist attacks and attacked US naval assets. Therefore if you can have them bombed and not only not do it yourself but have your pawn pay for the privilege of bombing your foe. It is simply the brutal calculus of realpolitik. The Houthi rebels are terroists backed by Iran and considering there normal record of Iran backed groups (Hezbollah,Shiite militia,Hamas) no tears shed for there being bombed. On the question of civilians casualties there will always be many in war. Furthermore the quoting of “international law” is as intellectually lazy as it is vapid. For in reality there is no such thing there is only treaties which countries tear up at will the only law nations ever give a passing obiedience to is there own.

  4. “Excessive force”? I don’t think so. Saudi Arabia senses an existential threat from Iran, through their Houthi proxies. The Iranians and the Houthis are, of course, both Shia. They must be regarded in the same light. This is why I would expect the Saudis to crush the Houthis. There’s no question of excessive force; the Houthis could not be tolerated in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Should Britain encourage the Saudis to be more careful to minimize civilian casualties, refrain from using cluster bombs, etc.? Yes, of course. Having said that, I completely see why the Saudis will use whatever force is necessary to remove the Shia threat from the South.

  5. Hold the KSA to account in Yemen while holding all other nations engaged in conflict “to account”.

    See how empty that all sounds.

    The KSA isn’t a vassal of the UK and doesn’t care what Kuffar media thinks of them.

  6. Having actually been on the KSA Yemen border, its a fairly lawless place. Murders, kidnappings armed raids etc. The terrain is mountainous and there’s an awful lot of rain in the summer months.

    The Saudi military cannot secure the border, because of the terrain and their own incompetence so they have little choice but to use air strikes to punish and neutralise their opponents.

    This opponents are now being equipped with modern weapons, such as the Kornet anti tank missiles, plus the technology to launch ballistic missiles into KSA and all funded by Iran. Iran sees an opportunity here to place the KSA under further pressure.

    The Saudi land forces despite lavish spending and extensive training are basically not up to the job of defeating the houthi insurgents. This particular episode of the Sunni Shia will continue for sometime with no conclusive result.

    • Agreed Mike, the only way this situation can improve is if Iran changes its position, it simply won’t…

      British contract pilots were brassing up this lot many years ago in their RSAF BAC Lightnings …. Same shit different day really, though I think it was the Soviets pulling the strings then.
      If a shooting war sparked off between the two states directly, I certainly wouldn’t want to be an Iranian Air force pilot, Saudi Typhoons and Eagles would roam at will over Iran from day 1 and utterly dominate their air space.

      • Agreed, but the Iranians would wish avoid such a situation of full scale war.

        They are playing the long game chipping away at the Sunni bloc undermining their influence and power.

        My opinion of Saudi land forces is very poor and would not be able to take on the Iranians.

      • The RSAF are actually pretty good at what they do. The Tonkas and Typhoons supplied by the UK are performing far better than the US supplied kit (F15) with regards to accuracy of hitting the (legitimate) targets and sortie availability.
        Even the RSNF are doing pretty well in the waters off Yemen.

        The Land forces…well…they are not doing well. The Army ( Not the National Guard which is a whole different organization and far more reliable ) is struggling. Poor morale, training and general lethargy from years of having an easy life in barracks have come to the fore in Yemen.

        Serious questions and a revamp are required of the Land forces.

        • The Saudi military selection process.

          The best recruits join the air force, the next best join navy and whatever left over join the army.

          Regards National Guard are recruited on a strictly tribal basis, those tribes seen as most loyal to the royal family. They were created as a counter balance to the army in the event of a coup .

          Regards military performance, they are better than army however lavish expenditure and training they are still woeful compared to a western trained military force.

    • Is this situation the same rebels that the SAS were covertly fighting in Oman / Aden in the late 60’s early 70’s with Omani assistance?

      • For all practical purposes yes. We now have religious extremists, the we had terrorists/ freedom fighters depending on your point of view but Aden was an early version of this conflict.

      • I also spent time in Dhofar in the mid 70s as part of the “cracker battery” an assistance program by the British army to provide specialist artillery support.

        The terrorists coming over the border from the Yemen were Soviet trained and indoctrinated, they never numbered more than a few hundred.

        Using limited military force they were neutralised over the medium term.

        The biggest military confrontation I ever saw in that region was a friendly fire one when two Iranian army units, who were supporting the Sultan, engaged each other at night

        Contacts with terrorists were few and far between by 1975.

  7. Its a strange game they are playing Mike, I suppose not unlike the Cold War, were every opportunity to have a crack at the opposition via proxy wars was taken.

    A collapse of the status quo in the Gulf wouldn’t serve Iran as they would be caught up in the utter chaos too.

    Give it another 60 years, when green technology has reduced the strangle hold of Middle Eastern oil and gas below the point of western/Eastern/ Chinese geo strategic interest and the rest of the world may just loose interest and leave them all to their tribal bun fight.

    • It’s a regional power play by Iran, I agree once the oil is no longer of any influence then it will become a backwater.

      The only problem is if Iran is able to develop and use nuclear weapons.

  8. There has always been a strong bond between our two countries, just as with, say, the USA. We don’t always see eye to eye, but through trade, we also have access to their key ministries and leadership.

  9. We do need to be honest with ourselves in regard to Saudi. We keep quite about the hunanitarian issues and they keep in check regional powers supported by our competitors or sweeten the deal with big old bribes (in the form of military orders).

    That’s pragmatic geopolitics, western nations have to do things for their own benefits and sometimes swallow our morality if we have to. It is just important to be self aware and not kid ourselves that we are or can be exemplars of a perfect moral paradigm.

  10. Ok let’s go along with your hypothetical plan. We immediatly cease all military trade with Saudi Arabia and start ‘holding then to account’.

    Congratulations, peace in the middle East! Saudi Arabia is so aghast at the lack of trade they’ve immediatly stopped and begged for us to sell them the Eurofighter.

    Except that doesn’t happen.

    They just go to another buyer and the hundred of thousands of jobs in the UK that depend on the defenses industry suffer. But surely they would listen to us then without the commercial aspect turning it into a ‘one way street’? Nope. They just ignore us. Why would they listen? They have nothing to lose from oir displeasure. They might have when our ministers had easier access to theirs due to their defenses ties but now were just another country.

    Stopping trade with the Saudis is utterly pointless. It won’t stop the conflict in Yemen, its a pointless gesture so we can slap ourselves on the back and feel better about ourselves.

    • Don’t forget the 5 p extra on basic rate of income tax that would be required when the money from the Saudi contracts disappears.

      • You don’t help your argument with rash statements like that. Total Bae Systems tax last year was about £620m. This rises to £2.5bn if supply chain and employee spending(VAT, Stamp Duty etc) is added. Bae exports to the middle east were about £3.7bn, that’s sales not tax revenue. 5p on lower rate tax would raise approximately £20bn in tax each year. Yes there would be a loss in tax and probably jobs if we stopped arms sales to KSA but not the huge amounts you suggest.
        Of course as others have made clear if we stop selling arms to KSA other nations will quickly jump in our place so we would achieve nothing in regards to stopping the war in Yemen.

  11. Simple
    No
    We love to pontificate
    Looking down on those that we believe do not know any better
    We are not from the Middle East, we do not fully understand their interpretation of their religion but we still seek to tell them how to implement their foreign policy.
    First time we tried that we called it the Crusades.
    Tried it again in 2003 – that worked out really well, totally destabilised the region.
    The left and others should look at the crimes that are committed a lot closer to home before they start picking on a country that is trying so solve a problem on their southern border.

    • The Crusades where are a fully justified response to several hundred years of muslims attacks and conquest against the Christian world. Since muslim foreign policy was kill the infidel, I would say we had no choice but to attempt to influence that policy.

      • Totally right in the crusades. People like to act like it was the Muslims homeland since creation yet it had only been theirs for a century. The Romans had been there for millennia, been a Christian land for several centuries at least. The Muslims were invaders there just as much as the Crusades were.

        And the Muslims had been attacking the West for centuries as you pointed out. The crusades were a blip in their wars of conquest yet they still paint them today as unwarranted aggression on the ‘peaceful’ Muslims.

  12. KSA is a key ally, of course we would like all allies to be western style democracies with impeachable human rights records. However in the real world we have to accept the world as it is.

    From my experience most Saudi citizens are fairly happy living with a strict religious code and do want that situation to change.

    As the world moves ever closer to a new cold war thanks to Russia and Iran, we need to support our allies

    • I’ve not noticed western democracies having impeachable human rights records themselves. Let’s be honest it’s all a bit of a scale, every so often a nation will slip right over the edge into the blackest of hells, but most are just a darker or lighter shade of grey, moving up and down with time and needs. Western democracies do aspire to a light shade of gray at present, that most defiantly does not make use some utopian civilisation filled with perfect Angels. We have (and would again) comittee to the death and destruction of untold numbers of innocents to protect our nation, I don’t like it, but that’s the world.

      What I do have an issue with is when we try and say we are better and turn around and get all high and mighty with other nations. Everyone can read the history books, we have levelled cities, just like every other major power…….maybe we try for higher ideals, but we are not yet there and our shit smells just as bad as the rest. There are lines when crossed we need to challenge on but we need to ensure we are not being hypocritical, as this reduces our ability to influence for the greater good or interven in the truly dark.

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