Aid cuts and arms sales: Yemen, the Tories, and imperialism
Six years of war in Yemen have brought the country to the brink of an absolute humanitarian disaster. The Saudi-led alliance, backed by the UK and the US, has imposed tremendous suffering on the Yemeni people.
With 16 million suffering hunger and 400,000 children at risk of death from starvation, the situation is getting worse by the day. And the imperialists are unwilling to assist the victims.
The United Nations held a donor conference on Monday. They were hoping to raise $3.85 billion dollars from over 100 national governments to avert widespread famine. In the end they only raised $1.7 billion, $1 billion less than was pledged at the 2019 aid conference.
The UN general secretary was clearly not pleased and issued a harsh statement:
“Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence. The best that can be said about today is that it represents a down payment.”
Many countries cut their aid pledges, compared to last year. The UK, which has profited handsomely from arms sales to Saudi Arabia throughout the crisis, pledged a paltry £87 million. That was less than half of what they pledged last year.
The Tory government, in a true spirit of international cooperation and solidarity, is proposing to cut its aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% – although it is trying to avoid holding a vote on it in the UK Parliament until after the G7 meeting in June. Presumably, they fear that whatever pious statements that will be issued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at that meeting might seem insincere in that light.
US President Joe Biden, in a pretence of generosity, pledged $191 million dollars, an increase compared to his predecessor. By comparison, however, Biden’s $1,900 billion stimulus plan that is being passed by Congress, contains $110 billion in business support. Of course, this is dwarfed by the $730 billion US defence budget. Bombing Syria clearly remains more of a priority to the new Biden administration than feeding hungry children in Yemen.
Obama bombed Syria.— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) February 28, 2021
Trump bombed Syria.
And now Biden’s bombed Syria.
Ain’t a damn thing change. pic.twitter.com/C5Jmgj8F63
The European Commission pledged $116 million, in addition to EU members states’ contributions. The EU is spending €22.7 billion on migration and border security. Clearly, keeping the starving masses of the world out of the EU is more of a financial priority than stopping them from starving in the first place.
The Saudis naturally were the biggest donors, in a false show of altruism in the face of a disaster entirely of their own making. The kingdom has spent an estimated $100 billion on this disastrous war. Compared to that, their $430 million donation is peanuts.
Yemen: a disaster of imperialism’s making
The truth is of course, that without these counties meddling in the affairs of Yemen, there would be no need for aid. The widespread famine facing the Yemeni people is a manmade disaster.
Since 2017, the Saudis and their allies have imposed a severe blockade on the Houthi-controlled areas where the majority of the population lives. At one stage they were even refusing to let any aid into the area. At the same time, they have bombed critical infrastructure, which has devastated the economy of the country. Now 80 percent of Yemenis depend on aid to survive.
The bombs of course were supplied by the US and UK, knowing full well what their intended use was. The countries have occasionally made noises about waging a more ‘humanitarian’ war, whatever that may mean, but this is only so much noise for public consumption.
Even Biden’s recent ban on sales of weapons for the conflict does not extend to Saudi Arabia’s military in general, meaning of course that they leave the door open for the Saudis to easily avoid the sanctions.
The war in Yemen is a proxy war for the Saudis, desperately trying to avoid Iranian influence extending to their southern border. The imperialist powers share this interest. Much of international oil trade passes the coast of Yemen. These powers would much rather have a country bombed to pieces than give Iran significant influence over Yemen.
The fact that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided most of the financing and the mercenaries for the conflict only made it a more attractive proposal (as the Western powers didn’t have to get directly involved themselves).
The only problem is that they lost the war. The Houthi militias have held out and are now even threatening Marib, one of the most important hubs for Yemeni oil production.
Now they all want out, starting with Biden. The Yemen war has been a political embarrassment for too long. They are looking for a negotiated settlement, but the Houthis would have to be part of such an agreement. This, however, would be a humiliation for the Saudis, and in particular for Mohamed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, and provoke a political crisis in the kingdom.
The Biden administration is trying to distance itself from bin Salman, who had very close ties with Trump, but has stopped short of sanctioning him. Biden is trying to keep the Saudis on side, while at the same time putting pressure on them to come to a deal, both over Yemen and Iran.
Most likely, they will reach some kind of uneasy compromise, like they did in Iraq and Syria. But just like with those two countries, a ‘peace’ will not bring an end to the suffering. If the recent donor conference of the UN is anything to go by, there will be no money for reconstruction, no money to repair infrastructure, factories and housing.
The ruling elite of the regional powers in the Middle East and their even more powerful imperialist friends in London and Washington are only interested in power, profit and privileges. At the bottom of the list come the Yemeni people.
Yemen’s future under capitalism will be one of continued misery. The nightmare of the Yemeni people shows us the need to get rid of imperialism and capitalism once and for all.
The dire situation facing the masses in war-torn Yemen is once again in the spotlight. In a speech last month, new US President Joe Biden announced intentions to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”.
In response, Biden has received gushing praise from liberal commentators for showing ‘moral leadership’ on the world stage. But such acclamation and adulation reeks of hypocrisy.
Firstly, later in this same speech, the President confirmed that the US would continue to provide ‘defensive’ support to Saudi Arabia; and that American forces would also continue to operate in the region.
Secondly, the reasons for this policy shift has nothing to do with ‘moral’ or ‘humanitarian’ concerns, and everything to do with the interests of US imperialism. Withdrawing from the war in Yemen is just a tacit admission of the truth: that the Saudis and their allies cannot win this war; and that American imperialism has lost influence and control in the Middle East.
Finally, lest we forget, Biden himself was vice president in the Obama administration, under which US involvement in this war began. So much for ‘moral leadership’!
Nevertheless, this US ‘withdrawal’ has put pressure on the UK – another key player in the Saudi coalition – to follow suit. So far, however, the Tory government has refused to budge on this question.
Indeed, the Tories are moving in the opposite direction, with a promise to cut the amount of aid sent to Yemen. Instead of the £214 million sent to Yemen over the last 12 months, Conservative MP and junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly recently announced that this figure would be reduced to around £87 million for the year ahead.
Extraordinary moment that a Conservative former Cabinet Minister saying a decision of his own government will lead to more deaths of children in Yemen.— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) March 1, 2021
This is part of a wider cut to the UK’s overseas aid budget, from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. This has provoked a split in Tory Party, with former international development Andrew Mitchell amongst those in the ‘sensible’ wing of the Conservatives who have criticised the move.
Again, however, it is not humanitarian concerns that motivates these ‘compassionate’ Tories. Rather, their real concern is that these aid cuts will reduce British imperialism’s ‘soft power’ abroad. After all, where has their compassion and charity been over the last decade of austerity?
In reality, this split in the Tory Party is not about aims, but methods. One side prefers the carrot of aid; the other prefers the stick of arms sales. But both are ultimately out to defend the interests of UK imperialism and British capitalism.
It is not difficult to see why the Tories, for now, have stubbornly stuck to their position of supporting the Saudis in Yemen. After all, as Lenin said, war is terrible – terribly profitable for the capitalists.
Today the Prime Minister said £1bn aid had been provided to Yemen.— Apsana Begum MP (@ApsanaBegumMP) March 3, 2021
Yet his Govt are now cutting this by 50%.
The UN say Yemen is on the brink of the worst famine.
Yet this Govt licensed £1.4bn of arms to Saudi Arabia for the conflict since resuming these sales in 2020.
In 2019, a legal battle resulted in the British government ‘banning’ all new arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other coalition forces involved in the bloody war on Yemen. The grounds for the restrictions were breaches of international humanitarian law.
This is surely justified, given the damage that has been caused by the Saudi-coalition forces. Airstrikes have been responsible for two-thirds of civilian deaths (treated as an unfortunate ‘collateral damage’ from the point of view of the imperialists), totalling roughly 8,000.
On top of this, the deliberate targeting of important infrastructure has left millions of people in hunger and starvation. British imperialism has been a key facilitator of these attacks, and is therefore complicit in all of these crimes.
But in July last year, the ‘ban’ on arms sales was lifted, with the British state finding no ‘pattern’ of air strikes breaching international law.
In reality, the ban was no such thing, because it quickly ran up against the drive to keep the money tap flowing, with unlawful new licensing only revoked under pressure. Pre-existing licenses continued to operate. As BAE systems, the largest exporter to the gangsters in Riyadh, confirmed in a 2019 report, business continued as usual. Support service contracts were fulfilled, enabling fighter jets to be maintained.
Liz Truss, International Trade Secretary, has cried a river of crocodile tears. Meanwhile, lakes of blood have continued to be spilled in Yemen. This undoubtedly could not have happened without the instrumental role Britain played, and continues to play.
Truss gave her “unreserved apology”, whilst admitting that further breaches will possibly “come to light”. Meanwhile, the UK government continued to invite Saudi Arabia to the world’s largest arms fair; a stark signal that they were not anticipating this ban to be indefinite or final.
Though this ‘landmark’ court case did not really change anything, the official reasons for the ban being overturned last summer are as ridiculous as they are transparent.
Truss concluded that there was no “pattern” to be found in violations. And yet, in that very month, the Ministry of Defence publicly stated that they had recorded more than 500 potential violations of humanitarian law in Yemen. And here we are of course speaking of formal bourgeois international law, which by default favours imperialism.
The Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 20,000 airstrikes since the beginning of the conflict in 2015. According to the Yemen Data Project, one-third of these airstrikes – by aircraft made and maintained by BAE systems – have been on non-military sites. This had led to the mass displacement of millions of people. The suggestion that there are only 500 ‘potential’ (!) violations is a woeful underestimate.
Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that even these sugar-coated statistics reflect a pattern. It is clear that the increasingly dire reality for millions of Yemenis is one of unimaginable strife, hunger and poverty. But this is of little concern to the Tories and their cronies. Human rights are small change compared to war profiteering.
The Tories have been lying through their teeth about the role Britain has played in this conflict. While they may look stern and serious on television when speaking of this ongoing humanitarian crisis, they are jubilant when it comes to arms fairs, and ensuring Britain continues to have a sizable slice of the pie.
The war on Yemen must end.— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 2, 2021
All arms sales to Saudi Arabia must end. pic.twitter.com/6MPIMZDWuC
Truss’ claim that there is “not a clear risk” of British weapons being used for war crimes is a blatant fiction. The sale of arms, the maintenance of Torpedo and Typhoon jets, the sharing of intelligence and operational and technical shadowing has left just under half of Yemen’s pre-war healthcare facilities destroyed or defunct. Hospitals are one of the many key infrastructures turned to rubble. Now the courts have given their rubber stamp of approval for this to continue. Capitalism is, as Lenin said, horror without end.
Though further challenges have been made for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, what is clear from this entire episode is the Tories have no intention of stopping the war machine. Neither ‘moral’ nor legal appeals will sway these gangsters from this path, because the drive for profits reigns supreme.
Toxic ties with House of Saud
More liberal commentators have expressed disquiet at Britain’s ever-closer relations with Saudi Arabia. But we must be clear: these ladies and gentlemen are not objecting to the crimes of British imperialism per se. They are simply embarrassed by the ‘toxic’ ties with the despotic House of Saud. The dire and desperate situation the majority of Yemen endure is a very distant concern.
A very important element of this relationship is that Saudi Arabia is the biggest defence importer in the world. In the past decade, it has imported an eye-watering $116bn worth of arms – twice as much as any other country.
Of Britain’s $125bn defence exports since 2010, 60% of these sales have been to countries in the Middle East. These sales rely on the continued destabilisation and destruction of this war-ridden region – with absolutely no consideration for the human cost.
The British military operates in scores of locations across the Middle East. Declassified reports show there are 23 military bases in the region; and UK military personnel make use of 41 on top of this. 15 key sites are to be found in Saudi Arabia, including the Air Operations Centre – where the RAF undoubtedly assist and aid their Saudi counterparts in the airstrikes.
Investigations have exposed that, during the so-called ban on arms sales, British troops were covertly stationed and continue to be stationed in Saudi Arabian oil fields. There are also many RAF staff, that while on secondment to BAE systems, serve at the Saudi’s air bases close to the Yemen border.
The idea that the destruction in Yemen is exclusively a Saudi problem is a mirage. With the Tories’ plans to increase military spending by £16.5 billion over four years – an increase of 10 percent – Britain will continue to aid and abet atrocities throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, the cuts to foreign aid – though ultimately part of the ‘soft power’ imperialists wield – are preparing a perfect storm for the countries most in need in the region.
Internationalism vs imperialism
What is the Labour Party’s response to this? For all the gushing praise ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer receives in the bourgeois press for his ‘forensic’ leadership, he appears to have let this one slip under the radar.
But this should come as no surprise. His approach to foreign policy is an extension of his general approach to politics and intentions for the Labour Party: proving himself to be a safe pair of hands for the capitalists and suppressing the left in the party.
Like the ‘compassionate’ wing of the Tory Party, the Labour leadership have also criticised the cuts to overseas aid. At the same time, they have welcomed the US ‘withdrawal’ in Yemen, and have called for an end to arms sales to the Saudis.
These are tokenistic gestures, however. In every other respect, Starmer and the Labour right wing have fallen over themselves in their attempts to demonstrate to the establishment that they too defend and represent the interests of British imperialism.
Sir Keir has been banging the drum of ‘patriotism’ and ‘national security’. This is why he whipped Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill, which seeks to let the British military get away with war crimes. This is also why he welcomed Tory plans to increase military spending, only criticising that the announcement came “without a strategy”.
Typical of right-wing reformists, he is grabbing onto the tailcoats of the Tories. Starmer is positioning himself as the leader of a 'credible' opposition – which is to say, no opposition at all when it comes to the plight of the poor in Yemen, Britain, or anywhere else.
Socialists must fight against the Tories’ war profiteering and imperialist ambitions, and against the flag-waving capitulation of Starmer. Instead, the labour movement should be boldly making the case for genuine anti-imperialism and socialist internationalism.
Ultimately, this can only be achieved by breaking entirely with capitalism and imperialism, and fighting for a society based on human need and welfare, not warfare.