“Nothing better illustrates the immorality of Britain’s relationship with the Gulf states than its support for the Saudi war on Yemen, much of which consists of aerial bombardment”.
Mike Phipps reviews AngloArabia, by David Wearing, published by Polity
“Britain’s modern relationship with the Gulf Arab countries is the product of the history of empire,” writes David Wearing at the start of this book. At the heart of this relationship are the Gulf’s oil and gas reserves - not only a source of energy but of geo-strategic power and vital revenue, which can be reinvested in the main capitalist economies - particularly in supporting the UK arms industry.
Wearing notes how, when British policymakers are challenged about their close relationship with autocratic Gulf monarchies that suppress human rights, they invariably resort to excuses rooted in an orientalist discourse: “The values of these countries will never completely mirror ours.” Yet in every struggle between progressive forces advocating democracy and women’s rights and these reactionary monarchies, Britain sides with the latter, keen to maintain its economic pre-eminence in the region.
The oil crisis of the early 1970s - the price quadrupled over four months - could have been a disaster for the west, but the UK for one was able to turn things to its advantage, encouraging an influx of oil revenues into its economy. By 1975, Saudi Arabia held the equivalent in today’s prices of £20 billion of investments in the British economy. The boom for the oil-producing countries also turned the Gulf into a key export market for UK goods.
By the 1980s, Saudi alone was the largest market for UK exports outside of Western Europe and North America. It was Britain’s most important ally for other reasons too - especially after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Huge arms deals were negotiated, one in 1985 estimated to be the largest in British history, worth £20 bn. Britain’s economic relationship with the Gulf States is likely only to intensify if Brexit goes ahead.
But arms sales are not just economic: they are “viewed by recipients as a seal of political approval and legitimacy.” They are also used more to fend off internal threats than external ones and pave the way for greater military cooperation between buyer and seller. When the Bahraini government violently suppressed a popular uprising in 2011, it transpired that Britain had trained most of the country’s military and police commanders.
Across the region, the popular uprisings from 2011 onwards were met by the UK with a sharp increase in arms supplies to the authoritarian regimes - a fulsome vote of confidence in their strategy of brutal repression.
Nothing better illustrates the immorality of Britain’s relationship with the Gulf states than its support for the Saudi war on Yemen, much of which consists of aerial bombardment. Between March 2015 and June 2017, the UK government approved military export licences for Saudi Arabia worth a staggering £4.6 bn. Over the same period, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights verified nearly 5,000 civilian deaths. UN investigators found “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals and schools.
With famine now rampant, Yemen constitutes the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, entirely man-made and intensified by those arming the belligerents. The UK government’s active complicity in this ruthless violation of human rights and civilised norms underlines the depths it will plumb to maintain Britain’s status as a global power. This, however, is a policy choice. To change that policy, we have to change our government.
David Wearing’s book could not be more timely. I asked him a few questions about the situation in Yemen since he finished writing it.
MP: Given the high-profile Unicef ads on TV highlighting the Yemen famine, is there any sign that the UK government is rethinking its unswerving support for the Saudi military campaign there?
DW: The ceasefire around the vital port of Hodeidah, agreed in mid-December, was essentially the result of US and UK pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis. That in turn was the result of an upsurge in political pressure, triggered by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The ensuing scandal escalated to encompass the whole of US and UK relations with the Saudis and shone a new spotlight on the Yemen war. It was as a result of this scrutiny that Washington and London were forced, albeit half-heartedly, to rein their clients in to some degree. This has undoubtedly saved lives, but the ceasefire is tentative and partial and therefore the pressure needs not only to be maintained, but to be stepped up, to the point where the British and Americans pull the plug on their allies’ war permanently.
MP: After the lack of success in its court case to stop Britain arming Saudi last year, what is CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) now doing to campaign against this policy?
DW: CAAT is appealing the decision, and that will be heard in the High Court next spring. CAAT is also of course continuing its work to raise public awareness of the arms trade, around Yemen in particular.
MP: Labour's 2017 manifesto included some specific commitments in relationship to this war - an end to arms sales, a negotiation-based solution and a UN-led inquiry into violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. What's your view of this?
DW: Labour’s position is a good one, but we shouldn’t take for granted that it will be implemented. The party’s overall record in respect of Saudi Arabia has been poor. Many of the jets bombing Yemen indiscriminately over the past four years were sold by the Blair-Brown government, and many in the Labour movement, not just on the right of the party, think there’s a legitimate trade-off to be made between arms industry jobs and Yemeni lives. Labour needs an industrial strategy that will create alternative employment for arms industry workers, since business as usual at this point is simply not an option. Party members need to put pressure on the leadership to make sure that all of these things happen, and fight back against those forces in the party and movement who support the status quo.