“A complete horror show”: the new plan for Yemen

Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.

Adel Bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, Timothy Linder King, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Dr. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in Abu Dhabi on December 10th 2017

The protagonists of the war on Yemen – the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have been beset by problems ever since they launched the operation in March 2015. But these problems seem to have reached breaking point in recent months.

 

First and foremost, is the total lack of military progress in the war. Originally conceived as a kind of blitzkrieg – or “decisive storm” as the initial bombing campaign was named – that would put a rapid end to the Houthi-led Ansarallah movement’s rebellion, almost three years later it has done nothing of the sort. The only significant territory recaptured has been the port city of Aden, and this was only by reliance on a secessionist movement largely hostile to ‘President’ Hadi, whose rule the war is supposedly being fought to restore. All attempts to recapture the capital Sanaa, meanwhile, have been exposed as futile pipe dreams.

 

Secondly, the belligerents have been increasingly at war with themselves. In February of this year, a fierce battle broke out between the Emiratis and Saudi-backed forces for control of Aden’s airport. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the struggle  “prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz,” adding that “the risk of such confrontations remains…Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard.” Notes intelligence analysts the Jamestown Foundation, “The fight over Aden’s airport is being played out against a much larger and far more complex fight for Aden and southern Yemen. The fighting between rival factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly shows that Yemen’s already complicated civil war is being made more so by what is essentially a war within a war: the fight between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their proxies.” This tension flared up again in October, with Emirati troops arresting 10 members of the Saudi-aligned Islah movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni faction.

 

And finally, the war is undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Aid agencies are usually doggedly silent on the political causes of the disasters they are supposed to ameliorate. Yet on the issue of the blockade – and especially since it was made total on November 6th this year – they have been uncharacteristically vocal, placing the blame for the country’s famine – in which more than a quarter of the population are now starving – squarely on the blockade and its supporters. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, put it starkly: “150,000 will die before the end of the year because of the impact of this blockade” he told ABC news last month. Save the Children had already stated back in March 2017 that “food and aid are being used as a weapon of war”, and called for an end to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whilst in November 2017, Oxfam’s Shane Stevenson said: “All those with influence over the Saudi-led coalition are complicit in Yemen’s suffering unless they do all they can to push them to lift the blockade.” Paolo Cernuschi, of the International Rescue Committee, added that: “We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm. What is happening now is a complete disgrace.” The governments of Donald Trump and Theresa May were being painted – by the most establishment-aligned of charities – as essentially mass murderers, accomplices to what Alex de Waal has called “the worst famine crime of this decade”. Even the Financial Times carried a headline that Britain “risks complicity in the use of starvation as a weapon of war”. “Is complicit” would be more accurate than “risks complicity”, but nevertheless: still a pretty damning indictment.

 

To confront these problems, a new strategy has clearly emerged. It appears to have been inaugurated by Theresa May and Boris Johnson on November 29th.  On that date, whilst the British Prime Minister met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, the Foreign Secretary was hosting a London meeting of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US under-secretary of state, representing all four of the belligerent powers in Yemen.

 

The first element of this strategy was for Britain and the US to pacify the NGO fraternity by distancing themselves from the blockade, as if it were somehow separate from the war in which they were so deeply involved. This actually came about in the days preceding those meetings, when Theresa May told the press she would “demand” the “immediate” lifting of the blockade during her forthcoming visit to the king. That was disingenuous; after all, had she really wanted the blockade ended, she could have achieved this immediately simply by threatening to cut military support for the Saudis until they ended it. According to War Child UK, arms sales to Saudi Arabia have now topped £6billion, and Britain runs a major training programme for the Saudi military, with 166 personnel deployed within the Saudi military structure. Former US presidential advisor Bruce Riedel is entirely correct when he states that “the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and  British support. If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia] ‘this war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow.”

 

In fact, the meeting seems to have been more about reassuring the Saudis that her words were but rhetoric for domestic consumption, and not meant to be taken seriously. In the event, far from an “immediate” end, the UK government website reported that May and Salman merely “agreed that steps needed to be taken” and that “they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved”. Just to make it absolutely clear that the UK’s support for the war was not in question in any way, the very next line of the statement was “They agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure”. A deeply complicit press ensured that the actual contents of this meeting was barely reported; the last word on the matter, as far as they were concerned, was May’s pledge to “demand” an end to the blockade. Donald Trump followed suit last week, likewise calling on the Saudis to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people” whilst doing nothing to bring this about. Thus have the UK and US governments attempted to manipulate the media narrative such that the blockade they continue to facilitate no longer reflects badly on them.

 

The next aspect of the strategy became obvious before the Johnson and May meetings had even finished, as fighting broke out between the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh the same day. Saleh had made an alliance with his erstwhile enemies the Houthis in 2015 in a presumed attempt to seize back power from his former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to whom he was forced to abdicate power in 2012. But he had never been fully trusted by the Houthis, and their suspicions were to be fully confirmed when on Saturday 2nd December he formally turned on them and offered himself up to the Saudis. Saleh had always been close to the Saudis whilst in power, positioning himself largely as a conduit for their influence; now he was returning to his traditional role. The swiftness and intensity of the Saudi airstrikes supporting his forces against the Houthis following his announcement suggests some degree of foreknowledge and collaboration had preceded it, as does the Saudi’s reported house arrest of their previous favourite Hadi the previous month. This restoration of the Saleh-Saudi alliance represents a victory for the UAE, who had been pushing the Saudis to rebuild its bridges with him for some time. Analyst Neil Partrick, for example, had written just weeks before the move that “The Emiratis are advising the Saudis to go back to the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, believing his growing disputes with the Houthis, his tactical allies, can be encouraged to become a permanent breach.” Thus was the problem of the military stalemate supposed to be solved by splitting the Houthis alliance with Saleh, paving the way for a dramatic rebalancing of forces in favour of the belligerents. The execution of Saleh two days later has only partially scuppered this plan, with many of his forces either openly siding with the invaders or putting up no resistance to them.

 

At the same time as the Saudis have finally been brought round to the UAE’s preference for a reconciliation with Saleh’s forces, the UAE have now, it seems, accepted an alliance with the Saudi-backed Islah party. Despite the Saudi’s usual antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood, it has backed their Yemeni offshoot in this war, a move hitherto firmly opposed by the Emirates. Yet, following earlier meetings between Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Islah leader Abdullah al-Yidoumi, the two men met last Wednesday (13th December) with Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Maged Al Da’arri, editor of Yemen’s Hadramout newspaper, explained to The National that “the Gulf leaders are trying to combine the different sides in Yemen to work collaboratively in order to be able to liberate the provinces that are still held by the Houthis.”

 

It seems likely that Emirati support for Islah was a quid-pro-quo for Saudi support for Saleh, both moves suggesting perhaps that the two powers’ divisions were to some extent being overcome. But this rapprochement was formalised with the formal announcement of a new military alliance between them on December 5th, the day after Saleh’s death.

 

Thus, within a week of the London and Riyadh meetings, the coalition’s three seemingly intractable problems – the paralysing divisions between UAE and Saudi Arabia, the military stalemate, and the West’s legitimacy crisis over the blockade – had all apparently been turned around. This readjustment was and is intended to pave the way for a decisive new page in the war: an all-out attack on Hodeidah, as a prelude to the recapture of Sanaa itself.

 

This new strategy is now well under way. On December 6th – four days after Saleh switched sides, and one day after the new UAE-Saudi alliance was announced – the invaders’ Yemeni assets mounteda major push…to purge Al Houthis from major coastal posts on the Red Sea including the strategic city of Hodeida.” The Emiratis had been advocating an attack on Hodeidah for at least a year, but, according to the Emirati newspaper The National, President Obama had vetoed it in 2016, whilst in March 2017, the Saudis got cold feet due to fears that the plan was “an indication of [the Emirates’] attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen”. Now, it seems, it is finally under way.

 

The following day, the red sea town of Khokha, in Hodeidah province, was captured by Emirati forces and their Yemeni assets, backed by Saudi airstrikes. Gulf News reported that “Colonel Abdu Basit Al Baher, the deputy spokesperson of the Military Council in Taiz, told Gulf News that the liberation of Khokha would enable government forces and the Saudi-led coalition to circle Hodeida from land and sea”. The day after that, Houthi positions in Al Boqaa, between Khokha and Hodeidah, were taken by Emirati-backed forces.

 

The following Sunday, 10th December, Boris Johnson met with the Emirati crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, where he “underlined the depth of strategic relations between the two countries and his country’s keenness on enhancing bilateral cooperation”, before attending another “Quartet committee” meeting with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts and the US acting secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The four of them “agreed to hold their meetings periodically, with the next meeting scheduled for the first quarter of 2018.”

 

This intensive activity in the space of just two weeks, bookended by high-level meetings of the ‘quartet’ on either side, is clearly coordinated. But what it heralds is truly horrifying. Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.

 

When an attack on Hodeidah was being contemplated back in March 2017, aid agencies and security analysts alike were crystal clear about its impact. A press release from Oxfam read: “Reacting to concern that Hodeidah port in Yemen is about to be attacked by the Saudi-led coalition, international aid agency Oxfam warns that this is likely to be the final straw that pushes the country into near certain famine…Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Chief Executive said: “If this attack goes ahead, a country that is already on the brink of famine will be starved further as yet another food route is destroyed…An estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food comes into Hodeidah port. If it is attacked, this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies – the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine.” The point was reiterated by the UN’s World Food Programme, whilst the UN International Organisation for Migration warned that 400,000 people would be displaced were Hodeidah to be attacked.

 

“The potential humanitarian impact of a battle at Hodeidah feels unthinkable,” Suze Vanmeegen, protection and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN recently. “We are already using words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘horrendous’ to describe the crisis in Yemen, but any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I’m not using hyperbole.”

 

In the Independent, Peter Salisbury  noted that it is by no means certain that taking Hodeidah will be easy” as the (then) “Houthi-Saleh alliance is well aware of the plan” and preparing accordingly. He added that “While the Saudi-led coalition claims that taking the port would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the medium term, aid agencies fret that the short-term effect of cutting off access to a major port could be a killing blow to some of Yemen’s starving millions.” The Jamestown foundation were even more wary, writing that the city’s capture would be impossible without major US involvement and that  “Even with U.S. assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military.” Yet the US’s current efforts to argue that Houthis are being supplied with Iranian missiles via Hodeidah may well be aimed at legitimising just such direct US involvement in an attack on the port. After all, continues Jamestown, “the Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port — where supplies trickle through — the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission.”

 

This, then – the ramping up of the ‘weapon of starvation’ – is the ultimate end of this new phase in the war. Basic humanity demands it be vigorously opposed.

An edited version of this article was originally published by Middle East Eye

 

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Yemen: The UK-US-Saudi war enters a new genocidal phase

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Two-and-a-half years of a lethal blockade and non-stop bombardment have produced almost nothing in the way of territorial gains in the West’s Saudi-executed war against the Yemeni nation. The latest tightening of the blockade is an obscene and desperate attempt to postpone its inevitable defeat.

 

The war against Yemen – sponsored by the West and executed by their ever-loyal Saudi fall guys – is going badly. Very badly.

When the Saudis began their bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country, named ‘Decisive Storm’, in March 2015, they promised a ‘limited’ mission. In reality, it has proved to be seemingly limitless and completely indecisive. A Harvard study estimates the Saudis are spending $200million per day on this war, driving their military budget up to $87billion, the third highest in the world.  But they remain nowhere near achieving their stated goal of defeating the Houthi-led resistance and recapturing the capital, Sanaa. Indeed, Hadi, the ‘President’ the Saudis are supposedly supporting, is still holed up in Riyadh,apparently unable to set foot in his own country, such is the depth of popular animosity towards him.

Meanwhile, the ‘coalition’ which Saudi Arabia purports to lead is falling apart. Qatar – the world’s richest country in terms of per capita income, who were supposed to bankroll a large chunk of the war – pulled out long ago; whilst the Pakistani parliament – whose allotted role was to provide the ground troops – unanimously vetoed the proposal last year. Meanwhile, in the South, the Emiratis are backing forces hostile to the very President the war purports to be defending. Indeed, Hadi’s own troops are now complaining that the Saudis and Emiratis are actually bombing them. Yes, the ‘legitimate government’ of President Hadi – the one the whole operation is supposedly being fought in support of – is now itselfbeing targeted by the aggressors, with Hadi accusing the Emirati crown prince ofacting like an occupier. Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel peace prize-winning activist, even suggested that “ the Saudi-led air strikes have killed more fighters of the national army than Houthis.” Furthermore, the war has massively expanded Al Qaeda’s base in the country, and provided a new one for ISIS. Whilst this is not an immediate problem for Saudi Arabia in itself – after all, the more sectarian forces come to the fore, the less likely Yemen will be able to unite and pose a threat to Al Saud – but is nevertheless a real potential danger for the future, should those forces decide to turn their experience and weaponry on the kingdom itself. The Saudis seem to be, belatedly, recognising this, recently branding as ‘Al Qaeda terrorists’ one of the biggest Salafi groups in the country, the Abu Abbas brigade – after years of arming its men.

Indeed, the war is going so badly that even the Saudis themselves are now privately saying they want out. Leaked emails last August revealed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who as defence minister was responsible for initiating the war in March 2015 – is keen to end the war. Yet still the war continues. London-based Yemeni Safa al-Shami told me that “The Saudis are in trouble; they don’t want [the war] to continue anymore. But they are being told ‘you have to finish the mission to the end’.” By this analysis, far from ‘turning a blind eye’ to a ‘Saudi war’, the West are positively demanding that a reluctant Saudi Arabia continue its futile and murderous campaign.

And this campaign, already characterised by a brutally callous attitude to the Yemeni population, has just reached a new level of terror. Humiliated by the firing of a Houthi missile into Riyadh on November 5th – demonstrating that, despite years of pummelling, the Houthis are now stronger than ever – the Saudis announced that their blockade would henceforth become total, with entry of allgoods to the country – via land, sea or air – completely ended. Medicins san Frontier verified the following week, that all their humanitarian flights into the country had been blocked. The Saudis then announced that some of the minor ports would be reopened, but only those in government-held areas. The country’s biggest port, Hodeidah, on which 80% of the population depend, remains closed, and this week, the Saudis bombed the capital’s airport again, preventing aid delivery.

Even in it’s previous, partial, form, the blockade’s results have been truly sickening. Hodeidah’s capacity has been massively crippled since its four cranes were destroyed by coalition airstrikes in 2015, and the ‘coalition’ has prevented replacements being installed ever since. In addition, ships have been delayed, often for months, or turned back altogether for no explicable reason other than to punish the populations of Houthi-controlled areas. This siege – against a country dependent on imports for over 80% of its food, fuel and medicine – is nothing less than genocidal. Save the Children reported this week that 130 Yemeni children are now dying every day from extreme hunger or disease, with 50,000 killed this year alone. Meanwhile, the cholera epidemic – triggered by a combination of the war’s crippling of water sanitation systems and the Hadi government’s decision to block payments to all waste, sewage and health workers in Houthi-controlled areas – became the biggest in recorded history last month, with almost 900,000 infected by the disease. The previous biggest epidemic, still underway in Haiti, took seven years to reach 800,000 cases. Yemen surpassed that number in just six months.

Yet, with two-thirds of the population – over 18 million people – now dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival, even these shocking figures are set to escalate very quickly. Seven million people are at immediate risk of famine. If this new total ban on humanitarian aid to the country’s biggest air and sea ports is maintained, they will die. These are the depths to which the West is prepared to push Saudi Arabia in its futile drive to permanently destroy the ‘Yemeni threat’.

The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has been very clear. “I have told the [UN Security] Council that unless those measures are lifted … there will be a famine in Yemen. It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year, where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims.”

Britain and the USA are driving the Saudis to unleash the world’s biggest famine for years against a totally captive population. Yet, as far as Western media is concerned, this is all totally un-newsworthy. The wilful starving to death of 130 children per day for the whole of this year is a footnote, at best, to this week’s rumours about Brexit or Trump’s latest absurd vulgarity. When I met Safa Al-Shami, she asked me, “Where is the media in all of this? How many pictures have we seen from Syria, from Iraq; where is Yemen in all of that? The media should start talking about this!” But she was  also clear that this lack of coverage is no excuse for a lack of action, at least not in Britain. “Look at how the British people marched and demonstrated because Tony Blair declared war against Iraq. The British people need to realise that this war in Yemen is part of the same dirty game. They have to do something. I blame the British people because they are educated and they know. The Americans are ignorant.” The horrors inflicted on Yemen by the British have deep historical precedents – it was 50 years ago this month that British forces finally withdrew from Aden, the Yemeni port they had colonised in 1839. Indeed, the country is embedded enough in the national consciousness to be the subject of a new BBC drama, whitewashing and glorifying the British colonisation of Yemen just as they whitewash the British role there today.

And yet the British still like to think of Boris Johnson as some kind of affable buffoon. The truth is, he and the entire UK cabinet are child murderers on the most monstrous level. They, along with all those parliamentarians who voted to continue this vicious war, must be stopped, held to account and brought to justice.

An edited version of this piece was originally published by RT.

Yemen’s peace talks failed because the aggressors wanted them to fail

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This article was originally published in June 2015 in Middle East Eye.

The Yemen peace talks in Geneva broke down last week before they even got underway – indeed, the delegations never even made it into the same room, let alone reaching an agreement. That this was so came as no great surprise either to observers or participants of the disastrous war in Yemen. But in all the talk of ‘mutual recriminations’ and ‘intransigence on both sides’, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these talks failed because the aggressors – that is, the Saudi-led and British-US sponsored ‘coalition’ bombing the country – wanted them to fail.

The central fact is that the ceasefire proposed by UN Secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon – a basic condition for peace talks everywhere – was blocked by the Saudis. The Houthis, naturally enough, refused to negotiate whilst the Saudis were still bombing. The Saudis refused to stop bombing until the Houthis withdrew from all the cities they captured during the war. In other words, whilst the Houthis sought a mutual ceasefire, the Saudis demanded nothing less than abject surrender as the precondition for negotiations. Given that the Houthis have suffered very few territorial losses since the Saudis began bombing in March, this was obviously never going to happen.

The Saudis’ Yemeni allies – forces loyal to exiled President Hadi (who came to power in 2012 following an election in which he was the sole candidate) – clearly shared their backers’ bad faith in relation to the talks. As Medhat al-Zahedwrites in Al Ahram Weekly:

“In response to Ki-moon’s appeal for a two-week humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Yemeni government in exile adopted a far from conciliatory tone. Ramadan was a month for jihad and did not require the fighting to stop, the foreign minister said …Opposition to a truce was stronger still from Ahmed Al-Masiri, the leader of the Southern Resistance forces that are fighting the Houthis and regiments from the Yemeni army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the ground… He rejected the idea of a humanitarian truce, saying it was “out of the question during Ramadan and after Ramadan”. “Ramadan is a holy month in which jihad is permissible,” he said…The conference got off to a heated start, with the Yemeni delegation brandishing Riyadh-inspired slogans. “We came to speak about implementing the UN Security Council Resolution, not to negotiate,” it said. “The task is to reinstate the government and withdraw the militias.” The rigidity of the Yemeni government and its Saudi backer stems from the fact that they have opposed the negotiations from the outset. They have insisted on the term “consultation” and originally pushed for Riyadh as the venue. “We agreed [to come to Geneva] to please the UN, so that they don’t say we are against peace or that we are stubborn,” Al-Masiri said.”

The anti-Houthi side, in other words, had no intention of either negotiating or accepting a ceasefire themselves, but went to Geneva simply to allow the ongoing war to be spun in such a way that places the blame solely on the Houthis.

In fact, this deliberate scuppering of any chance of a negotiated settlement in favour of continued war and chaos mirrors precisely the start of the Saudi bombing campaign itself. A month after the bombing began, it was revealed that “Operation Decisive Storm” had been initiated just as Yemen’s warring parties were on the verge of signing a power-sharing agreement that could have ended the country’s civil war. As Jamestown Foundation noted: “According to the former UN Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, negotiations between all major stakeholders in Yemen were nearing an interim conclusion on a power sharing agreement when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 25 (Wall Street Journal, April 26). Despite the Houthis’ push into south Yemen, representatives from the south remained engaged in negotiations. The commencement of aerial strikes by Saudi Arabia and its partners ended the negotiations and led to a dramatic escalation of violence between the Houthis and southern militias, who, with the support of Saudi Arabia, were determined to reverse the gains made in the south by the Houthis and their allies.”

The question, then, is ‘why’? Why would Saudi Arabia gratuitously extend a destabilising war on their own Southern border – and continue to do so even when it had become thoroughly apparent that their ‘Decisive’ Storm was anything but?

The answer is not simply that they want to prevent ‘Shia’ influence in Yemen’s government, as is often claimed – as if it is self-evident that a ‘Sunni’ government would be against a ‘Shia’ one. This analysis is typical of the way in which orientalist Western journalism continues to attempt to ‘naturalise’ and reify religious and ethnic divisions in a way that suggests that sectarian intolerance is somehow in the DNA of non-Europeans. In fact, the ‘Sunni’ Saudi rulers have happily supported a Yemeni ‘Shia’ movement in the past – the forerunners of the Houthis no less – in the 1960s when the Zaydi Shia royalty was under threat from an Egyptian-backed republican movement: a conflict in which the Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran were on the same side. The Saudi involvement in Yemen is not about some kind of age-old sectarian identity – it is about strategy, a specific strategy that is in fact very new, dating back to the middle of the last decade, when the Saudi-Israeli-US-British alliance decided to channel billions of dollars into sectarian death squads that would be unleashed against the growing resistance axis spearheaded by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The Houthis, by threatening the regional base of one of the most powerful of these groups – Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula – were a threat to this strategy. The chaos arising from the Saudi intervention, meanwhile, has provided the perfect conditions for its spread.

 

Yemen and Britain’s deep-seated culture of duplicity and lying

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This piece was originally published in August 2017 in Middle East Eye. 

Last Thursday was the last day of the current UK parliamentary session, before its summer recess. This made it the date for a particularly obnoxious new British tradition called ‘take out the trash day’. The UK government is obliged to issue all its public reports before the end of the parliamentary year; but to avoid scrutiny from MPs, the government now regularly withholds any potentially embarrassing reports until the very last day of that session. Then it can release them safe in the knowledge that there will be no time left for MPs to examine them, and no opportunity to question ministers over them.

So having issued very little information over the preceding weeks, once MPs were heading back to their constituencies, the government took the opportunity to releasedozens of reports and ministerial statements detailing everything from cuts to police, to the revolving door between cabinet ministers and private corporations, to the millions in legal fees the government spent attempting to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. Buried deep amongst them was a Foreign Office report on the state of human rights in 30 countries deemed to be of ‘priority concern’. What makes the report embarrassing to Britain, however, is that 20 of these countries are major customers of British arms exports; with Saudi Arabia, of course, topping the list. The Saudis, whose mass executions, public lashings and restrictions on women’s rights are all detailed in the report, increased their UK weapons purchases from Britain by 11,000% following the start of their bombing campaign against Yemen in March 2015, and have purchased more than £3.3billion worth since then. Those weapons have played a major role in pushing Yemen to its current catastrophic situation, facing the fastest-growing cholera epidemic since records began, with 7 million people on the verge of famine. No wonder the UK does not want to draw attention to what is being facilitated by its relationship with the Saudis. It is right to be ashamed.

As well as downplaying Saudi atrocities, however, we also learned last Thursday that the UK government has been exaggerating its aid contribution to Yemen. In the most recent Commons debate on Yemen on 5th July, International Development minister Rory Stewart gave a figure he had inflated by 30%; his department used ‘take out the trash day’ to issue a correction to that figure, presumably expecting that no one would notice. In that, they seem to have been correct; I have been unable to find a single press report mentioning it. But perhaps lying to parliament about Yemen no longer qualifies as news – after all, it seems to have become standard practice for ministers.

By early 2016, with atrocities mounting in Yemen – such as airstrikes against three Medicins Sans Frontiers hospitals in as many months – some MPs began challenging the government’s policy, concerned in particular that British weapons were being used to carry out war crimes. Every time he was questioned on the issue, however, then-UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond insisted, in the face of copious evidence, that “we have assessed there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition”. This claim, or variations of it, was repeated by ministers to parliament six times. But then, on ‘take out the trash day’ 2016, the Foreign Office effectively admitted that it had been a lie.  What Hammond should have said, said the FCO in the six ‘corrections’ they issued, was that “we have not assessed that there has been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition”. And that was because such an assessment – an assessment the government had been claiming all year to have carried out and which exonerated the Saudis – had never been made.

Britain is up to its neck in Yemen: it is the major supplier of the bombs dropped on Yemen, and of the jets used to drop them; it provides diplomatic cover to the Saudis (such as repeatedly blocking an independent investigation into Saudi war crimes); it supports the starvation blockade of the country; it provides training and logistical assistance to the Saudi armed forces; and it has 125 soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia, including six officers based in the Saudi command and control HQ‘assisting with target selection’. Indeed, Britain may well have officers embedded in the Saudi army itself, given 2015’s ‘take out the trash day’ admission that Britain has 177 military personnel embedded within the armed forces of several other, undisclosed, countries. Yet ministers continue to lie to parliament that Britain is ‘not a party’ to the war in Yemen. As Mark Curtis has noted, this line was even repeated on the very day the British government disclosed that the Saudis used five different types of British bombs and missiles on Yemen.

The brazenness of the UK’s lies about its role in Yemen is underpinned by a tight secrecy which it hopes will prevent most of its duplicity ever being discovered.

Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia have always been kept as obscure as possible, with the government regularly suppressing its own investigations and reports into the matter; the current refusal to release a Home Office report on terrorism funding lest it embarrass the Saudi and British governments has many precedents. In 2006, Tony Blair personally shut down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into a billion-pound bribery case involving British Aerospace and a Saudi prince, on the grounds it could endanger ‘national security’. And in 2014 Theresa May signed a secret ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayaf which the UK has consistently refused to make public. This was just months before the British-Saudi war on Yemen was unleashed.

Secrecy surrounds every aspect of Britain’s Yemen operation. It was the Saudi foreign minister, not the UK, who admitted to the stationing of British officers in his country’s command and control centre. The government has refused to provide details of its export licences to Saudi Arabia. And the government informed neither public nor parliament of its decision to send the Royal Navy’s most advanced warship, HMS Daring, to the coast of Yemen last November, essentially to help shore up the blockade.

When the truth does come out, government ministers see it as their job to try to rubbish it; Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood, for example, responded to a UN report documenting more than 100 coalition airstrikes which violated international law by claiming they had been either “mistakes” by the Saudis or, astoundingly, that they had been “fabricated” by the “media-savvy” Houthis.

But, as Ian Cobain has thoroughly documented in “The History Thieves: Secrets, lies and the shaping of a modern nation”, this culture of secrecy and deception is deeply-rooted in British political life – and nowhere more to than the Foreign Office.

In 2001, a group of elderly Kenyans began the process of taking the British government to court over their treatment. All of them alleged that they had been tortured by the British during the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Writes Ian Cobain, “If the old people were telling the truth, hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu, the country’s largest ethnic group, had been incarcerated by the colonial government, abused, tortured, and not infrequently raped… [Jailers] had beaten inmates to death, and even burned men alive”. Yet the official documentation in Kenya seemed to be almost entirely lacking in anything covering the treatment of prisoners – and when the judge in the trial ordered the Foreign Office to disclose all relevants, they claimed they had nothing other than what was already held in the Kenyan archives. This was strange, as the colonial authorities had been meticulous record-keepers. Someone, it seemed, was not telling the truth.

Stories had long circulated of huge wooden crates being removed from the Kenyan archives to be flown to Gatwick nine days before independence. And then, during the trial, Oxford historian David Anderson introduced a 40-year old Foreign Office minute which suggested the Foreign Office were withholding around 1500 files on Kenyan which had never been disclosed. That was when the Foreign Office came clean. They had lied about not holding any relevant files; in fact, they finally admitted, they were indeed holding 1500 files on the last days of British rule in Kenya. Once these were handed over, they immediately corroborated all the Kenyans’ allegations; as Cobain wrote, the files “detailed the way in which suspected insurgents had been beaten to death, burned alive, raped, castrated – like two of the High Court claimants – and kept in manacles for years. Even children had been killed.” The government settled the case and paid £20million compensation to 5,228 claimants.

The case had led to the discovery of an epic cover-up. For it soon emerged that it was not only Kenya from where documents had been secretly removed. Following a instruction issued by the British colonial secretary Iain Macleod on 3rd May 1961, a massive operation of file-destroying and removal had been initiated across the entire British Empire. All files that could potentially embarrass the British government were ordered to be destroyed or removed to London – and almost 9000 such files, the government admitted in 2011, from 37 former colonies, were still being secretly held in Hanslope Park, 40 miles North of London. The government said it would clear the files for declassification and transfer to the national archives, and appointed Cambridge historian Tony Badger to oversee the process. He established that the true number of secret files was in fact more than 20,000. Yet even these ‘purged’ files had clearly themselves been purged. The Yemen files were particularly thin on the ground: Aden, which had seen a four-year long rebellion repressed with vicious brutality immediately prior to independence, had just five boxes. And when these were opened, writes Cobain, “it was found that half the files inside were personnel records of law ranking officials, while most of the remaining papers concerned agriculture”. This was not surprising, given what we now know from British civil servants in Aden, who have described what one called an “orgy of burning”. The files sent to London were, he wrote, “severely weeded”, such that “details of tribal affrays, secret counter-insurgency operations funded out of the coded-worded money bags…and many examples of less sensitive ‘keeni meeni’ are all gone, and are not duplicated elsewhere”. Keeni Meeni is the Swahili term for the ‘slithering of a snake’. It is an apt description for this entire episode of empire white-washing, indeed, for the whole operation of British imperialism, both then and now.
In truth, British foreign policy has always been a matter decided behind closed doors, with public and parliament informed as little as possible, and consulted even less. Cobain explains how Britain’s eleven-year war in Oman, begun in 1965, was not even publicly admitted until 1972, with ministers lying about the situation to parliament almost compulsively, and journalists barred from entering the country at all. He also notes how Britain’s unique system of media self-censorship – enforced by the infamous D notice committee – which covers almost all aspects of war reporting, today results in an estimated 80-90% of all relevant news reports being submitted to the committee before publication. This is an amazing level of government control of information about its wars, covert or otherwise. Moreover, we now know that the 20,000 secret files from ‘Operation Legacy’ were but the tip of the iceberg: the Foreign Office is, it has recently been discovered, actually holding at least 170,000, and possibly up to 1.2 million secret files, dating back to 1662 and taking up 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving. The Foreign Office has clearly never considered itself to be bound by the various Public Records Acts which supposedly make official documents accessible to all. In 1971, former Cabinet minister Richard Crossman claimed that “secretiveness is the real English disease and in particular the chronic ailment of British government” – and that it “ensures that the House of Commons is the worst informed legislature in the world”. Today’s war in Yemen shows he remains dismally right.

The new era of famine: made in the West

The Wider Image: Risk of famine looms in Yemen
Salem Abdullah Musabih, 6, lies on a bed at a malnutrition intensive care unit at a hospital in the Red Sea port city of Hodaida, Yemen September 11, 2016. 

The famines threatening four countries today have one thing in common: Western aggression and destabilisation.

In February of this year, the world’s first famine in six years was officially declared in South Sudan. A month later, the UN’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned the Security Council that three other countries – Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria – also stood on the brink of famine, with 20 million at risk of starving to death within months. The world, he said, was now “facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations”. Unless $4.4billion in emergency funds was raised by the end of March, warned UN Secretary General Antionio Guterres, 20 million would likely starve to death. When the deadline was reached, he had received less than a tenth of that, a paltry $423million.

The amount raised has increased then, but still stands at little above one third of the target. It is almost certain not to met, with donations dropping sharply since mid-May.

For context, the New York Times helpfully pointed out, that $4.4billion is almost exactly the same amount as Britain has made selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in the past two years – most of which have been used against the famine-stricken Yemenis – and less than 10% of the $54billion in additional spending Donald Trump just pledged for the US military.

Yemen was in the news again this week, twice. First was the announcement by the Red Cross that cholera cases in Yemen have now reached 300,000. Then came the ruling by Britain’s High Court – choosing to believe private government assurances over volumes of first-hand eyewitness accounts – that the UK government’s arming of the vicious Saudi war against the Yemeni people is perfectly above board. These two declarations are not unrelated. For it is precisely Britain’s proxy war against Yemen that has led to the medieval levels of famine and disease now sweeping the country.

Back in October 2015 the head of the International Red Cross wrote that “Yemen after five months looks Syria after five years”. Today, according to Save the Children, one Yemeni child is infected with cholera every 35 seconds. This epidemic comes hot on the heels of last year’s dengue fever outbreak, which the World Health Organisation said they struggled to control due to the “near collapse of the health system” and “disruption of water supplies” resulting from the Western-supplied bombing campaign.  Hospitals have been bombed regularly. Following Philip Hammond’s justification of bombing raids on three Yemeni hospitals in as many months, the MSF warned that targeting hospitals was now becoming the “new normal”.

Bombing of hospitals and grain distribution centres, however, is just part of the story of the West’s genocide against the Yemeni people. Yemen is dependent on imports for more than 80% of its fuel, food and medicine, and 70% of these imports come through the Huydadeh port. This port was bombed in August 2015 by the Saudi-led coalition, and has been blockaded ever since, directly creating the current situation in which 21 million suffer food shortages, including 7 million facing famine. As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions has noted, this blockade is “one of the main causes of the humanitarian catastrophe”, helping to lead to what he called  “this man-made famine”. Needless to say, this blockade – along with every aspect of the Saudi genocide in the Yemen – is fully supported by the US and Britain.

Yet Yemen is not the only place where Western policy is leading to famine.

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the independence of South Sudan. Yet, for the second year in a row, the planned celebrations have been cancelled because, in the midst of starvation and civil war, there is nothing to celebrate.

The country’s descent into famine was officially announced on 20th February this year, with 100,000 starving and a further 1 million on the brink of famine. The official criteria for a famine are that 20% of a population must be suffering “extreme food shortages”, 30% suffering acute malnutrition, and at least 1 per 5000 dying each day. Whilst those criteria are no longer being met, acute hunger has now reached 6 million, up from 5 million in February – over half the population. As in Yemen, this is a crisis of biblical proportions. As in Yemen, it is man-made. And, as in Yemen, it is the thoroughly predictable outcome of Western militarism.

The US and Britain were instrumental to the partition of Sudan in 2011, and it is precisely this partition which has bequeathed the country’s current tragedy. Just as in Libya, in the same year, a loose coalition of rebels with no unified programme were effectively placed in power by Western largesse. And just as in Libya, the inevitable collapse of this coalition has brought total devastation to the country.

The Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) was formed by rebel army colonel John Garang in 1983, and in the 1990s, under Clinton, the US began pouring millions of dollars into the insurgent movement. Although formally an uprising against the government in Khartoum, it has often relied on an appeal to ethnic chauvanism to galvanise support. According to former national committee memberDr. Peter Nyaba, for example, the movement’s very first mobilisation “that took more than ten thousand Bor youth to SPLA training camps in 1983 was not for the national agenda of liberation but to settle local scores with their neighbours, the Murles or the Nuers.” Similarly, Riek Machar’s faction of the SPLM, based mainly within the Nuer community, conducted a massacre of thousands of Dinka civilians in 1991. Dr Nyaba argues that political training was neglected in favour of, often very brutal, military training, leading to often horrific excesses against the populations under their control. After liberating an area, said Nyaba, the Movement should have

instituted “democratic reforms: a popular justice system, a new system of

education, health and veterinary services.” Such a move, he says, “would have given the SPLM the opportunity to prove itself to the people and to the world and, therefore,

to build a solid popular power base making the SPLM/A the authentic

representative of the people….the ‘New Sudan’ would have been born in the

physical and objective reality of the people, allowing the SPLM/A to acquire

political sovereignty and diplomatic recognition”. These, indeed, are the normal steps taken by genuinely successful revolutionary movements the world over. But this is not what happened. Rather, says Nyaba, the SPLM “denigrated into an agent of plunder, pillage and destructive conquest”. It was at precisely this point that the US began funding the movement, with the initial $20 million provided by Clinton soon expanding to $100 million per year under Bush’s satirically-named “Sudan Peace Act” of 2002.

Just as in Libya, the impact of such US largesse has been to enable insurgent groups to achieve their aims without providing the visionary leadership or mass organisational skills necessary to galvanise genuine mass support. Put simply, US support has rendered mass support unnecessary. Genuine revolutions – that is, revolutions attained primarily through the efforts of the masses themselves, rather than through pressure applied by external patrons – can only succeed with a visionary programme capable of winning the total commitment of the masses. Yet in South Sudan, the SPLM, thanks to US support, were able to come to power without this. The long term impact of this lack of popular, inspirational leadership has been an ideological vacuum into which have poured power struggles over patronage and resource networks.

Confident of external support, the SPLM – and its leader since Garang’s death in 2005, Salva Kiir – had no pressing need to win the support of all the tribes of the South. Without Western funding, Kiir would had to have reached out to the Nuer and the Murle and the other non-Dinka groups in order to secure enough support to force concessions from Sudan’s government. Had he done so, on the basis of a genuine mass programme capable of galvanising all the peoples of southern Sudan on a non-ethnic basis, this very programme would have formed the basis of a viable unity government following independence. However, confident of US backing, Kiir had no need to develop any of this. Instead, his clear patronage from the US enabled him to impose a false unity on his Nuer and Shilik rivals, in which his proximity to the US alone was enough to force them to fall in line if they did not want to be completely excluded from the power and the money coming his way. Political struggles for mass support were to be eclipsed by factional rivalries over who would control the flow of resources.

The same pattern has continued after independence. Assuming, correctly, that US support would continue to flow, President Kiir has had no particular need to endear himself to those outside his primary Dinka constituency, even going so far as to sack his Nuer deputy Riek Machar in 2013, triggering the latest round of civil war. This latest round of war has taken on particularly nasty ethnic dimensions, as the the SPLM’s rival factions, for years bound together by US dollars rather than by a genuine programme of unity, unravels.

Whilst Yemen’s near-famine was caused by the Western-directed bombing and blockade of that country, then, South Sudan’s actual famine is the result of years of proxy war funded by the West and the disastrous partition it produced. The situation in Nigeria is also a result of war, in this case the Boko Haram insurgency – an insurgency which owes its massive spread in recent years directly to the NATO destruction of Libya, which opened up the country’s weapons dumps to Boko Haram and its partners. Have no doubt, the latest wave of famine is a direct by-product of Western aggression – creating another 20 million victims for whom US and British governments must be brought to justice.

 

The country’s descent into famine was officially announced on 20th February this year, with 100,000 starving and a further 1 million on the brink of famine. The official criteria for a famine are that 20% of a population must be suffering “extreme food shortages”, 30% suffering acute malnutrition, and at least 1 per 5000 dying each day. Whilst those criteria are no longer being met, acute hunger has now reached 6 million, up from 5 million in February – over half the population. As in Yemen, this is a crisis of biblical proportions. As in Yemen, it is man-made. And, as in Yemen, it is the thoroughly predictable outcome of Western militarism.

 

The US and Britain were instrumental to the partition of Sudan in 2011, and it is precisely this partition which has bequeathed the country’s current tragedy. Just as in Libya, in the same year, a loose coalition of rebels with no unified programme were effectively placed in power by Western largesse. And just as in Libya, the inevitable collapse of this coalition has brought total devastation to the country.

 

The Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) was formed by rebel army colonel John Garang in 1983, and in the 1990s, under Clinton, the US began pouring millions of dollars into the insurgent movement. Although formally an uprising against the government in Khartoum, it has often relied on an appeal to ethnic chauvanism to galvanise support. According to former national committee memberDr. Peter Nyaba, for example, the movement’s very first mobilisation “that took more than ten thousand Bor youth to SPLA training camps in 1983 was not for the national agenda of liberation but to settle local scores with their neighbours, the Murles or the Nuers.” Similarly, Riek Machar’s faction of the SPLM, based mainly within the Nuer community, conducted a massacre of thousands of Dinka civilians in 1991. Dr Nyaba argues that political training was neglected in favour of, often very brutal, military training, leading to often horrific excesses against the populations under their control. After liberating an area, said Nyaba, the Movement should have

instituted “democratic reforms: a popular justice system, a new system of

education, health and veterinary services.” Such a move, he says, “would have given the SPLM the opportunity to prove itself to the people and to the world and, therefore,

to build a solid popular power base making the SPLM/A the authentic

representative of the people….the ‘New Sudan’ would have been born in the

physical and objective reality of the people, allowing the SPLM/A to acquire

political sovereignty and diplomatic recognition”. These, indeed, are the normal steps taken by genuinely successful revolutionary movements the world over. But this is not what happened. Rather, says Nyaba, the SPLM “denigrated into an agent of plunder, pillage and destructive conquest”. It was at precisely this point that the US began funding the movement, with the initial $20 million provided by Clinton soon expanding to $100 million per year under Bush’s satirically-named “Sudan Peace Act” of 2002.

 

Just as in Libya, the impact of such US largesse has been to enable insurgent groups to achieve their aims without providing the visionary leadership or mass organisational skills necessary to galvanise genuine mass support. Put simply, US support has rendered mass support unnecessary. Genuine revolutions – that is, revolutions attained primarily through the efforts of the masses themselves, rather than through pressure applied by external patrons – can only succeed with a visionary programme capable of winning the total commitment of the masses. Yet in South Sudan, the SPLM, thanks to US support, were able to come to power without this. The long term impact of this lack of popular, inspirational leadership has been an ideological vacuum into which have poured power struggles over patronage and resource networks.

 

Confident of external support, the SPLM – and its leader since Garang’s death in 2005, Salva Kiir – had no pressing need to win the support of all the tribes of the South. Without Western funding, Kiir would had to have reached out to the Nuer and the Murle and the other non-Dinka groups in order to secure enough support to force concessions from Sudan’s government. Had he done so, on the basis of a genuine mass programme capable of galvanising all the peoples of southern Sudan on a non-ethnic basis, this very programme would have formed the basis of a viable unity government following independence. However, confident of US backing, Kiir had no need to develop any of this. Instead, his clear patronage from the US enabled him to impose a false unity on his Nuer and Shilik rivals, in which his proximity to the US alone was enough to force them to fall in line if they did not want to be completely excluded from the power and the money coming his way. Political struggles for mass support were to be eclipsed by factional rivalries over who would control the flow of resources.

 

The same pattern has continued after independence. Assuming, correctly, that US support would continue to flow, President Kiir has had no particular need to endear himself to those outside his primary Dinka constituency, even going so far as to sack his Nuer deputy Riek Machar in 2013, triggering the latest round of civil war. This latest round of war has taken on particularly nasty ethnic dimensions, as the the SPLM’s rival factions, for years bound together by US dollars rather than by a genuine programme of unity, unravels.

 

Whilst Yemen’s near-famine was caused by the Western-directed bombing and blockade of that country, then, South Sudan’s actual famine is the result of years of proxy war funded by the West and the disastrous partition it produced. The situation in Nigeria is also a result of war, in this case the Boko Haram insurgency – an insurgency which owes its massive spread in recent years directly to the NATO destruction of Libya, which opened up the country’s weapons dumps to Boko Haram and its partners. Have no doubt, the latest wave of famine is a direct by-product of Western aggression – creating another 20 million victims for whom US and British governments must be brought to justice.

Britain’s century-long war against Yemen (January 2017)

YEMEN-CONFLICT

Britain has been waging war on the Yemen for almost a century, for one purpose – to keep the country weak and divided. For it is Yemen alone that has the potential to challenge the Saudi dominance of the peninsula that has served British interests so well.

Britain is backing a Saudi invasion of Yemen that has cost thousands of innocent lives. It is providing advanced weaponry to the Saudis, training their military, and has soldiers embedded with the Saudis helping with targeting; and there is suspicion that British soldiers may even be directly involved on the battlefield.

This is true of today. But it also describes exactly what was happening in the 1960s, in a shameful episode which Britain has, like so much of its colonial past, been effectively whitewashed out of history.

In 1962, following the death of Yemeni King Ahmad, Arab nationalist army officers led by Colonel Abdullah Al-Sallal seized power and declared a Republic. The Royalists launched an insurgency to reclaim power, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Britain, whilst Nasser’s Egypt sent troops to support the fledgling republican government.

In his book ‘Unpeople’, historian Mark Curtis pieces together Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Yemen between 1962 and 1969 using declassified files which – despite their public availability and the incendiary nature of their revelations – have only ever been examined by one other British historian. British involvement spanned both Conservative and Labour governments, and implicated leading members of the British government in war crimes.

Just as today, the side under attack from Britain clearly had popular support – as British officials were well aware. Christopher Gandy Britain’s top official in Yemen’s cultural capital, Taiz noted that the previous regime was “unpopular with large elements and those in many ways the best”, describing it as “an arbitrary autocracy”. Another British official, in the Prime Minister’s office, wrote that Nasser had been “able to capture most of the dynamic and modern forces in the area whilst we have been left, by our own choice, backing the forces which are not merely reactionary (that would not matter so much) but shifty, unreliable and treacherous” Even Prime Minister Harold Macmillan admitted it was “repugnant to political equality and prudence alike that we should so often appear to be supporting out of date and despotic regimes and to be opposing the growth of modern and more democratic forms of government”. Thus, wrote Curtis, “Britain decided to engage in a covert campaign to promote those forces recognised [by Britain itself] as ‘shifty’, ‘treacherous’ and ‘despotic’ to undermine those recognised as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic'”.

At the request of Mossad, MI6 appointed Conservative MP Neil MacLean to run a guerrilla war against the new Republican government. At first Britain’s role was primarily to support and equip Jordan’s involvement in the war; just as today, it was British fighter jets carrying out airstrikes on Yemen, with British military advisors embedded with their allies at the most senior level. This involvement stepped up a gear in March 1963, however, when Britain began covertly supplying weapons to the Royalist forces themselves via their Gulf allies. The following month, says MI6 biographer Stephen Dorrill, millions of pounds worth of light weapons were shipped from an RAF station in Wilstshire to the insurgents, including 50,000 rifles. At the same time, a decision was taken by Britain’s foreign minister (shortly to become Prime Minister) Alec Douglas-Home, MI6 chief Dick White and SAS founder David Stirling to send a British force to work directly with the insurgents. But to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and public accountability, this force would be comprised of mercenaries, rather than serving soldiers. SAS soldiers and paratroopers were given temporary leave to join this new force on a salary of £10,000 per year, paid by the Saudi Prince Sultan. An MI6 task force was also set up, to facilitate weapons and personnel supplies, and authorisation was given for British mercenaries to lay mines. The same time as these decisions were taken, Douglas-Home told parliament “our policy in Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country. It is not therefore our policy to supply arms to the Royalists in the Yemen”. Foreign minister Rab Butler was more uneasy with such barefaced lying, especially when evidence began circulating of exactly what Britain was up to; a memo he sent to the PM in 1964 complained that his job of rebuffing UN claims that Britain was supplying the Royalists was made slightly more difficult “since we know that this is in fact true”.

British officials also knew that their insurgency had no chance of winning. But this was not the point. As Prime Minister Macmillan told President Kennedy at the time, “I quite realise that the Loyalists will probably not win in

Yemen in the end but it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years”. What Britain wanted, he added, was “a weak government in Yemen not able to make trouble”. Nor was this only Macmillan’s personal opinion; his foreign policy advisor Philip de Zulueta wrote that “All departments appear to be agreed that the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well…our interest is surely to have the maximum confusion in the tribal areas on the Aden frontier” with Yemen.

Labour came to power in the autumn of 1964, but the policy stayed the same; indeed, direct (but covert) RAF bombing of Yemen began soon after. In addition, another private British military company Airwork Services, signed a $26million contract to provide personnel for training Saudi pilots and ground crew involved in the war. This agreement later evolved into British pilots actually carrying out bombing missions themselves, with a foreign office memo dated March 1967 noting that “we have raised no objection to their being employed in operations, though we made it clear to the Saudis that we could not publicly acquiesce in any such arrangements”. By the time the war ended – with its inevitable Republican victory – an estimated 200,000 people had been killed.

At the same time as Britain was running the insurgency in North Yemen, it was fighting a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in South Yemen – then a colonial protectorate known as the Federation of Southern Arabia. This federation comprised the port city of Aden, under the direct colonial rule of the UK, and a series of sheikhdoms in the pay of the UK in the neighbouring hinterland. Its inhabitants were desperately poor, with one British commander noting that “there is barely enough subsistence to support the population”. These were the conditions behind a major revolt against British rule that broke out in the district of Radfan in April 1964 and would not be quelled for 7 months. The methods used to do so were typically brutal, with the British High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis suggesting that soldiers be sent to “put the fear of death into the villages”. If this didn’t work, he said “it would be necessary to deliver some gun attacks on livestock or men outside the villages”, adding that “we might be able to claim that our aircraft were shooting back of [sic] men who had fired at us from the ground”. The British use of airstrikes against the risen peasants was massive: historian John Newsinger writes that in just 3 months in 1964, British jets fired 2508 rockets and 200,000 cannon rounds, whilst British bombers dropped 3504 20-pound bombs and 14 1000-pound bombs and fired 20,000 cannon rounds. The government took Trevaskis’ advice and targeted crops in what Newsinger correctly described as a “deliberate, calculated attempt to terrorise and starve them into surrender.” Although the Radfan rebellion was eventually crushed, the British lost control of the hinterland to the National Liberation forces less than three years later, swiftly followed by Aden itself.

The 1960s was not the first time Britain had aided and abetted a Saudi war against the Yemenis, however. In 1934, Ibn Saud invaded and annexed Asir – “a Yemeni province by all historical accounts” in the words of the academic and Yemen specialist Elham Manea – and forced Yemen to sign a treaty deferring their claims to the territory for 20 years. It has never been returned to Yemen and remains occupied by the Saudis to this day. Britain’s role in facilitating this carve up was significant. As Manea explains, “During this period, the real power was Great Britain. Its role was crucial in either exacerbating or containing regional conflicts….[and] in the Yemeni-Saudi war they intensified the conflict to the detriment of Yemen”. When Ibn Saud claimed sovereignty over Asir in 1930, the British, who had been neutral towards disputes between the Peninsula’s various rulers hitherto, “shifted their position, perceiving Asir as ‘part of Saudi Arabia’... This was a terrible setback for [Yemeni leader] Yihia and drove him into an agreement with the British in 1934 which ultimately sealed his total defeat.” The agreement forced Yihia to recognise British sovereignty of Aden – Yemen’s major port – for 40 years. Britain then provided military vehicles for the Saudi suppression of the Asiri revolt and subsequent occupation that followed.

So the current British-Saudi war against Yemen is in fact the third in a century. But why is Britain so seemingly determined to see the country dismembered and its development sabotaged? Strange as it may seem, the answer is that Britain is scared of Yemen. For Yemen is the sole country on the Arab peninsula with the potential power to challenge the colonial stitch-up reached between Britain and the Gulf monarchies it placed in power in the nineteenth century, and who continue to rule to this day. As Palestinian author Said Aburish has noted, the very “nature of the Yemen was a challenge to the Saudis: it was a populous country with more than half the population of

the whole Arabian peninsula, had a solid urban history and was more advanced than its new neighbour. It also represented a thorn in the side of British colonialism, a possible springboard for action against their control of Saudi Arabia and all the makeshift tributary sheikhdoms and emirates of the Gulf. In particular, the Yemen represented a threat to the British colonisation of Aden, a territory which considered itself part of a greater Yemen which had been dismembered by colonialism”. The potential power of a united, peaceful, Yemen was also highlighted by Aden’s High Commissioner Kennedy Trevaskis, who noted that, if the Yemenis took Aden, “it would for the first time provide the Yemen with a large modern town and a port of international consequence” and “economically, it would offer the greatest advantages to so poor and ill developed a country”. A peaceful, united Yemen – with over half the peninsula’s population – would threaten Saudi-British-US hegemony of the entire region. That is why Britain has, for over 80 years, sought to keep it divided and warring.  

An edited version of this article originally appeared at Middle East Eye.