“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.” These were the words of the then-Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in March 2015.
He was speaking in reaction to the news that the Saudi military had began its intervention in Yemen, and was using UK fighter jets to do it. It’s three years later and the bombardment is still ongoing, and, unfortunately, Hammond’s promise has been broken.
In that time, thousands of people have been killed as a direct consequence of the war, with many more dying as a result of the humanitarian catastrophe. Save the Children estimates that 50,000 children died from extreme hunger and disease in 2017 alone.
The collapse of infrastructure has seen the spread of totally preventable killers, such as cholera. Over one million people have been diagnosed with the deadly disease, in what Oxfam has called the worst outbreak on record.
None of this has encouraged any restraint on the part of the Saudi military. Last week, UK the government acknowledged that there it is aware of 350 possible breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) that have been carried out by Saudi forces.
Despite their own analysis suggesting that violations of IHL have become commonplace, Theresa May and her colleagues have shown no sign of reconsidering their support.
On the contrary, the UK has licensed £4.6 billion worth of fighter jets, bombs and missiles to the regime since the intervention began. These are the same aircraft that are flying over Yemen right now, and the same bombs and missiles that are being dropped from the sky.
The fawning visit was accompanied by a garish advertising campaign as the Crown Prince tried to establish himself as a liberal reformer. Theresa May did her best to help him whitewash the atrocities and abuses being committed in Yemen.
Promising a ‘new era in bilateral relations’, she posed on the steps of Downing Street and gave him the powerful images and photo-opportunities he had come for.
It wasn’t just Downing Street that allowed itself to be used as a propaganda vehicle, it was also the Royal Family, with the Crown Prince enjoying lunch with the Queen and dinner with Prince William and Prince Charles.
All of this was part of a well-choreographed attempt to win favour and sell more weapons. Sure enough, all the grovelling paid off. As the Crown Prince’s flight out of London took off it was announced that the Saudi and UK governments were one step closer to signing off on another major fighter jet deal.
If the deal goes ahead it will mean billions of pounds for BAE Systems, which will be producing the jets, and 48 more aircraft for the Saudi military. It will also mean more pain for the people of Yemen. As the war enters its fourth year the chances of a peaceful settlement look dire. The government is always keen to point to the aid it is providing, but that pales in significance to the billions that have been spent on war.
There is no doubt where public opinion stands. When the Crown Prince visited London, he was met with large protests, and poll after poll has shown a growing opposition the uncritical political and military relationship he enjoys with Downing Street. One poll, undertaken last month by Populus, found that only 6% of UK adults support arms sales to the Saudi dictatorship.
When the history books are written, and people look back on the appalling war, they will see it as a totally preventable humanitarian catastrophe. It is one that has been fuelled by those that have ignored the suffering and pursued arms sales at all costs.
Theresa May is leading an unstable government and might not be in office for much longer, but, regardless of when she leaves, the human cost of the war will outlast her tenure. For those suffering and grieving the loss of loved ones, the cost of the war will last a lot longer than the fleeting pride that she and the Crown Prince must have felt as they stood together on the steps of Number 10.
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