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Red Sea attacks are rooted in western colonialism and piracy

The Houthis are acting in accordance with global justice, while the UK and US are behaving like rogue states
A picture taken during a tour organised by Yemen's Houthis on 22 November 2023 shows the seized Galaxy Leader cargo ship (AFP)
A picture taken during a tour organised by Yemen's Ansar Allah on 22 November 2023 shows the seized Galaxy Leader cargo ship (AFP)

Since the Second World War, Britain has remained the unflinching junior partner of US imperialism. The latest Anglo-American bombing campaign in Yemen is no exception. 

British aggression towards Yemen, however, predates US designs. It is rooted in the twin practices of piracy and colonialism on which the British empire itself was built. 

The current attitudes of the British and the Yemenis towards each other are still shaped by the legacy of this violent history. Its shadow looms large over the strategies employed by western imperialism to conduct maritime warfare in our times. The lessons of this history inform contemporary Yemeni resistance.

Like their US counterparts, British officials are keen to justify their current bombardment of Yemen by claiming it protects international shipping from "rogue" elements, such as the Ansar Allah movement, known in the media as the Houthis. 

Couching their imperialist actions in the language of upholding international law, safeguarding global stability, and seeking economic prosperity is the outcome of a long historical process of empire-building that began with the exact opposite behaviour. 

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Compared with the US, Britain has a longer tradition of empire-building. British wealth and power were founded on piracy. Thanks to Hollywood, the better-known stage for this saga is the Caribbean. In reality, piracy's influence on the political order of empire stretched to the shores of the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent.

In the 17th century, maritime raiding by rising European powers including the Dutch, the French and, most poignantly, the British, became a convenient instrument for looting Spanish wealth that had accumulated in the "New World" through indigenous dispossession and African enslavement. 

From privateering to piracy to policing

Back then, audacious acts of British piracy ranged from Henry Morgan's sacking of the Spanish settlement of Panama to William Phips scooping monetary treasures from sunken armadas. The latter partially financed the founding of the Bank of England. These pirates were supported and celebrated by the British crown. They were affably referred to as prospectors or privateers, not pirates. The most fortunate, like Morgan and Phips, were knighted and granted political office. 

In the 18th century, British maritime power eclipsed its Spanish rival and grew on a global scale. Securing rather than disrupting maritime Atlantic trade became a requisite for consolidating empire. 

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A series of legal ordinances, including the Prize Act of 1692 and the Piracy Act of 1700, sought to regulate maritime robbery and adjudicate its lawfulness in admiralty courts. Consequently, piracy was gradually stripped of its patriotic, if not romantic, character. Over time, the size of the British navy ballooned, while the number of pirate fleets dwindled. Both phenomena were two sides of the same coin of colonial conquest.

Amid this crackdown, many pirates sailed from the Caribbean to more lucrative routes in the East along the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Britain had yet to fully subdue its Arab and Mughal opponents in that region. As a result, piracy, so long as it was against enemy ships, was tolerated and in some cases encouraged. The leading force of looting India, however, remained in the hands of the legally chartered East India Company.

If history is any indicator, the return to piracy is the ruin of global empires. Britain's glory was shattered on the shores of Yemen during the latter's war of independence

By the early to mid-19th century, Britain was becoming a leading world empire. Maritime trade routes were largely serving British economic interests. Piracy, as a concept and a practice, became wholly ascribed to the realm of the illegal and the immoral. 

Combating piracy was a means not only of securing economic advantages, but also of asserting British domination over its overseas possession, or extending that domination to new regions. Sea routes from Britain to its most prized colony, India, became a focal space for such domination. Ports along the way, from Aden to the Trucial Coast, gained strategic value. 

In the ensuing 150 years, British maritime warfare in the Red Sea, along the Omani coast and across the Gulf sought to transform these regions into a British colonial backwater. On the western bank of the Gulf, conveniently dubbed the pirate coast, the British succeeded through a series of naval campaigns and treaty arrangements to subdue and later co-opt the Arab ruling families. By the mid-20thcentury, these local powers were transformed into client sheikhdoms of British, and later US, imperialism.

Anti-colonial resistance

In contrast, Britain's persistent efforts to turn Yemen into a similar outpost of empire met with little success. A key factor was the radical tradition of anti-colonial resistance that emerged in Yemen, culminating in armed resistance in the post-World War Two age of national liberation. This legacy continues to animate today's Yemeni resistance to foreign occupation and western domination.

In the early 19th century, Aden became a coveted target of British conquest. Its location was ideal for serving as a coaling station for ships sailing between the metropole and India. In 1839, Britain's East India Company marine forces occupied the port town under the pretext of combating piracy.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 rendered Aden more indispensable. A lot of maritime trade between Europe and East Asia was redirected away from the Cape of Good Hope and into the Red Sea. Aden stood at the mouth of the strait of Bab al-Mandab, the gateway to Suez.

In the next 150 years, Britain employed its arsenal of colonial methods, ranging from diplomatic divide-and-rule tactics to military brute force, in order to maintain its hold on Aden. It failed, however, to expand its rule well into the hinterland. 

A protester lifts a portrait of Houthi leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi during a rally against Israel and the US in Sanaa on 19 January 2024 (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)
A protester lifts a portrait of Ansar Allahi leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi during a rally against Israel and the US in Sanaa on 19 January 2024 (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

This led to uneven development and a fragmented political order across Yemen. From day one, and despite the typical collaboration of certain local elites, Yemeni resistance to British occupation waned and waxed, but never ceased. It reached its high point in the 1960s as part of the global rise in anti-colonial resistance to western imperialism by the peoples of the Third World.

Unlike other world-renowned struggles of national liberation in Algeria, Vietnam or Cuba, Yemen's legacy of national liberation remains under-appreciated. For some historians, Yemen was Britain's Vietnam. 

In 1963, the country's National Liberation Front (NLF) launched an armed struggle with rural support from the mountainous region of Radfan. The British designated the NLF as a terrorist organisation and responded by burning villages and other acts of collective violence. British punitive campaigns did little, however, to dampen Yemeni resistance.

The radical forces of South Yemeni resistance adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology that envisioned a socialist future for a liberated Yemen. Their uncompromising stance towards British occupation led to a spectacular victory in 1967. British attempts to negotiate some economic or military role in post-independence Yemen, akin to France's in Algeria, were short-lived and largely unsuccessful, with the British paying over $15m as indemnity. This left a painful memory among British officials that lingers today. 

Roles reversed

Britain's colonial legacy and humiliating defeat in Yemen were not lost on Ansar Allah leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi. In a recent televised speech, he warned the UK against any illusions it harboured to recolonise Yemen. Such illusions, he said, "are the signs of a mental illness whose cure is in our hands: ballistic missiles that burn ships at sea". 

The fact that Yemeni actions are motivated by calls to let through humanitarian aid to Palestinians and to stop Israel's genocide in Gaza marks a revolutionary turn in the history of maritime warfare. As noted, piracy was never a purely private act divorced from political power or state warfare. But almost without exception, it has involved some element of banditry and personal gain. 

The surge in maritime raiding between 2007 and 2009 along the coast of East Africa is a case in point. These raids had a political dimension. They were reportedly tied to the Somali militant group al-Shabab, and came after a long period of US aggression against the Somali people. 

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But these raids also involved requests for ransom from targeted commercial ships. There is no evidence of any monetary motivation in the case of the Ansar Allah operations. Quite the contrary, these actions are based on explicit political and humanitarian objectives, and haven't so far led to any civilian deaths. 

Another difference between the Somali and Yemeni cases is the response of international actors. In the former case, more than 20 countries sent naval forces to counter the raids, including the US, UK, France, India, China and Russia. This consensus is absent today. The schism between the US and its western allies on one hand, and Russia and China on the other, means that the outcome of the US-UK confrontation with Yemen's rebels will impact the future of maritime warfare across the high seas. 

In this battle, the roles are reversed. The rebels are acting in line with preserving the rule of justice, and in accordance with the will of their people. Their military resistance is coupled with large-scale peaceful demonstrations.

In contrast, the self-styled democracies of the UK and US are behaving like rogue empires, seeking to violate international humanitarian law, and doing so against the will of large segments of their populations who are calling for a permanent ceasefire. 

If history is any indicator, the return to piracy is the ruin of global empires. Britain's glory was shattered on the shores of Yemen during the latter's war of independence. Today, the US is fighting its largest navy battle since WWII in the Red Sea. Will this new battle mark the irreversible decline of Britain's successor across the Atlantic - and the demise of its settler-colonial ally in Palestine?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Hicham Safieddine is Canada Research Chair in the History of the Modern Middle East and Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. He is author of Banking on the State: The Financial Foundations of Lebanon (SUP, 2019), editor of Arab Marxism and National Liberation: Selected Writings of Mahdi Amel (Brill, 2020), and co-editor of The Clarion of Syria: A Patriot’s Call against the Civil War of 1860 (CUP, 2019).
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