Skip to main content

Tobias Ellwood showed courage in the London attack. Can he do the same in Yemen?

The Middle East minister has been a key apologist for the Saudi-led slaughter in Yemen. The instincts he showed last week are needed there

During the attack on the Palace of Westminster last week, the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood displayed both courage and compassion in trying to save the life of the murdered PC Keith Palmer.

Largely unknown to the British public until then, Ellwood became a national hero. He was raised instantly to the Privy Council and there is talk of him being given a knighthood.

Has Tobias Ellwood showed moral courage over Yemen? At the end of the day, only he can really answer that

But if democracy means anything, it means retaining our rights and our duty as concerned citizens to pass judgement on Ellwood as a minister. And his performance there has fallen far short of the courage and compassion he showed as a man.

For the last two years, Ellwood has been the minister responsible for dealing with Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

During this period, the Saudis (and their Gulf allies) have inflicted unspeakable carnage. They have bombed weddings, markets, funerals, and a large part of Yemen's architectural heritage. Countless homes have been destroyed.

Saudi-led air strike hits the home of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen on 10 May 2015 (AFP)
Officially, air strikes now account for some 40,000 human casualties, including 1,900 woman and more than 2,500 children. Many others have died through lack of medical treatment, and increasingly from famine. UNICEF estimates that a child dies every 10 minutes or so in Yemen from hunger or lack of medicine.

Implausible explanations

Throughout this pointless and unnecessary war, Ellwood has been one of the most important apologists for the Saudis - and their campaign of slaughter.

He has repeatedly insisted that there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has broken international humanitarian law. He has helped to block an independent international investigation into alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

Ellwood also misled the House of Commons on several occasions last year when he said that the British government had carried out its own assessments of Saudi conduct and concluded that there had no breaches if international humanitarian law.

How Britain's party of war gave the green light to Saudi in Yemen 
Peter Oborne
Read More »

In an excruciating moment in July 2016, Ellwood issued a scrappy statement to Parliament in which he admitted that he had not been telling the truth, and that no such assessments had been carried out. It was issued on the final day before the summer recess and with not a word of apology.

Ellwood claims his repeated failure to tell the truth was down to a "mistake". As I have explained here previously, this is an implausible explanation for the Foreign Office failure to be straightforward about the Saudi campaign of carnage in Yemen. It actually maligns the competence of serving officials who cannot defend themselves.

Mark their own homework

Of course, the prime offenders are the Saudi war machine and its murderous allies among the Gulf states. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to absolve Ellwood of all responsibility.

This is because Britain is one of the most important allies of Saudi Arabia. We have used our clout as a permanent member of the Security Council to prevent an independent UN investigation and insisted that the Saudis themselves can be relied on to make this assessment - in other words, to mark their own murderous homework.

Britain continues to allow our major defence companies to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, along with the US, sending more than $5bn worth since the conflict began.

We all know the excuses. Britain has important strategic interests in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies. Thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs in the north of England depend on British aerospace contracts with Saudi Arabia.

Our politicians insist that Britain acts as a critical friend, speaking the truth in private to our Saudi allies, while supporting them in public.

Made in Britain, tested on Yemenis: The reality of working for the bombmakers 
Read More »

I believe that Tobias Elwood is at heart a decent man. Perhaps he has indeed confronted the Saudis and sought to persuade them of the error if their ways. If so, his solicitations have had no effect.

I visited Yemen last July and saw for myself the damage that the Saudi bombers (backed by the British) have done to this remote and astonishingly beautiful country.

Dr Ahmed Yahya al-Haifi, a senior doctor in the Republic Hospital in Sanaa, told me that 25 patients a day in his hospital alone were dying unnecessarily because of a shortfall of medicines.

Peter Oborne meets residents amid the destruction in Sanaa in August 2016 (MEE/Mohammed Al-Mikhlafi)
I saw the bridges, deliberately destroyed from the air to stop aid getting through to desperately needy areas. I talked to relatives of those killed in Saudi air strikes.

I was moved to hear many people I met speak of their deep affection towards Britain, remembered fondly by older people as a colonial power, and their bewilderment that we were now supporting their Saudi assailants.

They told me they supposed our readiness to betray the Yemeni people was because of oil money and the arms trade. I couldn't disagree with them.

Double tap, double standard

I am certain that Ellwood knows all of this, and that must trouble him. Politics at a senior level often involves difficult and morally hazardous choices.

But the Saudi conduct in Yemen is not morally hazardous. It's morally repugnant. It makes all its defenders collude in war crimes.

The Saudi conduct in Yemen is not morally hazardous. It's morally repugnant. It makes all its defenders collude in war crimes

Ellwood did everything he could to save the life of one policeman horribly murdered in Westminster. But has he done enough to try and save the lives of tens of thousands of Yemenis who have been killed or maimed by the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the British?

There's a double standard here. Four people were killed and approximately 50 injured in the attack last week in London. This was terrible and the British people were rightly appalled and disgusted.

However, it is important to reflect that this sort of thing happens all the time in Yemen, and on a much larger scale, and that it is sanctioned by the British. It is hardly ever reported in the British press, and never on a front page, even though it's a British-sponsored war.

Yemeni rescue workers search for victims amid rubble after the Saudi-led coalition bombed a funeral in October 2016, killing at least 140 people (AFP)
And the heroism required to save lives in Yemen is close to superhuman because of the Saudi practice of "double tap" air strikes. This is the practice of sending a second strike deliberately to kill the rescuers of victims of a first strike.

In the northern Yemeni town of Saada, Amat al-Kareem wept as she told me how she was widowed.

Her husband, an ambulance man, had rushed to the scene of a Saudi bombing in order to pull four wounded civilians out of the rubble. They had put them into the back of the ambulance and were setting off for the hospital when the Saudis returned with a second and far more deadly attack.

It killed her husband, his colleague, along with the four wounded civilians. In all 26 people died.

The UN Security Council respectfully stood for a minute's silence to remember the victims after the London attack last Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pauses during a minute of silence at the UN Security Council on 23 March 2017 at UN Headquarters in New York (AFP)
It has never marked any of the victims of the UK-backed Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Never forget there is a connection with the atrocities we support in the Middle East and attacks in Britain.

A large part of the British establishment has always been in denial about this. For years, Tony Blair refused to accept that the 7/7 bombings had anything to do with his decision to send British troops to Iraq in 2003.

But even before the invasion, MI5 had warned that sending troops to Iraq would jeopardise the lives of British citizens back home. We don't know yet what the long-term consequences of condoning Saudi murder in Yemen will be.

Of course, we should never allow our foreign policy to be determined by domestic "blowback" or the fears of terrorism back home, but it is important that we understand that many people across the Middle East no longer believe that Britain is a peace-loving country at all.

From IRA to Islamic State: Moazzam Begg on UK's age of 'unprecedented terror'
Read More »

They don't think we are on the side of decency and tolerance. They think that we are on the side of murder and anarchy. If they are Yemeni, they are right.

Moral courage 

As Middle East minister, Tobias Ellwood has to sit down with dictators and make deals with torturers. It's a depressing job for any minister with any sense of decency.

Like all his predecessors, at least since the end of cheap oil in 1973, the central premise of our Middle Eastern policy has been never to criticise whatever faction of the dynasty of Saud is ruling the country they named after themselves. We have pretended that Saudi Arabia is a loyal ally in the "war against terror".

We ignore the fact that Saudi money bankrolled al-Qaeda and probably continues to bankroll its even more murderous successors.

The British Foreign Office has made itself dependent on a regime which fundamentally despises Britain. The regime is divided and tottering. We have no idea who will rule the country and its oil if the regime falls – or control the colossal arsenal which we have so eagerly sold it.

As Middle East minister, Tobias Ellwood is caught up in the heart of this moral quandary. No minister in any post will ever make all the right judgements. In the Middle East, judgements are harder than almost anywhere else.

We have pretended that Saudi Arabia is a loyal ally in the 'war against terror'. We ignore the fact that Saudi money bankrolled al-Qaeda

Ellwood's response to last week's terror attack in Westminster was commendable. He showed that his instincts were in the right place. He displayed physical courage.

But there is also something called moral courage. Moral courage involves making a decision which does not bring you into physical danger, but which may jeopardise your career, or cost you in some other way.

Has Tobias Ellwood showed moral courage over Yemen? At the end of the day, only he can really answer that. 

- Peter Oborne was named freelance of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

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

Photo: British Conservative Party politician Tobias Ellwood (L), who gave first aid to the fatally wounded police officer Keith Palmer, one of the casualties of the 22 March London terror attack, shakes hands with an armed police officer as he arrives at the Houses of Parliament in London on 24 March 2017 (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.