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Yemen: UK should follow Biden's lead and end support for Saudi war

The Saudi-led war on Yemen, fuelled by American and British arms, has led to the world's worst humanitarian crisis

Yemeni 10-year-old girl Ahmadia Abdo, who weighs ten kilograms due to acute malnutrition, sits on her bed at a camp for the internally displaced in the northern Hajjah Governorate, on 23 January, 2021 (AFP)

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that he was “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen” waged by a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia.

We should pause and take this in. Washington’s reversal on Yemen could prove to be one of the most important events in global politics for years, offering a way out of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It certainly represents a major humiliation for both the Saudi royals and their other key arms supplier, the United Kingdom. 

Their vocal stances on wars in Syria and Libya contrast with a near-universal silence on Yemen, where the worst atrocities were being committed by our allies

All parties to Yemen’s multi-sided conflict are guilty of serial violations of international law, but the Saudis have been the leading culprits. Roughly two-thirds of civilian deaths have been due to indiscriminate coalition bombing. The blockade imposed by the Saudis and their partners is the leading cause of a humanitarian crisis that has claimed more than 85,000 infant lives, according to Save the Children.

This violence is our violence too. The Saudi war has overwhelmingly been an aerial one, waged by military jets that are operationally dependent on British and American support. Washington and London could have pulled the plug on this slaughter at any time over the past six years; they chose not to. The UN has warned that this active complicity leaves the Saudis’ western allies exposed to war crimes charges themselves.

Biden framed his announcement as a return to American values after the departure of former President Donald Trump. This is obviously disingenuous. The Saudi intervention began under former President Barack Obama, with whom Biden served as vice president, with an influential voice on foreign policy.

Obama sustained the Saudi bombing campaign until his last day in office, even as the UN documented “systematic” attacks on civilians. For this, State Department lawyers warned in 2016 that US officials could be guilty of war crimes.

Bipartisan opposition

Opposition to the war became bipartisan on Capitol Hill in recent years, not because of enlightened American “values”, but because it had gradually become a political embarrassment and a military failure. The former Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, credits “the tireless activists from Yemen and the whole world over [whose] global solidarity and relentless demands forced this outcome”. 

Anglo-American advocates of “humanitarian intervention” come out of the past six years rather less well. Their vocal stances on wars in Syria and Libya contrast with a near-universal silence on Yemen, where the worst atrocities were being committed by our allies, with our help. 

Then-US President Barack Obama, flanked by then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-UN ambassador Samantha Power, are pictured in New York in 2016 (AFP)
Then-US President Barack Obama, flanked by then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-UN ambassador Samantha Power, are pictured in New York in 2016 (AFP)

Perhaps the leading such liberal voice, diplomat Samantha Power, will now play an important part in the relief effort as Biden’s new head of USAID. Here, she has an opportunity to atone for her previous role as US ambassador to the UN under Obama, where she provided nearly two years of crucial diplomatic cover to the Saudis as they bombed and starved civilians.

The withdrawal of US support is a serious humiliation for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The intervention in Yemen was one of his first initiatives in government - a bid to demonstrate Saudi power and resolve in the region. In the end, it only demonstrated the kingdom's geopolitical impotence. What was supposed to be a short campaign instead degenerated into a quagmire, and has now been effectively called off by the regime’s superpower patron. 

Military leeway

Biden’s precise choice of words - ending support for “offensive operations” - may give the Saudis some military leeway. As far as they are concerned, their entire war is a defensive one. But Biden’s demand for a UN-backed ceasefire and his appointment of a US envoy to the Yemen conflict are both indications that he wants the war over quickly, irrespective of whether the Saudis lose face in the process.

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The about-face from Washington leaves the UK - Riyadh’s other leading accomplice - out on a limb. London has never shown any inclination to end its involvement in the war, but its hand has now effectively been forced. 

While Biden on the presidential campaign trail was castigating Saudi Arabia as a “pariah”, accusing the regime of “going in and murdering children” in Yemen and vowing to “make them pay the price”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was dismissing Saudi atrocities as “isolated incidents” and ploughing ahead with arms sales in defiance of a court ruling that they were unlawful. 

British-built jets play such an important role for the Royal Saudi Air Force that a withdrawal of UK support, either by a change in policy or by a change of government in 2017 or 2019, would have seriously impeded the Saudi war effort. It would undoubtedly have saved many lives.

Now, history will record that Britain continued perpetuating the carnage to the bitter end, only to be shown up by its closest ally. At the time of writing, four days on from Biden's announcement, the UK foreign office has issued no statement in response.

The sheepish silence speaks volumes. 

Political roadmap

The change in US policy will not end the war by itself, merely begin a de-escalation in which every side will have to play its part, not least the Houthis. 

Even a UN-backed ceasefire will only be a first step on a delicate journey toward a more durable, long-term settlement. What Yemen needs now is what it needed six years ago when this futile conflict broke out: a political roadmap to a sustainable future for all its communities, formulated through an inclusive, credible process of national dialogue, free from all foreign interference (not just from the West).

We in the UK can play a supportive role by helping to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that our actions have helped to create - not through “aid”, but through a comprehensive package of reparations. This should come alongside a serious, humble effort to reflect on what has become without doubt the most shameful, destructive chapter in our nation's recent history since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

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

David Wearing
David Wearing is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and a specialist on UK foreign relations in the Middle East. He is the author of ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain’ and has contributed comment and analysis for the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, Sky News and others.