Why do we keep funding war in the Middle East?

Middle East Arms Trade Bullets

Known as the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, the war in Yemen has been ongoing since 2014, continuing a seemingly perpetual trend of violence in the Middle East. It has left 4 million citizens displaced, 24 million in need of assistance, and has killed over a quarter of a million people. The war began when a group of insurgents called Houthis revolted against the government, taking control of Sana’a – the states capital. Their demands included lower fuel prices, and a new government. The Houthis successfully seized the presidential palace in 2015, leading the sitting president Abd Rabhu Mansour Hadi and the government to resign. Hadi had ascended to the presidency following the 2011 Yemeni Uprising. However, the Houthis claim his mandate has ended as he was only meant to be in power for a transitional period after 2011. Since then, the war has dragged on, but Yemen is a case study in how Middle Eastern conflict isn’t just some bizarre phenomenon centred on a handful of geographically close countries. No, it has a lot to do with the power of money, foreign influence, and the arms trade that lines the pockets of the UK and US, amongst other things.

Why has the conflict in Yemen lasted for such a long time?

The war has been prolonged and complicated by three factors, the former two going beyond western nations selling arms to powerful actors in the Middle East. Firstly, the civil war is somewhat along religious lines, with the Houthis largely supporting Shi’a Islam, and the Hadi government supporting Sunni Islam. Secondly, although the Houthis and Hadi’s are two main groups, a myriad of domestic actors are involved in the conflict, with parts of the country also controlled by separatists in the South, and regions under the control of Al-Qaeda. Finally, foreign interference in the region has exacerbated violence and dragged out this humanitarian crisis. Below is a map of the situation in Yemen in 2020, yet as the political landscape of the country changes rapidly, you can view an interactive, up to date, map of the region by clicking here.

Saudi Arabia has been involved in the Yemen conflict since its inception, and has led of a coalition of gulf states that support the Hadi government. This is because Saudi’s political rival Iran supports the Houthis, and so the domestic war in Yemen has become a battlefield between Iran and Saudi’s interests. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Hadi government comes in the form of arms and military spending. Saudi itself was the world’s largest arms importer from 2015 – 2019. This demand for military equipment is fuelled by their interests in the war in Yemen. Unfortunately, this demand has often been met by the US and the UK.

Washington and Westminster: bankrolling the conflict

Despite being Vice President in the Obama administration – that perpetuated the war in Yemen – one of Biden’s key electoral campaigns was a promise to end it. His predecessor Trump was enthusiastically for Saudi’s side in the war, and the US sold $64.1 billion worth of weapons to the country between 2015 – 2020. Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo was adamant that the Saudis would win, and he led an effort to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation. This has since been lifted upon Joe Biden entering office. Another aspect of Trump involvement that is being scrutinised by Biden is the $290 million worth of bombs sales authorised by Trump in the last few weeks of his presidency.

Biden argues that the previous administrations sale of arms has not met the legal requirements, as the reason behind the sales could not be justified. He also announced an end to US support for any Saudi led offensive operations in the Middle East and stated that his administration wished to accelerate diplomatic relations to end the conflict. This vague wording does not set out what is meant by offensive operations and has not been followed up with any concrete policy. Additionally, Biden stated “we’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” So, it is difficult to see how the withdrawal of the US from the conflict will play out. One positive is the US’s temporary freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, however this must not be overstated. There has been praise for Biden in the media recently, with CNN calling his policy on Yemen a ‘historical shift’ in US foreign policy. Yet the economic benefits of arms trade have not disappeared overnight, and Biden would have to enact a lot of change to reverse the damage that the Obama and Trump administration caused in Yemen.

Unlike the US, the UK is refusing to even acknowledge that something must be changed in Yemen. They resumed unrestricted arms sales and, from July to September, authorised £1.39 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Westminster stated it was independent of Washington’s position, and has made no move to withdraw funding or support for the Saudi government. It is easy when discussing the financial figures of arms sales to forget about the human impact this money has. Saudi Arabia’s bombing is indiscriminate and has killed many civilians. Below is a video of the devastating impact these airstrikes have had on one Yemeni family:

The US and the UK supply the planes, the bombs, and help train the pilots that engage in these attacks. War, disease, and hunger are widespread across the country, and these issues have only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yemen previously imported a lot of its goods, but the aerial warfare has restricted sea, land, and airports, so the people of Yemen are starving to death. The UK and US government are not being held accountable for the role they have played in this crisis. Politicians in both countries preach humanitarian values and yet do nothing to stand up for Yemeni people and protest the arms trade. The sad fact is that arms trade is profitable. Weapons are traded on an international capitalist market, where supply meets demand. If the war in Yemen was to end, the Saudi government would have less demand for US and UK weapons. This situation has been seen repeatedly in Washington and Westminster’s relations with the Middle East, as there is a tangible economic benefit in perpetuating war. Valuing profit over human lives must end, as Yemeni citizens deserve peace.

You can write to your local MP to protest the arms sales to Saudi Arabia by clicking here.

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Rose Heffernan

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