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Is Britain’s part in the Saudi campaign in Yemen clouded by a ‘white saviour’ complex?

Al-Qaeda fighters carrying weapons in Yemen [File photo]
Al-Qaeda fighters carrying weapons in Yemen [File photo]

Since the start of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, there has been much attention in the British media about the UK’s arms deals with Riyadh. After the United States, Britain is the second largest supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, making it a matter of grave concern to the British public. There have been numerous campaigns by NGOs such as Oxfam and Amnesty International, in an attempt to reverse this worrying trend. To their frustration, they have proven to be futile. In February, the EU Parliament voted for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia; it was not only non-binding, but also came just days after British Prime Minister David Cameron praised the arms deals that have been made, when he spoke during a question and answer session at British Aerospace (BAE) in Preston. “I can see the planes being built right behind me here,” he told workers. “We’ve got more work to do in Saudi Arabia.”

Fury erupted after Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wrote to the Chair of the International Development Committee, Stephen Higgs, regarding concern over the level of British arms sales to the Saudis. “There is no clear risk that Saudi Arabia might use the UK exports to commit serious violations of IHL [international humanitarian law],” claimed Hammond. “Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to IHL compliance.”

Tobias Ellwood MP has long supported an arms ban on Saudi Arabia and is used as an advocate by NGOs focusing on British defence policy. In January, he obtained a report that showed evidence of the Houthis fabricating evidence against the Saudis, blaming Riyadh for casualties that they have caused. This was neither picked up by NGOs, nor were the claims verified. Ellwood’s words were simply reported by the media and swept under the carpet by such organisations, despite the fact that he is still quoted on the issue of the British-Saudi arms trade, to which he remains vehemently opposed. It’s only when he addressed the issue of corruption and human rights abuses in the Houthi camp that he was ignored.

It is impossible and immoral to deny that air strikes have killed civilians in Yemen. From bombing schools, hospitals, homes and milk factories, they have caused a significant amount of human and structural damage and it is the right of the British public to be outraged by our own government selling the arms to the Saudis if they believe it is perpetuating the conflict. However, the campaigners must ask themselves if they are looking for a change in British policy that affects one of Yemen’s many issues, or will they include local and regional voices and take advantage of the diverse and active Yemeni diaspora in addition to their current efforts to push for internal peace and stability in Yemen?

Because British arms are the central focus of the Yemen campaign in Britain, the voices of those who are being sucked into the internal fighting are being drowned out. This means that the campaign is more about Britain than it ever was and ever will be about Yemen. Just this week an article was written in the Guardian saying that the Conservative Party’s lack of a conscience is to blame for the whole war. Though it is true that the Conservatives are driven by profits rather than conscience, especially on arms sales, this article was clearly written to prove a point against the ruling party, rather than to advocate internal peace and stability in Yemen by working with its complicated history and its diverse, yet volatile, socio-political order. Frustration piles up within the many voices that want to be heard by those who are supposedly campaigning for them. This ranges from tribes to political parties to those being caught by Houthi and pro-Saleh human rights abuses; even those in Aden who have been suffering from the Yemeni government’s incompetence in securing the province after the Houthis and Saleh’s forces withdrew. The issue of separatism, which is one that only Yemenis should be able to decide on, is a major debate within the community and is being drowned out. Having a campaign for Yemen and leaving these voices out hints that the British campaign for the country is clouded with a white saviour complex rather than empowerment of the Yemeni voices to end the internal rifts and recapture control of their country.

If the campaign’s intention really is for a safer Yemen rather than a case study to motivate political change in Britain, then the inclusion of local Yemeni politics is imperative, even in times when it will not benefit the mainstream British narrative, such as talking about Houthi crimes and Saleh’s obsession with power. Prominent London-based Yemeni activist Baraa Shiban told me that mainstream British coverage doesn’t just hide the main reason why Yemen has descended into chaos but has also misled the public about what’s actually happening there. “The British people don’t know that local people are defending their lands and homes fighting the Houthis and Saleh forces and not Saudi soldiers.” He also believes that Saleh’s role in the conflict has been completely disregarded; the former president is still a prominent factor in “descending the country into chaos.”

The lack of local insight is not something that is limited to the anti-arms campaign. Political officials have also fallen into this trap. One of the more famous examples came just before Saleh was about to step down. The then Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed deep concern for Saleh’s resignation, saying Yemen will become a “much more serious threat” to British national security. The main concern was that if Saleh was to step down, a power vacuum could emerge which would allow the growth of Al-Qaeda, even though his leadership perpetuated the very instability that allowed terrorism to flourish in Yemen. We now know that the Saleh regime has in fact fuelled Al-Qaeda’s growth and his own family members have given money to the terrorist group. This includes senior military personnel like Ammar Saleh, who was the Deputy Director of National Security Bureau and is the ex-president’s nephew.

By erasing the minute details in the analysis of Yemen or activism on the behalf of Yemenis, not only are campaigners erasing the fact that there is a humanitarian crisis being induced by internal parties as well as the Saudi-led offensive, but they are also drowning out the many voices of Yemenis that need to be heard more than ever. It is not wrong for the British public to have the right to decide to whom the government sells arms, but doing it in the name of speaking for another country whilst hypocritically drowning out local voices and debates is unacceptable.

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

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