In 1932, it was the British Empire who helped secure the foundation of a new kingdom at the heart of the Muslim world. The House of Saud, rulers of the central province of Najd and not much else, had swept over the mountains into Hijaz to finally take control of Mecca and Medina. The previous century had seen them reach out from their desert valleys into the east – thwarted at times either by local leaders or most notably the Ottomans.
Despite successes elsewhere on the peninsula, Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s founder and first monarch, had feared crossing these troops over the mountains and taking control of the holy sites – mostly because the royals of Jordan opposed the move. However, in 1923, British support for the Jordanians withered away. By the end of the decade, new boundaries for a new country – Saudi Arabia, would demarcate a brutal new artifice, surrounded by more new states – Transjordan, Iraq, Kuwait and, by 1934, Yemen. With the backing of the British – Saudi Arabia was formed.
Hijazis – a proud people – were disgruntled. For centuries, their cosmopolitan enclave had been infused with the varied cultures of pilgrims from all over the world. Much was to be erased under the suffocating uniformity of “Wahhabism,” which was ruthlessly enforced by a new clergy-cum-police force commanded from what they saw as a foreign city – Riyadh. Seeing themselves as the rightful, competent hosts to the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage, Hijazis were accused of heathen acts, and their cities looted by Ikhwan, or “Brotherhood”, shock troops, allied with the ruthless House of Saud (not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood of today).
In more recent times, Saudi Arabia has ventured south towards Yemen. Yemen is now to Saudi Arabia as Mexico is to the United States. Given the artificial nature of the kingdom the House of Saud created, you can understand the paranoia of Riyadh as they have watched their neighbour buffeted by groups like Al-Qaeda, undergo a revolution and more recently lose their capital to irate Houthi rebels.
It was the same paranoia that saw the Saudis call on their friends in the Pentagon to deploy troops to defend the kingdom against Saddam Hussein in 1990. When Al-Qaeda roamed free in the early 2000s, the Saudis built a wall (Donald Trump would be proud) to keep the instability at bay. Now they accuse Tehran of backing an insurgency that has claimed Sana’a and threatens Aden. It should be noted that Mexico is in many ways as chaotic as Yemen. The US Air Force is yet to be deployed – but then Mexico doesn’t have any oil.
The Saudis have taken a different approach. Their oil has paid for billions in top-of-the-range weapons in past decades and now they are using them. When they run out of ammunition, they turn to their old friends in Britain to top up the supplies. Paveway IV missiles were sent, known as “smart bombs,” and these munitions were complemented by similar deliveries from the inheritors of the British Empire, the United States, and another erstwhile Middle Eastern power-player, France.
It is Britain, though, who the Saudis now trust the most as an international ally, and who is the dominant foreign sponsor of the conflict. The US is perceived to have led the way in the Iran nuclear deal – a deeply unpopular move in Riyadh – while the rulers of Saudi Arabia note gladly that the UK Foreign Office played a deliberately low-key role.
They also appreciate that Britain has opened a new naval base with their neighbours in Bahrain as recompense. The royal families of Britain and Saudi Arabia remain close – and their ministries of defence have co-operation agreements going back decades. Much of the Saudi equipment is British manufactured and it is generally British pilots and engineers who have provided the necessary training. At the most fundamental level, the kings of Saudi Arabia only came to dominate the peninsula because of Britain, and not America or France.
What the crucial role of Britain in the current Yemen crisis means in ethical terms is deeply saddening for anyone who cares about Britain. In Syria, British foreign secretaries and prime ministers are content to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for assisting President Bashar Al-Assad.
In Yemen, Britain is playing the part of Putin. The House of Saud are playing the part of Assad. The British establishment knows that what they are doing is ethically dubious, bordering on indefensible. That is why, after the May 2015 general election, the crucial body in parliament responsible for reviewing arms exports to Saudi suffered what a wry Guardian report labelled a “mysterious disappearance.”
As the newspaper reported in January of this year, the Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) – which reviews all arms exports for possible breaches of international law – quietly stopped operating for an unprecedented nine months, more than enough time for billions of British arms to be sent to the Saudi air force so they could be dropped, accidentally or otherwise, on civilians.
When the oversight body finally reformed it was chaired by Crispin Blunt. Blunt, a former soldier, is also a former member of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Saudi Arabia, a pressure group that represents Saudi interests in Westminster. The links between the same parliamentary oversight body responsible for overseeing arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi lobby in Westminster, don’t stop with Blunt.
The CAEC which Blunt chairs is actually a sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – which Blunt also helpfully acts as chairman for. No surprise then that when BBC Newsnight got wind of a powerful Tory MP seeking to censor alleged war crimes from a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, it was Blunt who was named as the culprit. Alongside him was John Spellar – who had reportedly tabled 130 amendments to soften the report, including removing a recommendation to suspend arms sales. Spellar is also, funnily enough, a current member of the APPG on Saudi Arabia.
Sitting next to Blunt and Spellar on the committee are yet more members of the Saudi lobby. Tory Daniel Kawczysnki, who ludicrously claims reports of Saudi war crimes in Yemen are fabricated, and recently led a Parliamentary delegation to the country, is a former chairman of the APPG on Saudi Arabia. Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi is the current chair, while Andrew Rosindell, another Tory MP on the committee, is also a member.
Meanwhile the former soldier and journalist turned MP, Adam Holloway, is a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council. I have previously exposed that groups links to rich Saudi business interests, and it too acts as a de facto Westminster lobbying group for Riyadh, amongst other Saudi-aligned Arab states. That makes six of the eleven person committee clearly pro-Saudi, including its chair. This is a British establishment stitch-up at its finest.
What is this stitch-up in aid of? In a crude calculus of balancing one form of war crime against another – what Assad is doing in Syria is not comparable to what the House of Saud is doing in Yemen itself, but at home – Riyadh and Damascus are not so far apart. The same organisations – United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty – hold the same opinion of each conflict; that the protagonists are committing laws of war violations and should be held to account in a court of law.
As ever with these matters – a bomb is a bomb is a bomb, and if your house or mosque or school is hit by a bomb, you don’t much care about the legal technicalities. You may want to know who dropped it, and who paid for it, and who will be held to account. In Syria, Putin, Assad and the Iranians should be (as should many, many rebel groups). In Yemen, like it or not, Britain should be in the dock. We are Yemen’s Putin, and it’s time we started thinking about what the consequences of that might eventually mean.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.