For decades, there has been a high-level, two-party consensus that arming Saudi Arabia is right for Britain’s security. From the late nineties onwards, when the left-wing Labour Party was hijacked by centrist liberal Tony Blair, the future business associate of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi contorted himself to accommodate the British arms industry. Infamously, Blair called off a Serious Fraud Office investigation into Gulf arms sales in 2006, which would have quite probably implicated powerful members of the Saudi royal family. The cringeworthy David Cameron bent himself further, to the extent of commissioning a politicised investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to keep the arms flowing during his term of office. Both men were, as is so often the case in British politics, copying Margaret Thatcher, the grand old lady of Saudi arms sales, who was described by her own officials as “very oily to kings” because of her ever-so-slightly slimy appreciation of the House of Saud.
As the war in Yemen rages on, however, from next month the status quo may become substantially different. For the first time, a true progressive alliance is building against this establishment position.
MEMO has revealed previously that the army officer assigned to investigate alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen played a key role in the 2011 crackdown on Arab Spring protesters in Bahrain. This was subsequently picked up by the Independent newspaper, then by the human rights charity BIRD, and was finally raised by the shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry on the floor of the House of Commons earlier this month. She accused the government of being “naive or extremely negligent” in allowing Colonel Mansour Al-Mansour, whose primary legal experience has been in convicting hundreds of peaceful protesters, to be the sole source of moral authority upon which the British government assures itself that no war crimes in Yemen are being committed.
MEMO’s contribution to all of this has been exceptionally modest, however, compared to the extraordinary (and very brave) research conducted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have entered Yemen to document human rights incidents on the ground; the UN has also sent teams in. All have reached the same conclusion; that there is enough evidence of war crimes to warrant at least an arms suspension and proper independent investigation, not run by a compromised Bahraini military lawyer but by an international body such as the United Nations. Most important of all is that, early next month, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, along with Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, will be using all of this evidence to convince a judge rather than MPs. They are taking on a landmark judicial review case aimed at suspending arms sales until a truly independent investigation has ascertained whether arms sales will be permitted, on the grounds that to continue to do so would be illegal. If the judge rules in their favour — which is more than likely — the case against the government will be watertight.
Who, though, is there to press this point home on the floor of the House of Commons? In 2007, when MPs were asked to ratify Blair’s corrupt decision to call off the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia, the government won by two hundred and thirty-five votes. When asked in October last year about whether the Saudis should continue to be armed — with the Yemen conflict in full flow — the Conservative government won by just ninety votes. That will be awkward news for the hundred or so backbench Labour MPs who voted so treacherously against their leader in October, allowing the government to win parliamentary approval for continuing to arm Riyadh. Most of them did this for party political reasons, but if they are asked to vote again, could they still reject an arms embargo, and contradict their supposed respect for the rule of law in the process? Given their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn, I wouldn’t put it past them, but they would certainly be moving against the trend of the past ten years, which has only accelerated as the horrors of Yemen have begun to reach British eyes and ears. The British establishment is beginning to lose the argument on arming Saudi Arabia.
Why is this happening? That the anti-Saudi Corbyn now leads Labour is, of course, significant, but unlike ten years ago, flanking the Labour benches in the Commons today are the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party; they are now providing a persistent counter-balance to establishment militarism. Though their numbers were not quite enough to turn the vote last October, it is their mere existence which suggests that the status quo is shifting.
The SNP’s trade and investment spokesperson, Tasmin Ahmed-Sheikh, for example, has said brutally that, “There are few issues which expose the core values of this Tory government and its cronies more than its approach to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and the UK’s part in arming Saudi Arabia.” Forty-nine Scottish nationalist MPs supported the motion to suspend arms sales. Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, has said: “I am concerned by our government’s unqualified support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. I am writing to the government to highlight the acts the military coalition, which includes the Saudi Arabian army, are committing which break human rights’ laws.” Although the Liberal Democrats only have a handful of MPs, it should be noted that Brake is a former member of the notoriously pro-interventionist Henry Jackson Society, which makes his position all the more compelling.
There is much talk of a “progressive alliance” of Liberal Democrat, Green, SNP and Labour MPs to counteract Theresa May’s government. There are challenges to this ever becoming a reality, but there are most definitely areas of foreign policy on which they can all agree tactically-speaking; issues upon which the government has not a leg to stand on, and upon which such a coalition — assuming the proposed judicial review goes well — could certainly be assured of victory and embarrassing the government into suspending arms sales. The establishment is losing the ethical and moral argument for arming Saudi Arabia; its legal argument may crumble soon. The tide is most definitely turning.