Shortly after photos of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wrapped in a red blanket bearing a fatal head wound, were circulated on Twitter, a shot of him flanked by Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak also did the rounds.
It was a reminder of life as a dictator in the Middle East, where you can rule for decades only to meet a grisly fate, as Saleh and Gaddafi did, or be tossed aside and deposed from your throne like Ben Ali and Mubarak were. What do all four have in common? Dead or alive, none have faced accountability for the corruption and jailing of political protesters they oversaw during their lengthy reigns. All were primed and propped up as puppets of the West, at least at one point during their reign, yet today their deposal and death means little to their former benefactors.
Last year an investigation by Vice revealed that when Saleh was in power the UK’s secret intelligence services MI6 collaborated with the CIA on their drone war in Yemen. By 2016 drones had killed 1,651 people in the country. Since 9/11 Saleh was courted by the US as an ally in the war on terror despite the fact that under his presidency extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances took place.
UN-appointed investigators estimate Saleh amassed between $32 billion and $60 billion in corruption during his years in power, cash he siphoned off from the people of Yemen, the poorest in the region. In 2017 Forbes named the richest woman in the world as Walmart heiress Alice Walton, and she was worth $44 billion.
Saleh was forced aside during the 2011 Arab Spring protests yet was never made to answer to the Yemeni people. Instead, a 2012 transition agreement – engineered by the Saudis and supported by the US – granted him immunity and allowed him to remain in the country rather than stand trial.
By considering Saleh an ally rather than the criminal he was the UK and the US helped fuel a cycle of impunity which encouraged him, rather than stopped him, ruining the country. With Saleh’s death Yemen – already the centre of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi – will become even more polarised, the Houthis stronger and the already dire humanitarian situation in the country will hit rock bottom.
Some 10,000 people have been killed in the Yemen war; seven million are on the brink of famine and one million are infected with cholera. We’ve all seen the tragic pictures of Yemeni babies, their ribs protruding through their skin, their faces gaunt as though they are 60-years-old.
Earlier this week the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Bin Ra’ad Al-Hussein, gathered together an expert panel to investigate these violations in what he sees as a step towards accountability and ending impunity in Yemen. The UK and the US should get behind these efforts, as well as withdraw support for Saudi Arabia whose aerial bombardment is responsible for killing hundreds of Yemeni civilians. But wait – Trump is too busy moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to care about the people of Yemen.
Others do. On Tuesday morning Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council tweeted: “Dear US @DeptofDefense, bombs supplied by US & Western allies to Saudi coalition were just dropped on a civilian neighbourhood near our Sanaa office. Please call Saudis and tell them to stop bombing densely populated areas so we can resume saving lives.”
Last year former British Prime Minister David Cameron boasted that he would help sell Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi (he described them as “brilliant things”) hours after the European parliament voted for an arms embargo on the Gulf state. It’s doubtful that his successor, Theresa May, will act with any integrity on the matter. Not even Yemeni lives are worth losing arms deals worth £3.3 billion.
Post Saleh it’s likely Saudi will intensify its bombing campaign in Yemen but it’s unlikely even this will make the UK take a step back. Saleh’s death will not be a wakeup call for the UK in the same way that they are undisturbed by the unprecedented crackdown in Egypt and slavery in Libya. They will continue to plough through the Middle East, influencing events in whichever way benefits them, with increasingly tragic consequences.