- Michael Owen
The slippery tentacles of war: The UK and Saudi Arabia
There are many arguments for the UK’s support of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Senior politicians have touted the intelligence contributions made by Saudi Arabia in tackling domestic British terrorism. The kingdom is the UK’s main ally in the Middle East, key to maintaining British influence there. Failing to support its war could jeopardise the friendship and cast doubt on the UK’s other alliances in the region. Finally, Saudi is a determined ally in countering Iranian aggression in the region: the aim of the Saudi intervention is to remove the Iran-backed Houthis from control of western Yemen, ending an Iranian puppet regime which currently fires missiles into Saudi territory.
Saudi cash finances a fifth of the UK current account deficit, with the House of Saud investing some £93 billion into the UK economy. The UK benefits from access to Saudi oil and in return, we sell weapons. Whilst there are no publicly available government figures, it is estimated that the UK’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia are larger than ever before, totalling £43 billion since 1985. Indeed, the kingdom accounts for half of the UK’s arms exports. Furthermore, there is even more future potential. As the UK seeks to increase trade with non-EU countries after Brexit, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, has announced plans to increase his own country’s trade internationally. A converging of interests appear to be blossoming.
Now for the reality. The value of Saudi intelligence in thwarting UK terrorism is unknown due to the secrecy of such arrangements. Theresa May previously pointed to the successful uncovering of a bomb plot in 2010, but beyond this hardly anything is regularly disclosed. Yet what’s more, in 2017, a Home Office report on terrorist financing was withheld due to its damaging portrayal of Saudi Arabia. The extent to which the UK is willing or able to influence Saudi policy appears minimal, as highlighted by a recent report from King’s College London. Rather, the Saudis influence the UK. Britain does have interests in the Middle East. But can we really expect Oman and Jordan, say, to end their longstanding, deep ties to the UK if it reduced its (substantial) support for a disastrous war? And who has the leverage in the relationship, the Saudis or the UK?
There is, however, a military case for supporting the Saudis: they are a UK ally and are under threat from an Iranian proxy. However, this case crumbles when one considers the methods used by the Saudis and the reality on the ground in Yemen. They have proved immeasurably incompetent in leading the war, routinely bombing non-military targets and failing to dislodge the Houthis from their bases for four years. For all the (negative) press the Saudis generate, the UAE was the most important arm of the coalition. As well as planes, it supplied soldiers in some of the few successful ground offensives of the coalition, overturning gains made by the Houthis and Al-Qaeda. However, the UAE has announced it is withdrawing from the war. This is a major blow for the coalition, and provides another reason for the UK to get out now before it becomes embroiled in what is becoming an unwinnable war.
That appears increasingly unlikely. Until recently it was thought the UK only provided arms and some advisors and mechanics to the Saudis. However, the presence of special forces in Yemen became an open secret last year. The role of the mechanics shouldn’t be understated: according to a former MoD defence attaché to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis “couldn’t [fight the war] without us.” Apparently, the cabinet even debated sending a taskforce to Yemen’s main port, Hodeida.
The value of arms exports to the economy is minimal: beyond Lancashire, where most are manufactured, they account for very little. In 2016, the Treasury gained £30million from arms exported to the Saudis, worth 0.004% of government revenue. As for any future relationship, part of bin Salman’s economic plan is to massively increase domestic arms production by 2030, relying less on imports.
Beyond cost-benefit analyses is the real issue. The UN has declared Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Coalition bombing accounts for two-thirds of civilian deaths there; coalition blockades have precipitated a mass famine. Meanwhile, Britain provides the arms and expertise, not to mention Security Council backing, allowing this to continue. As for the “if we don’t, x will provide arms” argument: 10 European countries have already reduced arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Congress wishes to as well. The UK should follow their lead and end its role in a devastating war.
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