Monday night’s Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Hidden War, exposed the depths of the UK’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen. The testimony of various interviewees confirmed what I and other expert observers have been saying for some time: that Washington and London could have pulled the plug on the Saudi campaign at any point over the past four years.
Under an arms deal signed by the New Labour government, Britain has provided the Saudis with a fleet of Typhoon military jets as well as the constant supply of ammunition, components, training and technical support required to keep those jets operational. This creates a high degree of Saudi dependence on continued British support.
A British former technician, stationed in Saudi Arabia until recently, told Channel 4 that if this support was withdrawn then “in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky” over Yemen.
A former Saudi Air Force officer stated flatly that his compatriots “can’t keep the Typhoon in the air without the British”, and that, although US-supplied jets also play an indispensable role, the British Typhoon is so crucial that “without the Typhoon they will stop the war”.
Let us recall the extent of the carnage that Britain has helped to make possible: 60,000 Yemenis are conservatively estimated to have been killed since 2016, the majority from Saudi-UAE coalition bombing.
In addition, the man-made humanitarian crisis caused primarily by the blockade imposed by the coalition has led to an estimated 85,000 infant children dying from starvation or preventable disease. The UN warns that 14 million lives are at risk in what could become the world’s worst famine in 100 years.
The UK government claims that it is not a party to the war, but this is blatantly disingenuous. Britain is a crucial enabler of a Saudi bombing campaign characterised by “widespread and systematic attacks” on civilian targets, in the words of UN investigators, with a series of atrocities including instances of possible war crimes.
Britain may not be an official combatant (although there are now reports of UK special forces operating on the ground) but it is an indispensable participant and accessory. If British support makes Saudi violence possible, that violence is British violence as well, making the UK significantly culpable for its human cost.
This goes for the domestic, structured violence of the Gulf Arab monarchies as well. The Guardian reports exclusively this week on leaked internal Saudi investigations into the torture of political prisoners, demonstrating once again that talk of “reform” under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is mere propaganda, masking a severe intensification of repression.
In light of these latest revelations, it is tempting for us to talk of the “barbaric” practices of a “medieval” kingdom, perhaps drawing a contrast with “western values”. But Saudi Arabia is in no small part a product of our own modernity, a state less than 100 years old, established in its current form with critical support from the US and UK.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, through the crucial decades of state formation as the Gulf monarchs entrenched their rule, Washington and London provided the regimes with security guarantees, arms and training for their security forces.
This empowered the Saudis and their fellow royals to jail and torture dissidents, crush all challengers and shut down any possibility of political change, most recently in Bahrain in 2011. Such violence has always been central to western power in the world. The Gulf monarchs have merely acted as our subcontractors.
In Yemen, Britain has helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. This is a matter of incontrovertible fact, and of grave urgency. It is long past time for this country to face up to its responsibilities, and to the true nature of its role in the world.
Source: The Guardian