Britain’s role in Yemen

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Contents of this page:

Official British position

Full support for the war on Yemen

The official policy of the British government was outlined by Philip Hammond, then foreign secretary, immediately after the Saudis began their bombing campaign and blockade in March 2015, when he stated that: “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.”

He continued: “As you know we have a long-standing relationship with the Saudi armed forces, particularly the Royal Saudi Air Force. Saudis are, as I understand it, flying British-built aircraft in the campaign over Yemen and we have a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force generally and if we are requested to provide them with enhanced support – spare parts, maintenance, technical advice, resupply – we will seek to do so.”

In July 2015, the Minister of State for Defence Earl Howe noted that the UK has provided “technical support, precision-guided weapons and exchanged information with the Saudi Arabian armed forces,” while also confirming the presence of British staff at the Saudi and coalition air and maritime headquarters.

Arms Sales

Britain has provided £6 billion worth of military equipment for the attack on Yemen

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British arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased by 11,000% in the three months following the start of the bombing in March 2015, from £9million to £1billion. New contracts worth hundreds of millions were signed immediately after an airstrike on a funeral which left 140 dead and over 500 mutilated in October 2016 and research by War Child UK shows that Britain has now licenced £6billion worth of military equipment since the start of the Yemen war. Half of the Saudi royal air force is made up of military aircraft supplied by the UK.

The Financial Times noted that “Before he was forced to resign last month over allegations of sexual harassment, Sir Michael Fallon, then the UK’s defence secretary, begged MPs to cease all criticism of the kingdom. This risked jeopardising BAE Systems’ £4bn deal to sell the kingdom fighter jets, he said. Sir Michael showed similar blindness about what is morally acceptable in his public evidence to the defence committee.”

John Deverell, former MoD civil servant has claimed that “The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on [British weapons company] BAE Systems. They couldn’t do it [the bombing of Yemen] without us”. A BAe employee recently told Channel 4’s Dispatches that: “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

Arron Merat has written that “The British bombs that rain down on Yemen are produced in three towns: Glenrothes in Scotland, and Harlow and Stevenage in south-east England. Bombs roll off production lines owned by Raytheon UK and BAE Systems, firms contracted by the government to manufacture Paveway bombs (£22,000 apiece), Brimstone bombs (£105,000 apiece), and Storm Shadow cruise missiles (£790,000 apiece) for the Saudi Royal Air Force. BAE, under government contract, also assembles the jets that drop these bombs in hangars just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.

“Once these weapons arrive in Saudi Arabia, Britain’s involvement is far from over. The Saudi military lacks the expertise to use these weapons to fight a sustained air war – so BAE, under another contract to the UK government, provides what are known as “in-country” services. In practice, this means that around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia. There, they train Saudi pilots and conduct essential maintenance night and day on planes worn out from flying thousands of miles across the Saudi desert to their targets in Yemen. They also supervise Saudi soldiers to load bombs on to planes and set their fuses for their intended targets…Government contractors carry out around 95% of the tasks necessary to fight the air war, one former BAE employee told Channel 4’s Dispatches – an estimate confirmed to me by a former senior British official who worked in Saudi Arabia during the air war…

“It is impossible to say how many bombs the UK has sent to Yemen, because the government in 2013 and 2014 granted BAE three special arms-export licences that permit the sale of an unlimited number of bombs to Saudi Arabia without requiring disclosure of how many have been sold. As a result, the full scale of the UK’s rearmament programme has remained hidden.”

**UPDATE** June 2019 – Arms transfers to Saudi Arabia ruled illegal by UK Court of Appeal. The government will appeal the decision, but has promised that, for now, new licences will not be granted. HOWEVER transfers under the old (illegally-granted) licences will still be honoured, and bombs are exempt from the ruling. 

Logistical assistance

Britain has 250 personnel deployed within the militaries of the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen. 

A parliamentary question by MP Caroline Lucas in July 2015 revealed that the British government have 166 personnel deployed within the Saudi Arabian military, including at the Air and Maritime Headquarters from where the war is being run. 

In January 2016, it emerged that UK military officers were specifically assisting Saudi personnel in the selection of targets, and that a further 94 British personnel were embedded in HQs of the Saudi’s partners in the coalition bombing Yemen.  

Leading American security expert Bruce Riedel has correctly noted that: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia] ‘this war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.” 

As the Economist has put it, “The Saudi-led coalition is fighting with Western warplanes and munitions. Western satellites guide its bombs.”

Arron Merat writes: “Around 80 serving RAF personnel work inside Saudi Arabia. Sometimes they work for BAE to assist in maintaining and preparing aircraft. At other times they work as auditors to ensure that BAE is fulfilling its Ministry of Defence contracts. Additional RAF “liaison officers” work inside the command-and-control centre, from where targets in Yemen are selected…

“Inside Saudi forward operating bases, there are thousands of British contractors working to keep the war machine moving. British contractors coordinate the distribution of bombs and aircraft parts. They manage climate-controlled armories and work in shifts to ensure bombs are dispatched in a timely manner for fresh raids. Alongside RAF personnel, British contractors train Saudi pilots to conduct hazardous bombing raids in Yemen’s rugged northern mountains and over its cities. They also manage avionics and radar systems to ensure that Saudi planes can get to and from their targets, and conduct the deep aircraft maintenance necessary to keep them circling over Yemen.

“The British government is keen to stress that it has no role in targeting, and insists that only Saudi Arabia chooses what to hit in Yemen. But there is no disputing the fact that British contractors enable Saudi Arabia to hit its targets – and that Britain is well aware of the nature of these targets.”

**UPDATE** British soldiers now on the ground in Yemen itself: Arron Merat again (ibid.): “In May 2018, an unknown number of British troops were sent to Yemen to assist Saudi ground forces. Since then, multiple newspapers have publishedreports of British special forces wounded in gun battles inside Houthi-controlled territory…

“The presence of British special forces in Yemen has not been officially acknowledged, but has become an open secret in defence circles. A senior British diplomatic source told me that the decision to approve military assistance to Saudi Arabia emerged from a meeting in London between British ministers and Bin Salman during his state visit to the UK in March 2018 – when he met the Queen and signed a memorandum of intent to buy 48 more jets worth £10bn to upgrade his war-ravaged fleet.

Two months later, on 23 May 2018, Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, released a carefully worded statement committing an undisclosed number of UK troops to provide “information, advice and assistance” to “mitigate” the threat to Saudi Arabia from Houthi missiles.

The UK government refuses to confirm or deny whether it has deployed troops inside Yemen. In April, when asked in parliament about allegations published in the Mail on Sunday that British special forces were fighting in Yemen alongside Saudi-backed child soldiers, foreign minister Mark Field called for an investigation, while refusing to confirm whether British troops were in the country at all.”

As reported in the Mail on Sunday, five British special forces troops from the elite Special Boat Service (SBS) were injured while “advising” Saudi Arabia on their deadly campaign in Yemen.


Britain trains the Saudi pilots bombing Yemen

In October 2016, it emerged that the United Kingdom was continuing to provide instruction to pilots of the Royal Saudi Air Force, both in the UK and in Saudi Arabia. 

In November 2017, it was revealed that about 50 British military personnel from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 Scots) have been teaching “irregular warfare” battlefield skills to officers from the Royal Saudi Land Forces Infantry Institute. A mistakenly-released photo showed they were being trained specifically to fight in Yemen.

Foreign Office statements suggest that Britain supports the tightening of the blockade to block aid deliveries, and the British navy may even be helping to implement the blockade. 

The British and US navies run an ongoing operation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden called the Combined Maritime Forces. It has a somewhat amorphous remit, aimed at tackling piracy and terrorism. This piece from the Telegraph suggests there is a grey area between ‘tackling piracy’ and enforcing the blockade.

Britain took leadership of the Combined Maritime Forces in April 2016, alongside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait, all of them part of the coalition bombing and blockading Yemen.

Then in November 2016, the Times reported that Britain had secretly sent its most advanced warship, HMS Daring, to the coast of Yemen. For the first time, the deployment was officially part of the war effort, in order, we are told, to ‘guard against Houthi missile attacks’.

So the British navy has been active off the coast of Yemen for some time, and since last year has been part of a naval operation explicitly linked to the war on Yemen. It seems unlikely that it is not also involved in the naval blockade being imposed by its partners.

The British government has offered weasel words surrounding the tightening of the blockade in November 2017. On the one hand, the government has been giving the impression that it is calling on the Saudis to allow aid through Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport. Yet its statements on the issue effectively justify the closures, with Middle East Minister Alistair Burt stating that “We understand why the Saudi-led Coalition felt obliged to temporarily close Yemen’s ports and airports in order to strengthen enforcement of the UN mandated arms embargo”, adding that “it is critical that international efforts to disrupt illicit weapons flows are strengthened”. He also stated that “central” to the Foreign Secretary’s discussion with the UN Secretary-General on the issue, “was how the security concerns of Saudi Arabia can be addressed to enable these restrictions to be lifted” – making clear that the British government position is that they can’t and shouldn’t be lifted at present. 

Prior to her meeting with King Salman on November 29th 2017, Theresa May briefed reporters that she would “demand” an “immediate” end to the blockade. Yet in the event, according to the government’s own website, the two leaders merely “agreed that steps needed to be taken as a matter of urgency to address this” and that “they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved”. The very next sentence of the government’s summary of the discussion was that “They agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure.” In other words, the blockade will continue, as will Britain’s full support for the country imposing it.

Providing diplomatic cover for the war

Britain has repeatedly blocked calls for an independent UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes, and continues to justify the war’s worst atrocities. 

In October 2015, “Britain and the US successfully blocked plans for a UN independent investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This was a unique opportunity to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for their actions. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been allowed to investigate itself through its own internal commission” – from The Telegraph

In September 2016, Boris Johnson rejected another proposal for the UN Human Rights Council to conduct an inquiry into the war and blocked such an inquiry from taking place. Johnson has insisted that the best people to investigate war crimes are the Saudis accused of carrying them out.  Middle East minister Alistair Birt said the same thing when he vowed to oppose yet another UN investigation exactly one year later. But as of July 2017, of the 100s of incidents referred to it, the Saudi-led Joint Incident Assessment Team has so far investigated only 21. Needless to say, it didn’t find any wrongdoing involved any of them. 

Similarly, British government officials have tried to whitewash proven war crimes. Mark Curtis has noted that “the UK response, provided by Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood, to the leaked report of a UN panel in January 2016, which documented more than one hundred instances of coalition air strikes that had violated international law, was to say that the Saudis had made “mistakes” and claim that other cases may have been “fabricated” by the Houthis”. 

Secret security agreement 

In March 2014, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the Saudis. To this day, the contents have been kept secret; indeed, even the existence of the deal was not acknowledged for over a year after it was made.


The UK’s justification for its war on Yemen 

UK ministers have a number of justifications for their involvement in the war on Yemen:

  1. To restore the legitimate government of President Hadi

Ministers claim that the war is legitimate, because it aims at the restoration of a legitimate government. This claim rests on the fact that Hadi was elected President in 2012. However, the argument is undermined by three important facts:

a. Hadi was elected for a strictly limited two-year term, after which new elections were supposed to be held. It was only following Hadi’s refusal to step down and hold these elections that the Houthi-led Ansarallah movement moved on Sanaa. As former government minister Andrew Mitchell has pointed out, Hadi’s legitimacy ended in 2014.

b. Hadi was the only candidate in the 2012 elections.

c. The coalition waging the war is allied to Yemeni forces hostile to Hadi. The Emiratis, who are effectively an occupying power in Southern Yemen (and have been denounced as such by Hadi himself), are in an alliance with anti-Hadi secessionist forces in the South, and have even fought battles with Hadi’s troops (such as the battle for Aden airport in February 2017). Since November, Hadi has reportedly been placed under house arrest by the Saudis in Riyadh.

2. Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia creates jobs

The UK’s de-facto deputy prime minister Damian Green defended the flow of British weapons to Saudi Arabia for use against the starving Yemenis on the grounds that “our defence industry is an extremely important creator of jobs and prosperity”.

Earlier, former defence secretary Michael Fallon had complained to a committee of MPs that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in this parliament” was “not helpful” to his attempts to persuade the Saudis to place a £4billion order for British-made Typhoon fighter jets.

3. To protect UK interests

Opposing Emily Thornberry’s motion to end support for the war on Yemen in October 2016, Boris Johnson argued that weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia bought “diplomatic and political influence on a crisis where there are massive UK interests at stake.” Earlier in the debate he had outlined those interests as “safe passage through those straits [bordering Yemen]”, which he claimed had been undermined by the Houthis firing missiles at “civilian vessels”. This argument is somewhat undermined by Johnson’s arming and training of a coalition which has damaged or destroyed hundreds of civilian vessels during the course of this war, and has apparently done so deliberately.