Unlike the US, the British government is continuing its military support for the war in Yemen. The latest government figures show that the UK approved $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. (There had been a year’s suspension of arms exports since June 2019, after the Campaign Against the Arms Trade took the government to court.) The UK has also cut its provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, despite UN warnings that the country is facing ‘the worst famine in decades’.
At the ExCeL exhibition centre in Canning Town, 1700 companies were displaying their wares. British soldiers – ‘military escort officers’ – looked after delegations from all over the world. They took them to their hotels and they took them shopping. One escort told me that the Angolans were on the hunt for helicopters and the Egyptians were after surveillance equipment. A delegation from the UAE lingered at the stall of the Italian firm Cristanini: a woman in a camouflage cocktail dress and knee-high boots stood in front of a display of decontamination equipment, for use after chemical or biological attacks.
On 10 August, after days of intense fighting, secessionist forces of the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen seized control of Aden, deposing the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The STC and the Hadi government are nominally allies in the war against the Houthis. The two senior partners in the war’s disintegrating coalition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also found themselves on opposite sides in the battle for Aden. The Saudis strongly favour the Hadi government; the Emiratis have long-standing ties with the STC.
Eleven people have gone on trial in Riyadh, accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul in October. The defendants have not been named, but they do not include Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally believed to have ordered the killing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the trial is ‘not sufficient’. According to an opposition report on Twitter, the prisoners are being difficult: some mutinous, some suicidal. One unpredictable consequence of the affair has been a radical change in the way all things Saudi are reported in the media, above all the mainstream US media.
‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for 'exasperation' now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain's defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, 'a successful, dynamic and creative business' in Surrey. And business is booming.
On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
Twelve-year-old Aqeed Abdel-Salam was lying unconscious in the emergency room of Thawra hospital in the besieged Yemeni city of Taiz. He had been shot in the head by a sniper. His parents said he came under fire when he went to check on the doves on the roof early in the morning. Taiz in south-west Yemen is one of the cities hardest hit by ground-fighting and airstrikes. The outskirts and surrounding hilltops are mostly in the hands of Houthi forces; the city centre was retaken by forces loyal to President Hadi in August.
Abdullah al-Ibbi is a barber in the city of Sa‘dah, a Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen. He lost two wives, ten sons, 17 daughters and daughters-in-law, and eight grandchildren, including a six-month-old baby, in a Saudi-led airstrike on 5 May. In the qat fields of al-Sabr valley, a few kilometres from Sa‘dah, at least 30 children were among the 53 civilians killed by warplanes on 3 June. ‘They say in the media they targeted a military camp,’ Hammoud Abdullah told me. Seven of his relatives, including four brothers, died in the attack. ‘But what happened is that they have killed our children.’
Since the protests began in Yemen earlier this year, writing the top line of news stories has become a daily wrestle with the limited possibilities offered by the metaphor of the ‘brink’. The country has stepped closer to the brink, edged towards it, and stood at it. It has yet to go over it. But tensions are running high. Money changers are running out of dollars. Every day, more serious weaponry is visible on the streets.
With the historical memory of the country virtually non-existent it's good to know there are a few wise heads still around at the BBC who are, at least, aware of what's going on in the world even if they can't share this knowledge with viewers who pay to keep the BBC going as a public service. Adam Curtis's documentaries are usually very good but he makes only one or two a year. Why on earth he isn't given a weekly late-night history slot escapes me. Time surely for BBC viewers to organise a petition or threaten a licence-fee boycott if the Corporation continues to degenerate. In the meantime read Curtis's blog and learn about Yemen.