Over 150,000 people, among them tens of thousands of civilians, have been killed in the Yemen war, including the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Photo: Wikipedia/CC
Over 150,000 people, among them tens of thousands of civilians, have been killed in the Yemen war, including the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Photo: Wikipedia/CC

Western leaders hypocritically downplay Saudi Arabian atrocities in Yemen while condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Elaine Brunskill, Socialist Party national committee

For weeks, the horror of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has dominated the news. Alongside this carnage, there has also been the ongoing civil war in Yemen. However, this merciless war in Yemen, and all the hypocrisy surrounding it, has been sidelined. Yemen is the forgotten war.

Bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen is strategically important as it is located on the strait which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which most of the world’s oil shipments pass. The crucial nature of such routes was highlighted by the chaos caused, and billions of dollars lost each day, by just one container ship blocking the Suez Canal last March.

Yemen had been under Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. However, the Arab Spring of 2011 lit up the sky, for a while giving working people and those living in dire poverty a glimpse of an alternative to the rotten authoritarian regimes in north Africa and the Middle East.

Inspired by these uprisings, mass pressure from people in Yemen forced the country’s Saudi-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand power over to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Both these regimes had been mired in corruption, but the lack of a workers’ alternative left a political vacuum, which led to the Iranian-backed northern Yemen Shia Houthis ousting the Saudi-backed Hadi. This prompted the formation of a Saudi-led coalition, which included the UAE and other North African and West Asian countries, moving against the Houthis. This has fuelled an ongoing civil war and triggered a major humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Double standards

In recent weeks Joe Biden has called Putin a “murderous dictator” and “pure thug”, who is “waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine”. He has even gone off-script and seemingly urged those around Putin to oust him from the Kremlin, while at the same time enabling the Saudi regime to wage a terrible war in Yemen.

Biden, as a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, spoke out against the dire situation in Yemen. He criticised former US president Donald Trump for giving Saudi Arabia a blank cheque, and promised to end all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms deals. In his first address as president, he underlined: “This war has to end”.

But like Boris Johnson, criticism of the brutal Saudi regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud by Biden has been tempered by the needs of the West to increase Saudi oil production, having imposed sanctions on Russian oil exports, which have increased inflationary price pressures.

Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, life in Yemen has been described as a daily struggle for survival. The UN estimates around 30 million people, nearly 80% of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid.

The economy has been crippled, and escalating food prices have left more than 13 million people in danger of starvation. Moreover, the war in Ukraine, which is a major exporter of wheat (collectively Russia and Ukraine account for 29% of the global wheat trade) will further impact on Yemen. Although it is a wheat exporter, Yemen gets around a third of its wheat from Ukraine.

From the onset of the conflict, Yemen has been subjected to a ‘dirty war’. Similar to Putin’s attacks on Ukraine, the Saudi regime has been castigated for killing civilians in air strikes. According to the United Nations agency Unicef, 10,000 children have been killed or maimed since fighting began. That’s equates to four children, every day.

In office, Biden’s pledges on Yemen were quickly and quietly dropped. Sales of weapons, alongside the servicing of planes used to attack Yemeni targets, have continued to Saudi Arabia.

In November 2021 the State Department notified Congress of a further $650 million arms deal to Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration claims that the arms being sold are ‘defensive’ in nature. However, Dr Natalie Goldring, who is the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy’s UN representative for conventional weapons and arms trade issues, argues that the weapons have both defensive and offensive capabilities.

While, in his presidential election campaign, Biden stated that Saudi Arabia was a “pariah state” that would pay the price for barbaric human rights violations, (including the brutal murder and dismemberment of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashhoggi), his administration has now softened its approach, calling for a “recalibration” with a blood-soaked Saudi regime.

Shameful tole

The British government has also played an utterly shameful role in supplying arms to Saudi Arabia. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) reports that UK sales of weaponry and military equipment over the past six years, during the course of Yemen’s bloody civil war, is three times higher than previously thought. Companies such as BAE systems have the blood of Yemeni people on their hands.

CAAT has outlined an opaque ‘Open Licence’ system which has obscured the true figure. So, instead of the £6.7 billion worth of arms sales published by the Department for International Trade, it is now estimated that more than £20 billion worth of military equipment and services have been sold to the Saudis since 2015.

These exports were being signed off while Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. Johnson, the self-proclaimed defender of freedom, who recently visited Mohammed bin Salman, seemed unperturbed by the recent execution of 81 people, despite promises from the Crown Prince to ‘modernise’ its justice system.

In retaliation to Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, Johnson has seized some assets of Russian oligarchs, including Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. However, in response to the sale of Newcastle United to the Saudi Public Investment Fund, amidst their bloodstained involvement in Yemen, the then UK trade secretary Liz Truss dismissed concerns over the sale, saying it was purely a “commercial matter”.

Prior to the £300 million sale of Newcastle United it has been revealed that Saudi’s Crown Prince had personally texted Johnson, asking him to intervene and “correct” the Premier League’s “wrong decision” not to allow the takeover to go ahead.

World leaders such as Biden and Johnson have also been complicit in ‘sports washing’, by remaining silent as the Saudi regime hosted Formula 1 in an attempt to obscure the regime’s tarnished reputation.

In Ukraine, Yemen, and other war-torn regions of the world, there can be no trust in capitalist politicians and institutions. Their allegiances and foreign policies are tightly bound to their own imperialist interests and profits. In Yemen and beyond, the embers of the Arab Spring can be re-ignited, with valuable lessons from the revolutions of 2011 preparing the masses for future struggles; most importantly, the necessity of building independent workers’ parties with a programme for ending the exploitative system of capitalism. Ultimately, for workers and those living in poverty, only a socialist programme can begin to unite workers and cut across ethnic divides.