The alleged Saudi government involvement in the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey should be the defining moment in the UK’s support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen. Earlier this year, the United Nations labelled the Yemeni civil war as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three quarters of the population yearning for aid and protection.
As the details of the barbaric murder surface, a humanitarian crisis induced by the same alleged perpetrators is a daily burden to around 23 million civilians in Yemen. Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent critic of Saudi state policies, including the war in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition have been involved since 2015, with over 10,000 deaths and more than 40,000 casualties.
The war in Yemen started in early 2015, after Houthi rebels – Shiites from the north of the country – annexed the capital, Sana'a, and deposed US-backed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Specifically, the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, a school of Shiism followed by approximately a third of the population of Yemen – dominant especially in the north, where they ruled for 1,000 years up until 1962. The situation escalated into a large-scale civil war, allowing the proliferation of terrorist groups such as ISIL and Ansar al-Sharia. The Saudi-led coalition, avidly supporting the Hadi government, began its campaign in Spring 2015.
The World Food Programme has issued a stern warning that Yemen is on the brink of a full-blown famine, with nearly 18 million civilians food-insecure due to the blockade of ports imposed by the Saudi alliance. Additionally, the rate of child malnutrition in the country is among the highest in the world. Several reports from the UN have stated that the specific targeting of civilians and crucial infrastructures, including hospitals and schools, is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Despite these reports, the UK government still increased its arms sales to the kingdom. Sky News revealed that total sales increased by more than £450m in 2017 compared with 2016. Moreover, the £4.6bn deal signed in 2015 is only second to the US. The Saudis have strengthened this partnership with the UK government by spending over £100,000 to have British MPs experience the new Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
The Saudi presence in the UK does not stop there. Until as recent as August, Saudi Arabia had paid media organisations like Sky to promote a good image of MbS and the kingdom’s recent progressive reforms on British television. One of the adverts had appeared on Sky One 56 times in a three-day duration.
The death of Khashoggi has seen has seen the likes of Siemens, JPMorgan, HSBC and Blackrock all pull out of investment conferences in Riyadh. It has also seen diplomatic stagnation with the likes of Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau announcing yesterday that both the German and Canadian governments would not approve new arms exports to the kingdom until further notice. The UK has reacted quite indifferently to the whole situation, with the omission of UK trade secretary Liam Fox from the investment summit earlier this week the only credible response.
This position shown by the May administration towards the war in Yemen is not shared among the British people. A recent survey conducted by YouGov for Save the Children found that over 60 per cent of the British public opposed the arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The survey also discovered that a fair share of those opposing the deal felt a compromise of British values and interests.
Ultimately, the death of one individual has shown a worldwide, unequivocally united response to Saudi Arabia’s brutal foreign policy. When can we expect the same response for the millions of Yemeni civilians under Saudi torment?