By Stephen Bell
The March visit to Britain by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, highlighted the differences on international policies, between Theresa May’s Tories and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. For the Tories, the visit was an opportunity to secure arms deals and capital exchange. For Labour, the visit was an opportunity to defend the people of Yemen and the region from belligerence and arbitrary intervention by the Crown Prince.
The sharpest expression came with the clash at Prime Minister’s Questions, in front of the nation’s cameras, Jeremy Corbyn called out the British government and military for directing the Saudi attacks, including upon children. May continued to defend British involvement and support for the war. This was despite the obvious strategic deadlock in the fighting; and despite that, according to the UN, 11 million Yemeni children are in danger from the war, famine, cholera, etc.
Tories pulled into Trump and bin Salman’s orbit
One impact of Brexit has been that the Tories have begun to fear international isolation. This has pushed them ever closer to Trump’s grisly embrace. Trump’s most significant policy shift in the Middle East has been to confront Iran, challenging the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear power programme. To confront Iran means to rely more heavily on the Saudi regime. Both Trump and May are following this course.
The abject character of such a move was well illustrated by Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, when he argued the new Saudi justification for the war, that it is to defend the Saudi border and cities from Iranian missiles fired by proxies. The inconvenient fact, that the war was begun to restore Hadi to the Presidency, has vanished. This is not simply because since 2014 Hadi has been unable to demonstrate control of a government in Yemen, or even the ability to live there (currently in Riyadh). It will also be because the Saudi-led ‘Coalition’ that began the war is falling apart. The first instance of this was that Qatar dropped out, after the Crown Prince had a siege imposed on the sovereign state. The second instance has been the fighting between Saudi supported forces and UAE supported forces over the control of Aden, and Southern policy (UAE supporting some separatist forces).
The UAE appears content to occupy the southern ports, and perhaps divide the country (acquiring Yemen’s limited oil resources). For the Saudis, the fate of the Crown Prince is much more important than that of former President Hadi. If the ‘allies’ can’t agree then at least ‘defend Saudi borders’ offers some sort of justification for continuing the war.
No military solution possible
At the start of the war, which it expected to be over in weeks, the Saudi regime boasted of having an army of 150,000 to deploy in Yemen. Yet it has not done so. The fighting has shown that the Saudi led coalition is incapable of defeating Ansarallah and its allies in ground combat. The current war is the seventh, and by far most damaging, of the so-called ‘Houthi’ wars. Saudi Arabia intervened in one previous round, and supported former President Salah in the other five.
Instead of challenging the powerful popular militias, the Saudis are terrorising the civilian population with endless bombing and a cruel siege for a country which imports 90 per cent of its food staples. The country’s infrastructure is being destroyed from the air, by largely British made planes, piloted by Saudis who are trained by Britain. The only conclusion to draw is that the Crown Prince hopes the demoralisation of the people, under such suffering, will isolate the fighters and force surrender.
Turning the ‘Spring’ into chaos
The transition process from the Yemeni ‘Spring’ of 2011 failed because Saudi aligned forces in Yemen, like Hadi, proved unable to integrate all of the important political forces into a unity government and process. The ‘Spring’ mobilisation continued in 2014 when the popular forces took control of large parts of Yemen, demanding an end to corruption, and a more sovereign international policy. The transition process was deadlocked, Hadi’s mandate expired, and he resigned.
The Saudi regime, like other Gulf monarchies, felt completely threatened by the popular mobilisations of 2011. In Yemen, they hoped to smother the people’s struggle under a net of the old state bureaucracy and client networks. That is why Hadi was supported by war, despite the mandate expiring and his loss of credibility. The war is to impose a Saudi aligned government upon the people of Yemen.
Stability or the Crown Prince?
Throughout his visit, Tory representatives insisted that the Crown Prince was a point of firm support for British policy. In reality, the adventurism of the Crown Prince is a destabilising factor in a region desperate for peace and diplomatic progress. In his time of power, he has started the war upon Yemen, creating, according to the UN, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
He has imposed a blockade on Qatar, undermining the survival of the Gulf Co-operation Council, imposing hardship upon the residents of Qatar, and reducing the rights of Gulf citizens to travel and meet family members. With the coalition behind the blockade, he has drawn in and alibied two of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East, Egypt and Bahrain.He has attempted to create regime change in Lebanon, through the forcible detention of Prime Minister Harari, extorting a resignation. The failure was entirely due to the intransigence of the Lebanese people, who forced their Prime Minister’s return, whereupon the resignation was withdrawn. Reliable reports suggest the Crown Prince was behind a coup attempt in Jordan, only defeated by King Abdullah purging members of his family from senior positions in the armed forces. During his visit, the Tories failed to explain how these attempts to topple other governments was stabilising the region.
Tories exercise the conventional hypocrisy
The Tories approach is based on the conventional hypocrisy of British foreign policy – second nature to them after so many decades of exercising this faculty. It is premised on the suggestion that it is the responsibility of the British government to raise the ‘concerns’ of the public covering, the lack of democracy, human rights, political liberties, etc., in Saudi Arabia. However, it is also the responsibility of the British government to protect the public’s material interests by promoting trade and commerce. It is evident that the convention is to place the latter above the former.
When, inevitably, the Saudis don’t adjust their behaviour to our ‘concerns’, these are put aside, in order to sign new contracts. The Saudis understand this farce, and, presumably, patiently and politely sit through the ‘concerns’ session of the negotiations. Once done, to everyone’s relief, the matter can return to what both parties are actually interested in, the trade/military/commercial agreements.
This process covers Britain’s general dealing with dictatorships, particularly in the Gulf. In the case of Bahrain, the British government has been dealing with the same royal family, Al-Khalifa, for just over 200 years. All the ‘concerns’ raised by successive British governments with this family have achieved nothing. Today the repression in Bahrain is as bad as ever. The opposition parties have been criminalised, senior human rights defenders are behind bars or in exile, citizenship is being withdrawn from civil and religious activists alike, torture is routine in jails, judicial executions have been resumed and there is nothing resembling a democratic political process.
Labour acts as a government in waiting
From the response of Labour’s Front Bench, it was evident that the party has an alternative to reiterating the conventional hypocrisy. Jeremy Corbyn throughout the visit made it plain that the British government should not supply arms to Riyadh, ‘while the devastating Saudi led bombing campaign of Yemen continues’. Addressing the Scottish Labour Party Conference, he said ‘… what’s needed now is both a ceasefire, and a concerted international effort to achieve a negotiated political settlement’.
Shadow Foreign Minister, Emily Thornberry, in her article in the Guardian, 7th March, endorsed this suggesting ‘…a permanent ceasefire in the country to allow for immediate humanitarian relief and talks on a political solution’. Astutely, she drew attention to one obvious disjunction in the Tory policy: ‘…while the UK government publicly insists there can be no military solution in Yemen he [the Crown Prince] has just sacked his most senior generals in an effort to achieve exactly that, and even now plans his assaults on the capital Sana’a and the port of Hodeidah, both of which will doubtlessly escalate the humanitarian crisis’
Fabian Hamilton, Shadow Minister for Peace refuted Tory and Saudi claims of UN support for the war, he said: ‘…UN Resolution 2216 called for an end to the violence in Yemen and certainly did not support Saudi military intervention in the country’. Kate Osamor, Shadow Minister for International Development, addressed the demonstration opposite Downing Street, where she spoke of the need to end arms sales, end military training of Saudi forces and to insist upon open access for aid to Yemen.
Such a display of co-ordinated and coherent responses from Labour removed the obvious props of Tory policy. But conventional hypocrisy is a major force, when backed up by a government with a brass neck. An additional 48 Typhoon fighters are to be sold to the Saudi regime. These will join the 70 which are currently devastating Yemen’s infrastructure and people.’
A momentary, or a fundamental difference?
Was this a momentary difference with the Tories in a broadly bipartisan foreign policy, or is do we have a more fundamental difference with the Tories.
Since the debacle of 1956, it has been evident that British foreign policy in the Middle East has been subordinate to the alliance with the US. Under the wing of the ally, we have supposedly promoted national interests, promoted general ‘western goals’, and retained the ability to influence developments in the region. This policy, whether right or wrong, had a rationality whilst the US maintained its effective dominance.
Arguably now the world is becoming multi-polar, albeit with the US as the largest of the powers. The US is now the most indebted state in the world, and is recovering from the great stagnation since 2008 more slowly than it did from the great slump of 1929. The rising powers of the BRICS, particularly the sustained and extraordinary growth of the Chinese economy, mean that developing states throughout the world are embarking upon other paths than development ‘guided’ by the US dominated IMF.
However Britain’s relations with the EU are resolved, it is certain that the EU will retain a considerable international influence, with some capacity to shape developments separately from the US. The next Labour government will have to begin adjusting to these shifts, if it is to stem the decline of British influence, and offer the world a more constructive contribution than the Tories nostalgia for lost empire.
New bases for a new war
The implications of the difference need to be examined concretely. Under the Tory government since 2010, Britain has taken on new naval bases in the Gulf, in Bahrain and Oman. In 1971, Britain withdrew from ‘East of Suez’, in recognition that the balance of forces in the Gulf was no longer dependent upon Britain’s military power. So what is the reason for the new bases, and should Labour maintain them?
Historically, the naval bases in Bahrain and Aden were essential to British policy in maintaining the passage to the British Empire in India. Once India obtained its liberation in 1947 the bases appeared redundant. A certain inertia obtained as it appeared that British energy interests required military involvement. The Iranian people’s uprising until the coup in 1953, and the revolutionary struggle in Iraq from 1958 challenged the privately owned oil companies control of the region’s oil. Over time British governments came to accept the general rise in national control of these resources. By 1971, British energy needs were being met with the new functioning of the oil markets demonstrating that the bases were indeed redundant.
Today, the first and essential purpose of the base in Bahrain is to assist the US in its ‘pivot’ to confront China. Michael Fallon and Gavin Williamson have both made this pretty explicit. Labour will need to become equally explicit in opposing this. While new military adventures should be avoided in general, there is a particular need for caution towards China, as British society has yet to come to terms with its historic involvement. Our military occupation of China ended as recently as July 1997. The sight of George Osborne and David Cameron insisting upon wearing poppies whilst in China demonstrates how crass even senior British politicians are towards China.
The second, and lesser, purpose of the Bahrain base is to prop up the regime of the Al-Khalifa family. The presence of British armed forces, and the perpetual exchanges between two royal families demonstrate to the Bahraini people fighting for elementary freedoms that their interests are too small for the British government to concern itself. The convention of hypocrisy shall prevail.
Reviving diplomacy and conflict resolution
As a nation of 65 million in a world of over 7 billion, Britain’s role in the world has to change. Pretensions of major influence, under the wing of the US, have drawn us into futile and devastating wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and smaller operations elsewhere. These have been most of the major humanitarian catastrophes of the twenty First Century, so far. There have been no real military or diplomatic victories. Instead we have created grinding conflicts impoverishing developing countries, with terrible destruction.
Amongst British politicians the presumption appears that permanent war is a normal feature of politics. The fact that many countries go decades without resorting to independent military action does not register with ever ready belligerents. War has become, for many British politicians, the first rather than the last resource.
For Labour we must place conflict resolution at the heart of our foreign policy. The British electorate are ready for a change from endless wars. Jeremy Corbyn has secured a larger vote for Labour, and a larger membership, whilst promoting a supposedly unpopular campaign against these wars.
Equally, during the 2017 election, it was clear that the British public is prepared to consider the serious significance of permanent war upon our domestic reality and security. Despite reservations amongst some party members, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech after the Manchester terrorist attack was incredibly well received. Continuing to stand up to hysterical war-mongering and chauvinism wins points amongst the electorate, despite the received wisdom of reaction.
The Crown Prince has come and gone, but the questions his visit raised remain to be answered. The stance Labour took has brought us closer to playing a different, and better, role in the world.
This article was initially published here by the Stop the War Coalition.