Joe Biden has announced the end of US support for Saudi-led offensive military operations in Yemen, arguing in a foreign policy speech that they have “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. The details remain to be seen, but we should use this shift to exert pressure on the British government too.
Intervention by the predominantly Arab military coalition headed by Saudi Arabia, directed against Iranian-backed Shia Islamist/nationalist Houthi militias, has resulted in many tens of thousand of fatalities, including over ten thousand civilians killed directly by coalition military strikes.
Thousands have died from malnutrition, disease and poor health. Save the Children estimates that between April 2015 and October 2018 85,000 children died from malnutrition. 80% of Yemen’s population, 24 million people, need some degree humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. 20 million need help securing food and 10 million are “one step away from famine”. 18 million do not have adequate access to clean water. Something like four million have been displaced from their homes.
Socialists have no reason to support the authoritarian, antisemitic Houthis or their Iranian sponsors; but every reason to demand an end to the Saudis’ blood-soaked war and foreign, including UK, support for it.
The US Congress previously voted to cut off support to the Saudis, but Trump used his veto.
The Biden administration has also said it will produce a declassified account of the murder of Saudi dissident and US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which is expected to incriminate the Saudi regime and royal family.
As foreign policy analyst William Hartung has commented, “The devil will be in the details”. Biden said the US would continue to provide “defensive support” to Saudi Arabia. Hartung commented:
“To be effective, the new policy should stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both proposed and in the pipeline, including maintenance and logistical support; increase humanitarian aid to Yemen and reverse the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which severely undermines the ability of aid groups; and press Saudi Arabia and the UAE to commence a ceasefire and negotiate in good faith for an inclusive peace agreement.”
The UK is not formally part of Saudi Arabia’s coalition, but provides essential technical assistance to the Saudi airforce, and allow billions in sales of fighter planes, arms and equipment by British companies.
In 2016, when then Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry moved a motion to withdraw UK support from the Saudi war, the government won 283-193 – with over one hundred Labour MPs failing to vote. A few had legitimate reasons but it was clearly a right-wing rebellion against criticism of a crucial “UK ally”.
Some of this may have been a desire to oppose Corbyn. Under Starmer Labour has called for an end to UK involvement (eg see current Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, on 4 February, here).
The UK labour movement can use Biden’s shift to help force the Tories to change course, and help at least mitigate Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe.