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DURING the 2020 US election, Joe Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.” This was a calculated move designed to insinuate a significant material change in relations that would never occur.
The unbreakable nature of this relationship was demonstrated after September 11, when the US worked alongside the Saudi government to cover up the scale of Saudi involvement in the attacks.
In the context of the US election, it would put clear water between the two campaigns on a current foreign affairs issue. However, since Biden’s victory, the reality has been one of a largely cosmetic relationship recalibration in line with US imperialism.
Disagreement within the US establishment is about how US imperialism is best administered — it is not a fundamental disagreement about whether US imperialism is desirable.
The stated wish to recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia is complicated further by the war in Yemen — again, in the case of Yemen, how best to administer US imperialism is central to the calculations of the Biden administration.
Ali Kadri analyses the war on Yemen as “a colonial war par excellence. It involves depopulation through refugee making, war deaths and starvation… Imperialism strips the Yemeni people from the right to be represented through a state for years to come.”
For the people of Yemen, Western imperialism is not a new experience. Southern Yemen was a protectorate under the control of the British from 1839 to 1963. In North Yemen, the 1962 coup against the monarchy resulted in the creation of the Arab nationalist Yemeni Republic — civil war followed, with the Saudis and the British backing the royalist forces.
In 2011, major protests shook the Saleh government as part of the Arab Spring — this led to intervention from the Gulf monarchies. Saleh stepped down and was replaced by his vice-president Hadi. The Hadi government failed to broker a settlement that was acceptable to key groups such as the Houthis and civil war broke out.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 after Hadi was deposed by the Houthis. The coalition has the support of Britain and US, with Saudi Arabia as the lead “junior regional partner” in the war. Saudi Arabia has fulfilled this role ever since the Nixon “twin pillar” strategy designated Iran and Saudi Arabia as the guardians of US interests regionally.
As part of the US strategy shift, Biden announced an end to “US support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” This announcement complements the rhetorical shift, positioning the US as a force for peace.
The Pentagon press secretary stated on March 8: “We want the Houthis to demonstrate their willingness to engage in the political process, stop attacking and start negotiating.”
It fits neatly into the wider context of relationship recalibration with the Saudis, but scratch beneath the surface and the flashy presentation does not stand up to scrutiny.
First, the US (and Britain) are foundational to the war effort — in the words of a BAE whistleblower, “They couldn’t do it without us.”
US statements attempt to obscure this fact by shifting responsibility away from Western nations, allowing the US and Britain to present themselves as neutral and rational observers pursuing a fair settlement. The term “offensive” was carefully chosen as it allows ample wriggle room to justify continued support.
The Saudi coalition has long used trumped-up charges of Iranian involvement alongside self-defence narratives to legitimise its presence, which involves targeting civilians in a “wide and systematic manner” according to the UN.
Additionally, the US and Britain provide much of the munitions, aircraft, maintenance, training and supervision of the war effort. It is therefore false to claim that there is no involvement in “offensive” operations, even if we take a narrow view of what that constitutes.
We must also interrogate the use of “peace” terminology and what it denotes in the imperialist mindset. If we look at its usage in the recent Trump “peace plan” we will see that it means “peace on terms favourable to the US and its allies.”
The Biden administration recognises the military quagmire Yemen has become and how the conditions on the ground are exposing US credibility — “peace on our terms” is therefore a desirable stance.
Across the Atlantic, Britain’s Labour Party has used the announcement to put pressure on the Conservative government, notably on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This is a useful development, but again, it exposes the battle over tactics between the liberal and conservative wings of the Establishment.
Labour is following the lead of the Biden administration in recognising the need to distance itself from the events on the ground and to recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia, but is still heavily wedded to traditional British foreign policy and so its analysis obscures the extent of Britain’s involvement.
Their position is further complicated by the anti-imperialism of its last leader and the desire of its new leader Keir Starmer to make a clean break with Corbyn, who was viewed as an aberration from the usual bipartisan understanding of British foreign policy.
The Conservatives find themselves in a problematic situation too, as they are still singing largely from the Trump hymn sheet.
Saudi investments through its Sovereign Wealth Fund, including the recycling of oil profits, are of great importance to Britain. David Wearing, author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, estimates that Saudi funds service around 20 per cent of the current account deficit.
The 1985 Al Yamamah deal represents a significant pillar of British-Saudi relations. As noted in the Guardian, “This guarantees British maintenance, training and rearmament of any British aircraft sold to Saudi Arabia, in war and peacetime.”
Given the centrality of aerial bombardment to the coalition war effort, it is difficult to argue against the claims of the BAE whistle-blower who stated to Channel 4 Dispatches, “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”
British companies such as BAE systems provide what is termed “in-country services.” It is therefore no surprise that Labour has failed to call for a severance of the Al Yamamah deal, or developed a robust critique of relations. This is further compounded when we look at their silence over other problematic relationships which serve to advance British imperialism in the region.
Finally, it is useful to discuss the role of aid in the context of Yemen, notably subjected to a 50 per cent cut. In the context of imperial domination, this will worsen the situation on the ground and increase the suffering of the Yemeni people. The UN estimates that around 24 million people will require some form of humanitarian assistance in 2021.
However, analysis must go further than this if we are to adequately interrogate the contradiction of Britain providing aid to Yemen while playing a central role in sustaining the war.
We must consider the role of aid as a soft-power tool of liberal democracies. As Jason Hickel argues, “Aid is deployed in an attempt to signal a break with colonialism, by positioning Western nations as benevolent actors, whilst the global North’s plundering of the global South continues.”
In the case of Yemen, aid has been deployed as cover for the destruction carried out in the name of Western imperialism, not least the blockading of Yemeni ports by the Saudi coalition. It allows for a surface-level benevolence to be constructed, complementing a “peace on our terms” positioning.
As activists, there is more we can do to apply pressure onto both Labour and the government. Campaigning to sever the Al Yamamah deal would be central to exposing wider involvement of the West and could act as a springboard for interrogating the wider relationships of Britain in the region.
Secondly, we should always scrutinise the language of actors and question the contradictions between promoting Britain as a force for peace while we continue to sustain the war.
Lastly, we should continue to develop and popularise critiques of aid mechanisms as a form of soft power for masking imperialist aims, exposing contradictions at the heart of traditional British foreign policy.
Quoting from Kadri again, “From the Third World’s perspective, capital is a daily genocide.” It is incumbent upon the people of the global North to expose this reality to our friends and family and to ultimately bring it down.
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