It would be the understatement of the decade to point out that the Middle East is in turmoil. In an age replete with incessant military “interventions,” civil wars and societal collapse, breaking news about another outbreak of violence in this perpetually troubled region may pass unremarked.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s own Foreign Secretary, appears to have done the unthinkable, however. Openly criticizing Saudi Arabia, Johnson has infuriated Conservative party colleagues by claiming that the UK’s main ally in the region is engaging in proxy wars, apparently with little regard for the well-being of the local population. Johnson has thus inadvertently singled out a prime issue in British foreign policy, one that has seen the UK habitually endorse a power known for both human rights abuses at home and violence overseas.
As far as “proxy wars” go there seems little doubt that Johnson is on to something. A coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia is conducting an extensive and ongoing aerial bombardment of its smaller and far weaker neighbour, Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition claims that its intervention in an expansive civil war is intended to curtail Iranian encroachments via their alleged allies, the Houthi supporters of former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Several thousand miles to the west, both the US and British governments have also drawn fire for their role in supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons systems, munitions and tactical expertise. In the process, the US and Britain have become associated with the mass civilian hardship that has become a hallmark of the Yemen conflict. British weapons in particular have been used in striking multiple targets, many of which appear civilian in nature. Johnson’s remarks thus cut right to the heart of an issue that British Prime Minister Theresa May seems eager to downplay.
Yet why sell weapons to a power evidently involved in such bloodshed? An easy answer may be the profit motive. The UK has been a regular supplier to Saudi Arabia for a considerable time, exporting a variety of military items and accruing a sizeable amount of cash in the process. With a turnover of some sixty billion pounds per year, in addition to employing over nine hundred thousand people, the UK aerospace/arms industry is a sizeable feature on the economic and political landscape. If the current government is serious about weathering the storm of both Europe’s ongoing financial troubles and the uncertainty after Brexit, then it makes sense that it would want such a sector to remain optimal. The resulting loss of life appears to be a secondary concern for the British weapons industry and its government allies.
Indeed, Britain’s arms exports are hardly modest, having increased by 26 percent in the past five years to command some 4.5 percent of the total global market. Top customers include a plethora of nations believed to be associated with either war crimes abroad or human rights abuses against their own citizens. Saudi Arabia is, predictably, a frequent buyer of this British hardware, with other customers being Bahrain – itself a power known for using extreme force to crack down on internal dissent – and, unsurprisingly, Israel.
In the latter case, British weapons have turned up in the most egregious of contexts, with the Israeli Defense Force deploying such equipment in 2014’s “Operation Protective Edge,” a military effort that, while not exactly unprecedented, cost the lives of several thousand Palestinians, many of them children. In any event, UK arms manufacturing accrued a tidy profit, with over forty million pounds worth of exports ending up in Israeli hands, including components for both armored vehicles and aerial drones. The resulting moral and political fallout proved to be of minimal concern for the government, however, despite an abortive legal challenge and protests on the streets of London. Business, it seems, was to go on as usual.
Yet, is money all there is to it? A more complex and deep-rooted explanation may lie in Britain’s historic goals in the region. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the relationship with the UK is long standing and multi-faceted, involving factors combining overt force, political intrigue and economic partnership that go back decades.
A Historical Precedent
Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty from which modern Saudi Arabia takes its name, was undoubtedly a man with little patience for the niceties of either diplomacy or proper conduct in war. In the early twentieth century, after a prolonged period of conflict with the moribund Ottoman Empire, he is believed to have slaughtered hundreds of thousands in his final bid to take control of much of the Arabian Peninsula, even displaying the severed and spiked heads of presumed enemies outside the city walls of his new-found capital, Riyadh. Saud ultimately consolidated his rule by carrying out some forty thousand executions, in addition to amputating the limbs of over three hundred thousand dissidents and causing a million others to flee: acts of brutality that would, one might assume, lead such a man to meet with nothing but condemnation.
The British Empire, however, had other ideas. While backing Saud’s campaign with extensive supplies of munitions and weapons, London even dispatched an advisory team to Saud’s side, solidifying the relationship between his Machiavellian aspirations and Britain’s ongoing foreign policy goals. The purpose, it would seem, was to cement an enduring accord between Saud’s emerging new order and the British government. Saud would thus serve not just as a customer for arms, but as a plausible proxy for the expansion of British regional interests. The subsequent Treaty of Darin in 1915 secured Saud’s territory as a British protectorate. The Ottoman Empire’s loss was to be Britain’s gain.
Much like today, the UK was not afraid to get its hands dirty. According to author Mark Curtis, in his seminal text, The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order, British forces intervened directly during a rebellion in 1929-30, contributing both ground and air assets to defeating an insurgency aimed at toppling Saud from power. Whereas the rebellious Ikhwan movement – whose members themselves endorse a particularly violent and puritanical interpretation of Islam – were hardly a progressive counter-weight to foreign imperialism, their suppression by the combined forces of the British Empire and Saud marked a further strengthening of relations between the two powers. The British were thus setting a renewed precedent for a regional policy of both overt intervention and rule by proxy.
This was not something confined to the lands claimed by the belligerent Saud. Indeed, London’s efforts were part of a broader policy of intentional fragmentation and occupation, stemming from an agreement between the British government and its French and Russian allies on what to do with the Middle Eastern territories of the then rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The so-called Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916 carved much of the region into separate spheres of British and French influence, with the former swiftly moving to claim their prize.
The future leader of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, Arthur “Bomber” Harris – who went on to earn fame through his mass air raids against German civilians in WWII – made his début during this period, testing his nascent theories on air power by using British aircraft against Arab villages. Noting that “the only thing the Arab understands is a heavy hand,” Harris was not shy about putting such sentiments into practice, deploying his forces against Iraqi resisters on multiple occasions. In the process he marveled at how quickly opposition could be snuffed out through the application of air power and cutting-edge technology. The fact that those experiencing the weight of his “heavy hand” were often civilians does not appear to have bothered Harris. It was an approach that he went on later to apply with gusto in Europe.
After having been formally constituted as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the youthful country went on to distinguish itself in the following years by adopting a particularly ruthless approach to both domestic and foreign policy, constituting itself as an absolute monarchy, with Saudits figurehead. When large deposits of oil were uncovered just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War the country became even more important to the western powers.
Yet this does not appear to have prompted any external pressure for political and social reform in Saudi Arabia, something that at times proved awkward for allied states when subject to international scrutiny. During the initial UN vote to accept the freshly-drafted Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia abstained from voting to adopt the treaty, joining apartheid South Africa and multiple states of the Eastern Bloc in voicing opposition.
Citing theological reasons for their abstention, the Saudi delegation’s arguments belied the true situation in their country, one where a plethora of human rights were, then and now, habitually violated, from the right to participate freely in politics to the habitual use of capital and corporal punishment in criminal law. Endemic poverty and the effective banning of independent trade unionism is also an everyday reality.
This rarely appears to have perturbed the British government. For one, the UK’s hands-on approach to Middle Eastern affairs has remained consistently strong, with British aircraft and mercenary forces taking part in Saudi-supported operations during Yemen’s own civil conflict of 1962-1970. This marked one of the more intense periods of the Cold War, with the British/Saudi alliance scrambling to aid Yemeni Royalists at the expense of indigenous Republicans backed by both Egypt and the Soviet Union.
Although the Egyptians eventually withdrew their forces as they realized the untenable nature of their position, the episode stands as another example of London and Riyadh being more than willing to cooperate to the extent of engaging in armed conflict outside their respective borders. Follow that up with Saudi assistance to Coalition forces in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and it would seem that the country has long been able to constitute itself as a stalwart ally of the west.
Add sizeable foreign aid and investment, coupled with the infatuation British officials have frequently displayed toward the Saud family, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to David Cameron, and we can begin to comprehend just how warm relations between the two nations have historically been, despite the incessant violation of the values many Britons may like to think are enshrined by their nation.
So what is behind the continuation of such an alliance? Profit would seem to be one factor, with Saudi Arabia constituting Britain’s primary trading partner in the entire Middle East. As the UK is eager to maintain and expand its already sizeable share of the global arms trade, this source of revenue alone is no doubt of serious concern. Indeed, if Riyadh has an interest in continuing to purchase British weapons, then it makes little sense to assume that British (and indeed American) business leaders would suddenly permit their consciences to get in the way of maintaining a sizeable source of revenue.
Given the shaky economic situation following Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May is hardly likely to allow such lucrative opportunities to go to waste, despite the protestations of the more ethically inclined. Considering that the Saudi air force appears to be going through ammunition at quite a fast pace, the market for further arms sales seems wide open. Humanitarian considerations and indeed outrage at the treatment of Yemen have thus been deftly rejected by British officials. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently claimed that Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is conducive to the respect and proliferation of human rights norms; a bizarre argument to make that stands in grim contrast with reality.
Yet there may be more to this issue. British policy is being dictated by a combination of both financial and strategic interests, with the latter often taking priority. Whereas arms sales to the region are evidently so lucrative that they offset any apparent concerns for the loss of human life, the UK/Saudi relationship goes back decades, being one of mutual utility and compliance.
Given Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the open debate on whether to commence bombardment of Syria in 2013, not to mention the use of British weapons against Gaza in 2014, the UK has not ceased to view the Middle East as being of vital importance to its broader strategic and material interests. In Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, these interests clearly take precedent over the welfare of the Yemeni people.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specializing in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.