The world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is currently unfolding in Yemen, and it’s far from a natural disaster. Around three-quarters of the Yemeni population is now dependent on humanitarian aid, while 7 million teeter on the brink of outright starvation. This comes largely as the result of a blockade imposed on this impoverished, import-dependent country by a coalition including some of wealthiest Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia.
Since March 2015, when their intervention in Yemen’s civil war began, the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. The world’s leading human rights NGOs and aid agencies have lined up to accuse the Saudis, the UAE and their partners of serial international law violations, up to and including possible war crimes.
Throughout the coalition campaign, in which the UN has documented “widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets”, the UK has been providing active, material assistance to the Royal Saudi Air Force, including technical and logistical support, maintenance, and a steady supply of bombs and missiles. This support has run uninterrupted for three and a half years, even after a coalition airstrike hit a school bus with a 500 pound bomb on 9 August 2018, killing 40 children aged between 6 and 11.
The question that is now increasingly being asked in the British political context is perhaps the most obvious one: why, given the huge cost to the people of Yemen, is the UK playing this enabling role in the Saudis’ and the Emiratis’ war? More fundamentally, what is the real basis of Britain’s support for these authoritarian Gulf Arab monarchies?
When I began researching this topic, a few years before the Yemen war began, my interest was prompted by a similar question, raised by another set of dramatic events in the region. In 2011, as the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa rose up in huge numbers to challenge repressive regimes from the Atlantic coast to the Persian Gulf, a broad-based and peaceful pro-democracy movement in Bahrain was violently put down with the aid of another Saudi-led intervention. Again, forces supplied and trained by the UK were involved in the violence, and again, it was difficult not to be struck by the dissonance between the standard liberal humanitarian rhetoric of British politicians and the role that British power was playing in practice. Here, the same analytical question arose: what’s really behind the support that the UK provides to the Gulf regimes in these instances? What’s the basis of this apparently very durable alliance?
As I began to seriously engage with these questions, I was surprised to discover a large gap in the academic literature where I would have expected to find some in-depth and systematic analysis of these relationships. Britain’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular were covered in a small handful of book chapters and journal articles. But there was no really substantive study that took the UK’s relationship with that key conservative regional bloc – the Gulf Arab monarchies – and subjected it to a detailed and thoroughgoing evaluation. This then was the task I set myself.
My new book, ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain’, is the result of that work. A few things struck me while I was researching it. One was that profits generated by arms sales for firms such as BAE Systems were not, in fact, the most important part of the relationship. The role played by Gulf oil and gas revenues – ‘petrodollars’ – was far more complex and wide-ranging than that. The Gulf regional economy during the recent oil boom had become the UK’s leading global south export market. ‘Petrodollars’ were playing a key role in financing the UK’s chronic current account deficit, and had become a highly important source of capital for the City of London, not least in the 2008 rescue of Barclays Bank. The real significance of arms sales, meanwhile, was in sustaining the British military industry, thus protecting the UK’s status as a second-tier global power.
Another thing that struck me was the extent to which British politicians and officials seemed determined to attribute the persistence of authoritarian rule in the Gulf to some inherent regional ‘culture’. This seemed to overlook the rather decisive role that the British state had played over two hundred years in buttressing monarchical elites and defending them against threats from below, especially in the crucial years of state formation and development. Researching and tracing these processes helped me to better understand the connections between the nature of British power and the socio-economic trajectory of the Middle East in the modern era.
AngloArabiais fundamentally a book about the UK’s relations – in terms of energy, economics and military cooperation – with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman. But beyond that, it is a case study on how Britain – as a neoliberal capitalist power whose wealth and status grew out of empire – connects with the international political economy on a number of levels, and sustains its power and wealth in the present day. It helps us to understand both the deeper reasons behind the UK’s involvement in violence and repression in the Middle East, and the real nature of Britain’s role in the world.
Dr. David Wearing is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and an internationally renowned public commentator. His new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain is now available from Polity.