The war in Yemen is as much a war of pacification by the United Kingdom and Empire as it is a war of the Saudi-led coalition. Wielding the gavel of legitimacy within international society, the world’s liberal authorities are allowed to instigate covert police operations in their perpetual fight against an elusive enemy, forever fuelling the machine of war and crushing any attempt at independence from the free-market globalist ideology.
By Leon Carvallo
As Yemen is thrust back into war following the break-down of an UN-backed ‘truce’—which, of course, despite being the case on paper, saw the continuation of violent attacks on Yemeni civilians regardless—we ought to remember whose war this is and indeed to what end it is being fought.
The United Kingdom’s role in the death of thousands of Yemenis has been portrayed at best, as negligible, and at worst, as necessary. When the aggression began, the former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’. Far from representing a mere advisor-like role, such support has proven to be the mainstay (alongside the US) of Saudi military might.
Re-framing the War
Beginning as an UN-mandated intervention in March 2015, the war entered its eighth year of continuous destruction. As a response to the overthrow of the ‘internationally recognised’ government of Mansur Hadi by the Ansar Allah coalition—often simplistically referred to as ‘Houthi rebels’—the Saudi Arabian-led coalition has turned the country into a living hell. According to the latest UNDP report, by the end of 2021, 377,000 people had died in Yemen from both direct and indirect causes. 60% of these deaths were reported from hunger, or preventable disease (instigated by the coalition’s blockade on imports), amongst other indirect causes, whilst 70% of deaths were children under the age of five.
Too often elided from the reporting on the war (what little of it there is at least) are the forces and influences more broadly at play. Typically boiled down by the think tank orthodoxy—who often control the parameters of discourse on today’s war—to a conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting for regional hegemony.
Others have painted the conflict as a ‘civil war’, where the Houthis have wittingly opened a power vacuum for extremist groups to thrive in. Such narratives should not be read as a “faux-pas”, a slip in the reading of the region’s geopolitics—but instead as an ongoing and deliberate effort to subsume Yemen into the West’s insatiable War on Terror. To be aligned with an already certified international villain, Iran, whilst lacking the oversight of a so-called ‘legitimate’ president—and thus an inevitable breeding ground for AQAP and Daesh-Yemen—is the call of all calls for more arms sales and proper Western liberal intervention.
British MoD personnel and BAE Systems staff are stationed in Saudi air operation centres, provide intelligence and logistical support, build and service the Tornado and Typhoon aircraft that constitute the Kingdom’s principal ground attack capability, and train the Royal Saudi Airforce pilots. This action has also seen the deployment of Britain’s Special Boat Service forces—an elite Royal Navy unit—sent to ‘advise’ the Saudi forces in Yemen, coincidentally resulting in five commandos being wounded in gun battles. Despite this, the UK is not formally engaged in Yemen’s war.
The UK depends on the region’s economic capacity, both as an investment opportunity for the British capital and as the mainstay of its own security industry and finance industry.
In fact, its status as a global (military) power is contingent on regional stability and its access to Gulf markets and trade routes. The order of accumulation (i.e. liberal expansionism) described here, is not one based on chance, but on the UK and US’s legitimacy within Empire’s world order to exert police powers.
Under the explicitly authoritarian and repressive rule of MBS, the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto sovereign, the Kingdom’s role in the region, and in the war itself, is only made legitimate for as long as it is congruent with the interests of British and American capital.
Britain’s export-oriented security strategy has sought to empower KSA as a pillar of regional order, whilst their covert military units illustrate a habitual attempt at international policing. The war in Yemen has been banalised in its reduction to routine police action, whilst simultaneously absolutised in its characterisation as the existential threat of the ‘Iran-backed Houthi rebels’.
According to its NSS, the UK must position itself so as to ensure ‘the sea lanes stay open and the arteries of global commerce remain ‘free-flowing’’. It must therefore be positioned in the Gulf so that key trade routes—namely, the Suez Canal (including the Bab al-Mandab, through which nine percent of the world’s seaborne-traded crude oil and refined petroleum passes)—are not obstructed.
The threat of a ‘rogue state’ on the border of KSA that faces the Bab al-Mandab, directly challenges the UK’s (and US’s) capitalist interests. But Yemen is clearly not a stranger to the tentacles of Western neo-imperialist exploitation.
Empire’s international financial institutions have attempted to shape Yemen’s economy around free markets, austerity, and urbanisation since the end of the last Imam in North Yemen in 1962. Much of the country’s economic development can be seen as a constant battle between the Bretton Woods Institutions and the recalcitrance of Yemenis to modernise according to IMF and World Bank conditions, culminating in social and political mobilisations that rejected an externally imposed ‘development’ into the global (‘free world’) economy.
From what was an independent, rural, and predominantly agrarian-based society, Yemen’s traditional values and practices have not been easily subdued by Western capitalist power. As we know, Saleh’s regime—which was ousted by the Yemeni people during the revolution of 2011—was prepared to catapult Yemen into the ‘structural adjustments’ that would facilitate modernisation: centralising state power, creating a cash-based economy, agreeing to aid packages and US ‘donations’, selling valuable assets to KSA and Qatar, whilst accepting IMF and World Bank conditions for austerity measures which finally alienated Yemenis from their traditional and localised living practices.
In his astoundingly comprehensive book titled Destroying Yemen, What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World, Isa Blumi points out that the economic development plans laid out by the multitude of aid groups pushed the use of ‘American labour-saving technology, pesticides and fertilizers’. This allowed for the previously rural villagers to instead constitute a city-based labour force for sweatshops and oil projects that contribute productively to the global market.
Lackner shows us that its subsequent lack of self-sufficiency and poverty is strongly illustrated through the prioritisation of a neoliberal agenda by external financiers that sought to preserve the country’s limited water supplies for the ‘development of high-value export crops at the expense of local food security and the living conditions of the majority.
The water crisis described here, far from emerging naturally out of a lack of resources for the population, is clearly a direct result of appropriating farmers’ lands, and their subsequent use as cash-crops.
Nevertheless, there is a general tendency to see Yemen as having always been the poorest country in the MENA. Its ‘intrinsic’ poverty has been a central pillar in framing Yemen as a country in need of saving. Seeing Yemen as a failed state that is incapable of saving itself from its poverty-induced traditionalism allows for benevolent Western institutions to swoop in and begin their modernisation programmes.
Blumi reminds us that, in fact, for five hundred years prior to the arrival of Europeans, the ruling class ‘turned the region into a thriving hub of intellectual and commercial activity’. But problematically, agricultural production was too ‘localised’ and farmers too ‘autonomous’ from the global market under the sovereignty of Zaydi Muslim Shaykhs for any ‘productive’ capital to be accumulated.
According to Kamilia Al-Eriani, seeing the country as a cause of worry, has, historically, perpetuated the ‘domination of regional and international powers over Yemen at the expense of democracy and national unity’. Not only democracy and national unity but also the economic wellbeing of the country itself, which is the one thing ‘modernisation theory’ claims to resolve.
In fact, the overwhelming assistance received by Yemen from the international aid industry, as James Ferguson shows in other ‘developing’ countries, subjected the majority of the population to greater poverty, debt, and dependence. The only beneficiaries of such negotiations have been the organisations themselves, Yemen’s president and his allies, and foreign investors who are able to exploit Yemen’s resources.
Ansar Allah and its allies, the new terrorists and ‘enemies of civilisation’, have contravened the liberal monopoly over ‘legitimate government’ with the threat of regressive ‘Arab traditionalism’, and thus must be met with violent suppression to restore order. But Yemen is only a battle in the constant war against ‘unliberal’ ideas, a blip in the preservation of order which allows for the free flow of capital, trade, and market access.
Mark Neocleous points out that while pacification has ‘traditionally been associated with the military crushing of resistance…it should be understood alongside a far more ‘productive’ dimension…in that what is involved is…more the fabrication of order, of which the crushing of resistance is but one part.’
The Saudi-led coalition, the backbone of which is Britain’s (and the US’s) Security Industrial Complex, has systematically targeted civilian populations, civilian infrastructure, and food markets, whilst simultaneously implementing a blockade to inhibit its imports, seeking to unambiguously cripple the people of Yemen into submission.
If we can understand Yemen’s ‘modernisation’ under Saleh and Hadi as a process of dispossession, exploitation, and commodification, then its destruction must be understood—not as a proxy war between KSA and Iran, nor as a civil war caused by ‘tribal’ factionalism—but as a war of pacification that seeks to crush Yemen’s resistance against liberalism’s need for expansion, in order to later reconstitute it into a thriving hub for foreign capital.
- Wearing, D. 2018. AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- Blumi, I. 2018. Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World. Oakland: University of California Press.
- Lackner, H. 2017. Yemen in crisis: Autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state. London: Saqi Books.
- Al-Eriani, K. 2019. Mourning the death of a state to enliven it: Notes on the ‘weak’ Yemeni state. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 23(2), pp.227–244.
- Ferguson, J. 2006. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Neocleous, M. 2013. The Dream of Pacification: Accumulation, Class War, and the Hunt. Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes, 9(2), pp.7-31.
Leon Carvallo is a Recent graduate of International Relations and Spanish from the University of Leeds. Particular interest in global structural inequalities and neo-imperialist exploitation in the Global South. Argentina-based teacher of English to speakers of other languages (CELTA).