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Saudi visit puts trade deals ahead of the lives of millions of people in Yemen

5 min read

Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor does not support the government rolling out the red carpet for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who she calls 'the architect of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen'.

Today, the British government rolls out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen.

Bin Salman will meet later with Theresa May and even with senior members of the royal family. It is an honour rarely extended to foreign dignitaries, yet alone those who appear to have repeatedly breached international humanitarian law. 

Theresa May must now use that meeting not to sign deals, but to insist Saudi Arabia lifts its Yemen blockade, grants full humanitarian access to Hodeidah port, and saves lives.
Last week, the UN humanitarian chief warned that conditions in Yemen are now “catastrophic” and that “famine remains a real threat”. A record 22.2 million people now need aid and protection. It is a war that has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced 2 million, and left 8.4 million in severe food insecurity and on the brink of starvation. 

Saudi Arabia may be only one side in the conflict, but it bears a particular responsibility for the impact the war has had on civilians. In October last year, the UN blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for killing and injuring 683 children in Yemen and attacking dozens of schools and hospitals in 2016. Repeated and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas is a clear breach of international law.

So too is the deliberate destruction of the country’s food infrastructure, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. With millions facing potential famine, it is absolutely shameful that Saudi Arabia continues to blockade Hodeidah port - the main entry point for aid and a lifeline for civilians. 

The recent launch by Saudi Arabia of a parallel aid plan, promoted heavily to UK MPs by PR agencies, fails to put a stop to the main cause of starvation: Saudi Arabia’s blockade. It has been described by the neutral International Rescue Committee as nothing more than a “war tactic”.

Theresa May claims that by failing to call Saudi Arabia out for these human rights abuses and violations of international law, we are somehow better able to influence Saudi Arabia, limit its worst excesses, and encourage caution in Yemen. 

But after three years of war, and with the situation in Yemen continuing to deteriorate, there is nothing to show for this tactic, if that is indeed what the Tories are doing. The alarming truth is that Theresa May’s so-called Global Britain is not just silent in the face of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen – it is actively supporting it. 

Consider this. Our government continues to sell arms, even when other European countries are suspending theirs: the UK has now licensed more than $6.4 billion in weapons, including fighter jets, bombs and missiles, to Saudi forces since the start of the Yemen conflict. New figures reported on Monday showed that the UK government since 2015 has overseen a jaw-dropping 75% increase in the use of opaque open licences, responsible for hiding the true scale of arms sales. 

Our government provides military training to Saudi forces too: in November, it emerged that up to 50 UK military personnel have been secretly teaching battlefield skills which could be deployed in the war.    

Yesterday, it became clear that our government is even helping polish the reputation of Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia: a senior British diplomat, on unpaid leave from the Foreign Office but still employed by them, is working for a company at the heart of a multimillion dollar Saudi Arabian public relations offensive.

Today, you will hear Tory spokespeople say that the Crown Prince is not the architect of Yemen’s war, but a progressive reformer we should work with, and that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a price worth paying because it will help us fight terrorism. Absolute nonsense.

For the Government and for Saudi Arabia, this visit is about sealing grubby business deals and about salvaging reputations. In fact, the two governments are reported to be likely to sign deals on behalf of private business worth $100bn. We should be outraged that the UK is putting business deals ahead of the lives of millions of people in Yemen, and turning a blind eye to humanitarian disaster and to human rights.

It makes a mockery too of our country’s important commitment to international development: we will have sent almost £200m in taxpayer-funded aid to Yemen in the last year, even as British-made bombs continue to rain down. It is private firms – not even the taxpayer – that will recoup billions in profit from these sales. It is giving to Yemenis with one hand, and taking away with the other. 

Labour has said that we will suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen until we get the results of a comprehensive and independent investigation of their alleged war crimes in the conflict. Labour will also ensure international development objectives apply across government, and put a stop to the Tories’ incoherent humanitarian policy. 

Today, the British public will rightly be wondering why Theresa May and the royal family are meeting with a principal architect of the war in Yemen, and whether this is the new normal for so-called Global Britain under the Tories. If May’s meeting today does not result in Saudi Arabia lifting its blockade on Hodeidah port and granting full humanitarian access, it will have been worthless. 

This is what it feels like for our great country to be on the wrong side of history. It is high time we put human rights and social justice at the heart of our humanitarian and foreign policy.

Kate Osamor is the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development and Labour MP for Edmonton

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