DONALD TRUMP’S FIRST SIGNIFICANT DECISION AS PRESIDENT was to order a military raid on a village named Yakla in central Yemen. The raid killed around 30 people, including an eight year old girl. It did not find the purported al Qaeda figure it was targeting. It set the tone for the Trump administration’s carelessly belligerent policy towards the Middle East.
Within days, the Hadi administration – the Yemeni group that the US administration considers the country’s legitimate government – declared that it would suspend co-operation with the American military. So both major sides in the Yemen conflict are now united in their opposition to US meddling in their country. The botched raid occurred amidst deeply worsening conditions for the vast majority of Yemenis. Two years on from the start of a conflict in which one of the richest countries of the world - Saudi Arabia – began systematically bombing one of the poorest, two-thirds of the population, over 18 million people, are now dependent on diminishing humanitarian aid. As Yemen teeters on the brink of famine, a UN appeal in January for funds to address the humanitarian crisis had only raised 6% of the annual budget needed from member states by mid-March.
There could scarcely be a more man-made humanitarian crisis than Yemen’s. The single most cynical act taken by the Saudi government was to bomb Yemen’s main port, Hudaydah, in August 2015, through which the country had previously imported much of its food. It remains out of action, while the Saudi-imposed comprehensive naval blockade means that humanitarian organisations find it increasingly difficult and costly to deliver supplies within the country. The Saudi campaign is the project of Muhammad bin Salman, the son of the king and deputy crown prince. He took over as defence minister in January 2015, when his father became king, and – like Trump – his first major action was to order military action against Yemen. He is also the chair of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which came up with the internationally-lauded ‘Vision 2030’ programme for Saudi economic liberalisation.
The most significant venture within this programme has been the creation of a $2 trillion Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which would be financed by the partial privatisation of state oil company Saudi Aramco. The ‘sale of the century’, as The Economist put it, would make Saudi Aramco the world’s most valuable company. Both British and US governments are heavily involved, with intense British lobbying for the company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange. Concerted efforts to make the Saudi sovereign wealth fund pump funds into their economies will surely follow.
Within Saudi Arabia, bin Salman’s reputation rests on the war in Yemen. If it fails, his rapid rise to become the chief power behind the throne – his father, the king, is widely thought to have dementia – ends. If that happens, his role in spearheading the Saudi Aramco privatisation would then also terminate. Among the Saudi princes, muttering against selling off their national assets to foreign prospectors, just as they did to their enormous cost in the 1930s, has been held in check only by bin Salman’s grand visions of Saudi Arabia’s future as a global investor. The likelihood is that it would all unravel were Saudi Arabia forced to concede the futility of their Yemeni campaign.
And that helps explains the renewed fervour of British support for the Saudi war there. That war is against Yemen’s Houthi movement, which stems from a northern province and who were largely excluded from the earlier Saudi-led efforts to patch a coalition government together from 2012. Their subsequent takeover of the capital was part of a struggle against local rivals. But Saudi Arabia made it an international conflict, claiming that defeating the Houthis had global significance.
This line now seems fully bought by the British government. Michael Fallon, UK Defence Secretary, told the BBC that the Houthis were “supported by al Qaeda, a very direct threat to this country, so we have an interest in seeing ...the Houthis defeated.” This was pure fantasy: al Qaeda, who are Sunni extremists, are actually fighting alongside the Saudi-backed Hadi administration that was dislodged by the Houthis, who are Shias. That was why Hadi called off co-operation with the US after Trump’s Yakla raid. From the point of view of Yemenis, the only reality is an impending famine that has no prospect of ending. For the US and UK, the only reality appears to be that of cultivating the Saudi aggressors. That is perhaps why Trump’s second major foreign policy act was to overturn a suspension imposed by the Obama administration, and resume weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.