Britain Cuts Aid to Yemen—But Keeps Funding Saudi Bombs

by Ed Harvey

Illustration by Herman Jönsson

In this year of the pandemic, politics has come to be a matter of life and death in the UK. This is not usually the case. However, for the people of Yemen, politics—whether international or domestic—have become a death sentence. The country’s health system has been broken by coronavirus; at the same time, the UN warns the country faces a severe famine. Back in Britain, while talking heads have technical debates on corporation tax, the real story is that the Chancellor has shirked Britain’s moral responsibility in order to save the governmental equivalent of the fiver you find down the back of the sofa. Yemen is facing a huge, avoidable catastrophe and “global Britain” is walking away.

On the 22nd November, 2020,  in what felt like his 558th spending review since the pandemic started, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the UK’s foreign aid budget would be slashed from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%. The shocking realities of this damaging decision were crystallised when James Cleverly, the questionably-named Foreign Office minister and MP for Braintee, signalled that the UK was reducing its aid to Yemen by more than half with “at least £87m” guaranteed, a 59% drop of the £214m of 2020/21. According to the UN General Secretary, this is a “death sentence” to the millions of Yemenis that desperately need foreign aid to survive. The conflict consuming the country has left more than three million displaced and 100,000 dead due to lack of food, health services, and infrastructure since 2015. 

The suffering is all the more abhorrent as, according to the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, the UK is “complicit” in the region. Indeed, a former Ministry of Defence mandarin claimed that the Saudis “couldn’t do it without us.” The UK authorised $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020.  Britain’s humanitarian commitments ring hollow when it simultaneously cuts aid while moonlighting as one of the largest arms dealers to Saudi Arabia. 

One of the meanings of the word “Yemen” is  blessed. This is a macabre irony when considering the country’s current predicament. Southern Yemen was a key strategic point in maintaining clear communication between Britain and India. In 1937, Aden became a Crown Colony, and it was only after the humiliation of the Suez Canal Crisis, nagging insurgency, and severe economic constraints that British troops finally left Aden some 50 odd years ago. 

Aden, Yemen, January 1939. UK National Archives

Yet now Britain is back in the region, and party to a crisis with no end in sight. In the early days of the conflict, former Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond pledged that Britain would effectively support the Saudi-led campaign short of directly engaging in combat. The bleak humanitarian situation facing Yemen and the woeful Saudi human rights record, both in the conflict and at large, beg the question why Britain is still happy to continue supporting a conflict even the Biden administration has walked back from. The official answer argues that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are crucial at gaining Britain influence in Riyadh that it can theoretically use to sue for peace in Yemen. The initial British decision to actively support the Saudis in 2015 may be down to the fact that the Saudis would have proceeded regardless. Much like the wizard in the Emerald City of Oz, British opposition to the campaign would have revealed the illusions of British power in the region. Importantly, influence is not an end in itself. Britain must be prepared to jeopardise the leverage in the commercial relationship it has with the Saudis in order to meet its foreign policy objectives. Otherwise, the illusionary influence so prized has done little but embolden Saudi Arabia to be more aggressive in Yemen. However, the tough conversations and extensive targeting training the government parades as achievements are cold comfort to Yemenis as they are increasingly targeted in the conflict by Saudi airstrikes using British-made kit. 

The real reason may lie with the immortal words of the Wu-Tang clan: “cash rules everything around me.” Saudi contracts have been a boon for UK-based arms manufacturers: in 2019 BAE made £2.5bn in revenues from the Saudi military alone while Raytheon, a key supplier of Saudi hardware, is critical for employment in Glenthroes, Scotland. This is what makes the aid cut all the more galling. British-made Paveway IVs (all-weather, GPS- and laser-guided bombs) have been instrumental in pulverising Yemen’s hospitals, infrastructure, and schools to rubble. Perhaps Britain’s current complicity is best summarised by Andrew Mitchell’s 2016 trip to Yemen, where he observed a British aid-funded school that had been destroyed by a British-made bomb.

A man stands the rubble of a building destroyed in an air raid in a neighborhood in Aden, Yemen. Photo by Peter Biro

The Chancellor’s decision to drastically cut foreign aid will probably see him feted as having the necessary fortitude and fiscal responsibility to tackle Britain’s annual deficit of £56bn from Conservative budget hawks. Yet the cuts will leave a more sinister legacy. First, the changes to foreign aid will undo the achievements of Britain’s humanitarian assistance to Yemen: one million Yemenis provided with water and sanitation, 55,000 children treated for malnutrition, and over 400,000 children and pregnant and breastfeeding women with nutrition interventions. The Chancellor’s proposed cuts will cost lives unnecessarily and not serve Britain’s strategic interests in Yemen or the wider world. It is no accident that former prime ministers and senior political figures from across the political divide have shown vehement opposition to the aid cuts. Similarly, the UK’s cuts may provide other countries with the diplomatic cover and justification to reduce their commitments at a crucial time.

The United Kingdom has had a long and complicated history with the people of Yemen and the wider Middle East, with one of the few bright spots being the foreign aid given to the people caught in the web of overt and covert interventions that have defined Britain’s relationship with the tempestuous cauldron of the Middle East’s politics. The cuts are a false economy as well as a moral contagion tainting Downing Street, Whitehall, and the Exchequer. Ultimately, it is striking that a chancellor known for subsidising our food last summer seems rather sanguine about taking it out of the mouths of Yemenis who desperately need it.

Ed Harvey is a history and politics teacher based in Birmingham, England. Despite being some years removed from his international relations degree, he still carries a candle for global politics and believes that, in order to understand it, we must look to history.

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