Ignore the social media ‘humanitarians’

Section 1 of 4

The Yemen crisis isn’t just a source for social media clout

The recent anti-racist movement (on steroids) has suddenly made some people relentless social media humanitarians. 

Hour on hour, they idealistically propel cases of human catastrophe onto their (usually insipid) Instagram stories. Stories that in the past have housed nothing more than a purring pet or a plate plastered with a conspicuously creamy carbonara. 

However at this moment, one specific campaign is being catapulted onto our socials more than most. This is the campaign against the death, disease and imminent famine that’s currently being inflicted upon the fractured people of Yemen.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I can’t help but offer a complete, needle fibre doormat welcome to the fact that Yemen is now captivating a countless number of attentions. And believe me when I declare that needle fibre doormats do indeed dish out the crème de la crème of bienvenues. 

However, I am suspicious that this much needed attention is just another passing virtue signalling trend, void of any serious attempt to suggest any valid and solid solutions. A topic only being talked about because it’s fashionable to do so, as the fancy flavour of the day.

Unfortunately, I do fear that this will just turn out to be another fickle affair. One fuelled by a self-absorbed minority, desperate to falsely present themselves as some form of social media messiah. People intent on knocking a number of incumbent hairy hippies off of their long-possessed perches.

However, I’ll still live wholeheartedly in hope that these people will prove me wrong and woefully wide-eyed. That they’re not just out solely for their own synthetic self-image. I’d be unashamedly pleased to accept from them a surprising slice of humble pie if so.

Nevertheless, Yemen is in the limelight now. So let’s proceed to talk about it as logically and as prudently as possible. And if we are going to talk about it, no doubt the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia will spring up like the coils in a manky 25-year-old mattress.

The arms sales debate should not be oversimplified

In Yemen, families frequently face a wincing wave of cringe and shiver as a sudden growling grumble turns rapidly into a rampant roar. A rampant roar which turns swiftly into a startling screech. A startling screech which turns briskly into a blistering boom. All this shudder, shake and panic packed into a mere matter of seconds. 

The blistering boom in question comes from the barrage and raining down of bombs, courtesy of the Royal Saudi Air Force. A force which sources much of the arms that it wields from a selection of states situated in the West.

This is precisely why so many people perceive these arms sales as such a poignant problem – and can you blame them? I’d say that you certainly can’t blame their concerns – but you can unquestionably criticise some of their irrational reactions and incomplete conclusions.

To the vast bulk of those analysing British arms sales to Saudi Arabia on social media, it’s a very blunt and basic black and white issue. You either support the sales – or you don’t. But I’m going to mimic Miley Cyrus here and come in like a wrecking ball on such a lethargic, lazy and sloppy stance. 

I instead argue that this menacing issue is far too important to be discussed and dealt with in such a shallow and simplistic manner. The solutions to this dilemma need and deserve to be so much more developed than those derived from a futile ‘for or against’ decision.

A very brief background into how arms sales relate to Yemen

Section 2 of 4

The Arab Spring

The (most recent) tear that has ripped through the already frail and fragile fabric of Yemen can be traced back to the start of 2011 and the arduous Arab Spring.

It’s a fact that the ‘Arab Spring’ sounds like a serene and spectacular attempt at rivalling the Chelsea Flow Show. And it’s right that anyone attending this event expecting roses would have thoroughly witnessed a wave of red thorniness. But when it comes to the Arab Spring, you wouldn’t catch The Queen or your nan taking a casual stroll around the thing.

Expecting something majestic would only mean that you’d have found it surprising to realise that the Arab Spring was actually a series of spirited pro-democracy uprisings. Uprisings that swept across and around the Middle East and North Africa.

Some of the folk that fired up these feisty uprisings faltered and failed in overthrowing the power-ravenous regimes that often repressively ruled over them. On the other hand, some saw ‘success’ in deposing their dingily draconian dictator or heavy-handed autocratic authority. 

However, even many of those people subscribed to the latter outcome would likely only use the word “success” in a significantly loose manner. As loose as the bowels of a lactose-intolerant person after eating cheese, perhaps. ‘Success is a very strange synonym for suffering’ I’d expect to hear those sorry souls from Yemen express.

The Yemeni Revolution

Like much of the ruptured region during the momentous Arab Spring, Yemenis channelled their sizeable yearn for change into rampant revolution. A revolution which saw that the country’s authoritarian leader of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was stripped from the reins of his perforated presidency.

Mr Saleh was moustached man who happened to possess an uncanny resemblance to Mr Potato Head. And it was his downfall that led directly to the leadership of Yemen being diverted and left in the hands of his daring deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Hadi is a bloke who has a face that wouldn’t look much out of place playing the part of Bond villain. But the presidential transition to him had the innocent intention of installing a shrewd degree of stability upon the stormy and shaky state. But since when has even the most gallant of Bond villains ever been victorious in getting their way?

As standard whenever an oaf of an authoritarian is prised away from their potent position, a power vacuum is almost sure and certain to ensue. And in the case of Yemen (and the removal of Saleh) this consistency and propensity did not dare vary.

With Saleh pushed aside, even the most modest hints of stability were led astray. This in turn created a king-sized amount of chaos and adversity for Hadi and his teetering transitional administration. 

The power vacuum

As the power vacuum was put in motion, it managed to pump out a plethora of painful punishment. Punishment that was fired upon the people of Yemen at a great and ferocious velocity.

Attacks were launched by jihadist extremists looking for a jostle. A separatist movement swirled in the south. Many military officers didn’t budge in laying their loyalty at the door of Saleh. The nation was forced into a sorry state of food insecurity. Corruption in the country was chronic.

The wounds that this profusion of punishment ended up imposing worked to profoundly weaken the position of President Hadi and his distinctly droopy cheeks. In contrast, an opportunistic group known as the Houthis sought to harness the chance to solidify their own position amongst all this sewage of political plight.

The Houthis

It should be known that the Houthis are a Shia Muslim movement who were previously responsible for rebellions against former president Saleh. 

Even though this group claims to stand up for the Shia minority in Yemen, their movement saw many Sunni Muslims take the salient step of supporting them. This after they became deeply disillusioned with the dire state of the wavering transitional government. A badly bruised government which was barely being held above water by the wilting Hadi.

Then in late 2014 and early 2015, the Houthis truly struck gold by crucially gaining the nation’s capital of Sana’a, as well as its surrounding areas, taking them out of the control of the country’s perturbed president.

This Houthi action resulted in Hadi (and his bulldog cheeks) being hounded out of Yemen, forcing him to flee to the relative safety of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

The startled Saudis

Because the Saudis believed that the Houthis were backed by their regional Shia rival, Iran, the Kingdom became startled and panicked by the rapid rate at which they were gathering pace and power.

So in an attempt to halt Houthi success, the Saudis formed and led a coalition which commenced a crackdown air campaign, with pummelling the growing group as its core aim. This in the hard-hearted hope that it could proficiently prevent the erratic Iranians from gaining a fierce foothold within the rickety region.

Then in 2017, several ballistic missiles were balefully launched towards the Saudi capital. Acrimonious acts of which played a prime part in compelling the Kingdom to impose a blighting blockade upon the battered country of Yemen. 

The Saudis claimed that this was smartly and intelligently enacted to halt idiotic weapon smuggling to Yemeni rebel groups by imbecilic Iran. A charge of which the dodgy Iranians unsurprisingly deny. But it was the innocent Yemeni civilians who were hit harder by the blockade than anyone else.

These strangling and nagging restrictions saw the supply of goods and necessities stuck sternly in the mud. Even worse, the country was pelted as the price of fuel and food sharply shot up. Yemen found itself being frightfully forced even further into a yucky and crippling crisis.

The arms sales situation

The Saudis have been (rightly) scorned by many for the bloodshed born out of their brazen bombing campaigns. It appears that their aerial bombardments have been actioned indiscriminately, and not just aimed against the Houthis. They’ve also despairingly dragged in and maimed the lives of Yemeni men, women and children in droves.

The sick civilian fatalities caused by such blind bombing campaigns has resulted in Western exporters of arms to the Kingdom also facing a fierce and beefy backlash. 

Many accuse these nations in the West (such as the UK, USA and France) of being callous and complicit in said “war crimes”. This owing to the fact that these countries have been supplying the arms to the ferocious Saudi forces. 

There has been a great deal of regular, impassioned debate about whether such arms sales should proceed. But in one quantity or another, the sales have continued to take place. And as a result, Governments have been robustly rollocked and come under an increasing amount of pressure to rectify their precarious positions on this inflamed issue.

One key reason to why Western states still support the Saudis however, sprouts from their eager efforts to hold back the abundance of birdbrained Jihadist militant groups that have jarringly capitalised upon the uncompromising unrest. 

To the West, muting the power of jagged and ruinous Jihadist extremists in the region is a crucial and sacred matter of national security. Security against the kind of groups, such as Al Qaeda, that effectively want to wage war against Western civilisation. 

It’s completely crystal clear that in this conflict there’s certainly a lot to think about and stew over. So before we rack our brains further we’re probably best concocting a brew first.

This is far from a simple for or against issue

Section 3 of 4

“Symbolism” is empty and will do nothing for Yemeni civilians

Whilst you were off making that coffee or tea, I stumbled across an ailing article by a Jennifer Spindle of Oklahoma University. In this article, she based the argument to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia solely on “symbolism”. Spindle writes about this in terms of U.S. foreign policy, but it can easily apply to the UK’s stance on such arms sales too.

She claims that ending arms sales “would be a clear signal of American disproval of Saudi actions in Yemen and would be an equally important signal to Washington’s allies”.

It’s true – an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia would indeed spark the flame of “symbolism”. And sending out a “clear signal” is all well and good. But at the end of the day, what in the world are starving, displaced and dying Yemenis going to do with sodding “symbolism”?

Western foreign policy debate is led by dunces nowadays and seems to be more bothered about (brainlessly) looking for opportunities to pat themselves on the back, rather than rationally basing our actions reason and logic.

It only ever seems to be about “how can we take the moral high ground this week?”, sprinkled with a bit of “I know it won’t help Yemen, but at least it’ll make me feel good – now where’s my Frappuccino?”.

Okay, I might be being a bit harsh here. I know (or at least hope) that the majority of us have the best of intentions. But the reality is that those sunken souls suffering in Yemen don’t give a flying Uncle Buck about “symbolism” or “clear signals” – and nor should they.

I mean, we’re talking about Saudi Arabia here for goodness sake. Seen as this Jennifer is a professor of international security, I’d expect someone like her to understand that (like the Yemenis) Saudi Arabia alsocouldn’t give a Notre Dame about senseless “signals” or sketchy “symbolism”.

Brown-nosing Saudi Arabia will also achieve bugger all

On the other hand however, the pro-arms sales side of the argument claiming that we should effectively kiss the backside of Saudi Arabia (or more specifically that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – also known as MBS) is equally pitiful and pathetic.

There’s no slipping away from the forthright fact that the Saudis do a hell of an important and influential job in relatively subduing the wicked and ignorant anti-Western influence of Iran. This along with subduing that of the similarly minded militant terrorist groups (of whom the slimy Iranians too often stupidly sponsor).

However, this relationship should not be one reared or spearheaded by a befuddled show of spineless brown-nosing which will achieve bugger all. Sycophantically sucking up to the Saudis won’t influence them one bit. Kowtowing to the Kingdom won’t help Yemen.

I’m firmly of the opinion that our nation should not follow the tipsy tendencies of a model banana republic. But rather than being overly dependent on one resource, we should not allow ourselves to become overly reliant on one foreign relation. Despite the teasing terminology, such tendencies would be far from fruitful for the UK.

By that I mean, yes, we do generate a swell amount of money from selling arms to Saudi Arabia, as well as upholding a healthy number of jobs here at home. But we should always be in a position where we can sacrifice such sweet things in cases like these, and still remain sound, strong and canny as a country.

Abso-bloody-lutely, the UK (and the West in general) would benefit substantially from a wonderful working and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Someone would have to be a simple-minded dingbat and dipstick to stupidly suggest otherwise. 

However, any working or economic relationship with the Saudis should be categorically conditional on one frank fact – that they don’t cruelly carpet bomb the incessant hell out of innocent men, women and children based in Yemen. This is precisely why I believe that this should be seen as so much more than a simple and puny ‘for or against’ question. 

If we solely decide to stand against arms sales, we change chuffing nothing. Conversely if we support the sales, we do indeed both make money and create more jobs – but still, bombs would continue to ensure that innocent Yemenis are chillingly chargrilled.

That’s why we need to try and forge a third, more influencing and compounded path. It’s an option that certainly still runs the risk of also achieving nothing at all. But it definitely stands a heck of a better and bolder chance of saving lives in the dreadfully war-torn region than the first two options do.

Meaningful action: The third way

Section 4 of 4

If we wish to sway the Saudis, we must first understand what fuels them

To be able to actually sway the Saudis, we must first understand that they have so much more at stake in securing a foothold in Yemen, than they do in remaining on the United States and UK’s Christmas card list.

What the Kingdom’s cronies truly care about is something more tangible, more serious and more substantial. They have their deliberate aims in the Middle East and MBS is dead set on achieving them – and all for good reason. 

MBS is in the slipstream of his 84-year-old dementia-stricken dad, King Salman. And he’s ready and raring to take over and (potentially) rule for the best part of 50 years. And for those 50 years, MBS wants to flower and flourish for sure.

Mohammed bin Salman is already the country’s de facto leader at large. And he’s decided and determined to maximise his inheritance of influence for when he officially succeeds that strapping Saudi throne.

It’s reality that we are theoretically counting on Saudi success in a number of areas, such as counter-extremism and security of the area’s oil supply. A weakness of the West’s that the Kingdom can (and do) definitely exploit. But that doesn’t mean that we should just simply discard and discount some of Saudi Arabia’s own serious weaknesses.

To MBS, the scramble for Saudi success is not just one born out of nationalism and a wish to become the area’s own Arabian Braveheart. It’s a scramble possessing so much more of a personal value than that. Especially when you consider that the Iranian inferno is constantly vying to destabilise and zap away any dominance that he may currently hold.

Off of the back of this fundamental fact, MBS is fully aware that Western nations considerably bolster his chances of anchoring down any meaningful influence over the Middle East. And that’s exactly why we need to level-headedly use every ounce of this leverage to actually achieve something long-lasting for those lives over in Yemen.

We wouldn’t be able to tackle the Saudis alone

One major point to remember is that military support benefits Saudi Arabia massively. But as already made clear, if Britain acted solo and alone in banning arms sales to the blinkered Saudis, it would make a Barry White of difference. 

Between 2014 and 2018, the UK contentiously exported £2.7bn worth of arms to the Kingdom. Granted, the amount that we sent in 2018 was a relatively small share of that at £61m. But either way, during that time we were still Saudi’s second largest exporter of arms.

However, you just have to compare and contrast the UK amount with the colossal sum that the U.S. sent across to them. During the same period, The States sent £11.5bn worth of arms – £3.4bn of which was sent in 2018.

This illustrates how little and insignificant of an impact we’d cause and create if we were to just go solo and cease arms sales alone. So before even thinking about making any long-lasting impact, it’s evident that we would need to get the Americans onside and try make them amenable.

Getting our friends across the pond to follow our lead in the (often deceptive) Middle East would not be a wholly straight-forward diplomatic task. But it’s fair to say that we all know how simple and easy it is (usually) to make the Yanks froth at the chance of throwing their weight about in that area of the world.

Nevertheless, if the sales were to stop without any negotiation with MBS whatsoever, we’d still end up managing to change next to nothing. The Saudis would still carelessly carpet bomb one way or another, albeit with a weakened arms flow. That’s unless we were actually able to drag them to the table.

Forcing Mohammed bin Salman to the negotiating table

If Britain (along with the Americans and possibly other Western powers involved in the sales) were to sit down with the Saudis and deliver them with some form of withering ultimatum, we’d at least stand a chance (however slim or strong) at exerting a degree of influence.

For instance, if every major arms exporter were to impose an embargo against the sales to Saudi, the Kingdom’s campaign in Yemen and the wider region would certainly be scuppered. MBS would be aware of this fact more fervently than anyone. And it would worry and concern him even if they were able to carry on their campaign.

Daunting visions of the Iranians going on to dominate him thereafter would haunt his dreams. So just the threat and suggestion of a united arms sales embargo should stand in good stead of doing the trick.

As explained and as you’ll know, the Saudis would still be able to cause a (decreased) degree of damage in Yemen without our continued arms exports, and with an embargo in place. But I’m positively sure that they’d prefer to conduct this campaign from a position of strength, with the West on their side. 

But to again press the pivotal point, such a position would have to be achieved around a negotiating table. Not just by simply and solely banning arms sales without any attempt to barter with MBS at all.

If the Saudi Crown Prince was willing to listen (and I’m confident that he would be), we’d leave ourselves a number of potential options that could allow us to capitalise on our leverage. From our very own position of strength, the door would open on our best and brilliant chance to bring the Saudi’s briskly back in line.

The Saudis are more incompetent than sinister

Of course, one part of the options could consist of giving them a right good old rollocking. But from what’s been recorded, it’s supposedly not Saudi desperation or cynicism that’s driving their bloody bombing practices. Rather, what actually seems to be behind this mess is that their ranks are crammed with sheer incompetence and shoddy inexperience.

It’s worth noting that for years, the United States have not only been supplying arms to the Saudis, but they’ve also been training a sizeable number of their force’s fighter pilots. But even with this training, it’s clear that their campaigns are still creating a reel of ridiculously rotten results. So what then appears to be the real problem?

Well, numerous reports have startlingly stated that the real problem with the Saudis is that they’re just pathetically rubbish and terrible at planning and executing targeted bombing campaigns. 

It’s reports like these that start to shed light on their shocking and rash performances. Because it doesn’t matter how well you train your pilots, if the logistical planning that they rely on is poor, they will still continue to cause the destruction of civilian lives.

So stopping short of putting Western planes into the fray, the only way in which we could ever hope to protect civilians (whilst continuing the air campaign) is by breathing straight down the necks of the Saudis. I’d even go as far as suggesting that we take up an actual hands-on approach at helping them plan the logistics of their air strikes.

The British are (unsurprisingly) some of the best in the world at planning and executing targeted bombing campaigns, without putting innocent people at risk. And I’m also sure that the Americans aren’t too shabby either at this when they want to be. 

With all this in mind, I’ve no doubt that our magnificent expertise and eye to preserve innocent life would ensure that we’d protect and save thousands upon thousands of civilians.

Seeking regional peace is most preferable

Alternatively though, my favoured option would be to use our leverage to push MBS into seeking out some form of sustainable and durable peace deal that would work to pave the way for precious stability within the region.

The promising possibility of such a peace deal has shot up significantly since countries have been captured by the Coronavirus pandemic. The very last thing that parties in the Middle East ideally want to be doing at the moment is funding and fighting a crabby and crude conflict.

However, we’d have to be sure that what was struck wouldn’t just be any old botched-up joke of a deal. If it was to be seriously supported, a number of key and crucial agreements would need to be crafted and worked out.

Firstly, the deal would obviously have to conclude that a ceasefire between the principal parties involved in this putrid conflict be observed without fail (but with the exception of action against non-consenting Jihadist extremists).

Secondly, we’d want to see the back of any strangling Saudi blockades that specifically limit and brick up the vital aid lifelines needed to support masses of suffering Yemeni civilians.

Thirdly, we’d crave an agreement that offered concrete commitments on the continuity and free flow of oil (alongside other shipments) through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and onwards to the rest of the world.

Fourthly, we’d expect solid solutions be produced that would provide a viable path towards restoring political stability and governance to Yemen.

And fifthly (as just touched on), we’d be required see a deal struck which facilitates the resumption of action aimed against the filthy Jihadist extremists that are known to odiously operate within the region.

I’ve of course kept these points cute and brief, otherwise we’d be here for another few thousand words. But nonetheless, it sets out a thin layer of a vision to how I’d see a successful and promising deal looking and developing. 

But for sure, we could never sensibly expect that everything we want would fall perfectly into line without any problems popping up. This is the messy and tumultuous Middle East we’re talking about after all.

Dealing with the Saudis if and when they kick up a fuss

Whichever way you look at it, if the West could achieve something substantial by simply threatening to cease all arms sales to Saudi Arabia without any questions asked, we’d certainly have to consider ourselves very lucky. 

Back here in reality, you’d expect MBS to kick up some form of a flustered fuss – however big or small. If so, that’s when it would be the ideal time to target and hit the place that’d hurt the de facto Saudi top dog the most – that’s the domestic Saudi economy.

MBS isn’t just merely trying and attempting to assert his dominance over Iran militarily and territorially. He too wants to secure, solidify and harden his position at home economically.

Just look at his hefty Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the Kingdom’s economy so that it can reduce its huge and heavy dependence on petroleum. A project which would christen his early reign as king and has also left his people expecting big and beautiful things.

What has made the need for Saudi economic diversification even more important however, involves the impact that Coronavirus has had on the country. Economic success has never been more important to the Crown Prince in order for Saudi Arabia to recover from this formidably fatiguing pandemic.

Therefore, if he begins to whine and twine about the West wanting to stop the horrible slaughter of innocent civilians (whether sinister or not), we’d kick him right between the legs in his economic crown jewels.

We can’t underestimate the power that the threat of a pummelling set of economic sanctions from the West would have on MBS’s likeliness to crumble and give in to our (logic-driven) demands. He’d be left with little choice. 

But if MBS somehow thinks that his beard will save him (however superb and spectacular that it might be) and decides to neither listen nor budge, it’s clear that we must follow through with the arms embargo and some form of economic sanctions anyway. To back away from doing so would make us appear weak and wilting – exactly what we don’t want.

And this is a more fitting time than any other to repeat and reiterate – if Britain were alone in ceasing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, it would make absolutely no material difference to this situation. It’s vital that we’d bring the Americans on board in order to ignite and induce any kind of positive impact.

It’s also the right time to reiterate that this must be done by dragging the Saudis to the negotiating table. Again, real change will not be achieved by solely and pathetically sending out “clear signals” and pointless “symbolism”. 

Either way, we can’t let an opportunity go to waste

All that said, you might be reading this and envisioning another use (or even multiple uses) for any leverage that we can somehow manage to salvage. If so, I’m still glad and grateful that you’re thinking in such a wise way. 

Of course, we may end up using our ‘leverage’ in vain whilst trying to turn the tide. The Saudis could look towards the likes of Russia to import arms from, for instance. Granted, this would be doubtful due to the fact that almost all of Saudi Arabia’s foes in the region are Russia’s allies. But that merely makes it an improbable incident – not an impossible one.

Whichever way that you want to look at it, the ardently important thing is that we actually would have at least attempted to use and utilise any leverage. And that’s the core point which I’m trying to put across here. We shouldn’t let a chance of influencing the Saudis go to waste. However slim and sodden that the success of such chance might appear to seem. 

So instead of taking an oversimplified ‘for or against’ stance on this sticky and sour issue, it would be so much smarter to instead use these arms sales as a potentially powerful point of negotiation.

Finally, I’ll have to apologise for wrapping this up by paraphrasing a pretty pesky and colourless cliche – but it’s true that I’d rather we try to sway the Saudis and fail, than feebly failing to try to turn them at all.

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