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Labour, anti-imperialism and the war in Yemen

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Jeremy Corbyn has condemned the UK’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has plunged the region’s poorest nation into a humanitarian crisis.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudis launched a military intervention to restore former president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to power after he was overthrown by Houthi rebels in 2014.

The Saudi blockade has created severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Seven million people are at risk of starvation, including two million children. 15 million people lack access to basic health care, drinking water and sanitation. More than 80 per cent of Yemen’s 27 million population depend on international aid to survive.

To compound the misery, over 750,000 cases of cholera have been reported, following the destruction of the country’s sewage and water treatment in a bombing campaign co-ordinated by US and UK military advisors.

Corbyn’s letter points to the UK’s “strong support for all Saudi military action to date” and its “continued authorisation of arms sales for use in the conflict”.

Government ministers defend the presence of British military personnel on the grounds that they are helping the Saudis “avoid civilian casualties”. But the UN reports that airstrikes have deliberately targeted schools, hospitals, refugee camps and other civilian areas.

The reality is that British troops are there to provide logistical support and gather intelligence on the operation of the £1.1 billion in arms sold to Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2017 alone.

In June, Saudi Arabia donated $66 million to a World Health Organisation fund to combat the cholera outbreak in Yemen – whilst intensifying its bombing campaign. In the same month it bought $500 million of arms from the United States. Between April and June it bought £826 million from the UK.

Corbyn has called for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended “pending an investigation” into war crimes. Whilst the Saudi war criminals ought to face justice, their war is endorsed by the UN Security Council, and as an ally of Western imperialism, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is free to pursue his strategy of “submit or starve” against the people of Yemen to its final, bloody conclusion.

What Corbyn should expose is the real purpose behind Britain’s involvement and the extent of its complicity in this dirty war.


Fierce competition between British and French arms dealers is one reason why the UK government will not let human rights violations sour its cosy relationship with the Saudi monarchy. But the arms industry is not just about profiteering. Arms contracts are used by the government as political chess pieces, to cultivate relationships, punish enemies and reward friends.

The UK’s strategic alliance with the USA depends on its ability to act as the junior partner to US imperialism, particularly in the Middle East, as a result of its former role as the dominant colonial power.

Supporting your allies in a war, particularly one with serious political consequences, is the supreme demonstration of loyalty. That is why David Cameron’s failure to secure House of Commons support for joining the US bombing of Syria was acutely embarrassing.

With Brexit set to seriously diminish Britain’s ability to represent the United States’ interests within the European imperialist bloc, the ruling class is keen that Britain demonstrate its continued utility and secure its place under the US imperialist wing.

Through its involvement with the war in Yemen, Britain is providing military and diplomatic support for the project of a US-led alliance of states bound together by mutual fear and hostility towards Iran and its Syrian and Lebanese allies.

The fact that Yemen’s Houthis are only superficially linked to Iran’s growing assertiveness in the region, makes it easier to use the war to increase military experience and cooperation, whilst reducing the chance of triggering a premature clash with Iran.

Internationalism as policy

Corbyn is right to expose the hypocrisy of the Tories and demand an immediate end to shipments of arms to Saudi Arabia. But why not extend this to all customers of Britain’s fastest growing export industry?

What distinguishes Saudi Arabia’s use of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen, from Egypt’s use of British-made “crowd control” equipment against protesters, or Israel’s use of British-made drones to bomb Gaza? Why do we sell weapons to the Saudis at the same time we are imposing an arms blockade on the Houthis?

Socialists in the Labour Party should support Corbyn’s call, but we need to go much further to create an internationalist policy. Labour may find itself in government sooner rather than later. What will its Middle East policy look like in the hands of Emily Thornberry and Nia Griffith?

We already know how many Labour MPs, and ‘commentators’ like Paul Mason, will answer: whatever the military, secret service and Foreign Office establishment judge is in the best interests of British imperialism, a strategy of military aggression everyone agrees to call ‘Defence policy’.

Jeremy Corbyn should commit Labour to opposing Britain’s military involvement in the Middle East, withdrawing all British forces and closing all its foreign bases. The arms industry should be nationalised, and contracts should be scrutinised by an independent body elected by working class and anti-war organisations.

The catastrophe in Yemen, the grinding wars in Iraq and Syria, the diplomatic arson of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, all show that the struggle for a policy based on working class political independence from the bourgeoisie is not a matter for patient deliberation, but unrelenting struggle.

A consistent socialist international policy should be based not on moralism or pacifism, but on opposing the policies of all the imperialist powers and supporting the struggles of all forces fighting those powers. In the case of Yemen, the intervention into the civil war by Saudi Arabia, alongside Israel the mainstay of the western imperialists in the region, should be opposed and whatever practical support possible should be supplied to the Houthi forces, without for a moment endorsing their political leadership or domestic programme.

Since 1914, the imperialist powers have condemned the Middle East to a war without end as they struggle for supremacy. With the threat of a new clash between the world’s great powers, socialists have to renew the struggle for an anti-imperialist antiwar movement whose defeat of our own rulers will be the most important contribution we can make to the coming victories of the working class of the whole region.