In defence of Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen

Sunday 11/06/2017
Making distinctions. A boy walks past soldiers from the Saudi-led coalition patrolling a street in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden. (Reuters)

Britain’s Conservative government has, in recent years, been on the receiving end of heavy criticism in the media for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia used to bomb Yemen.
The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, has branded Saudi Arabia’s actions as deplorable and, when his own historical dealings with people connected to the Provi­sional Irish Republican Army (IRA) are brought into the political discourse surrounding the British general election, his supporters have shrugged off criticism by pointing out Con­servative dealings with Saudi royals.
This is an extraordinary comparison to make — to com­pare one’s association with a violent military organisation carrying out acts of violence on mainland Britain with having a special diplomatic relationship with the head of state of the largest oil producer and one of the largest charitable donors worldwide.
Saudi Arabia is not perfect. Its rule is seen by many as the strictest form of Islam. It is granted that there are issues with women’s rights and several other human rights issues.
However, let us examine the issue of Yemen that has blighted the Saudis’ reputation over the last two years. There are ample references in the British media to Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen and the killing of women and children. Of course, there have been civilian casualties but the legal and political context of this conflict in Yemen is rarely — if at all — provided in the mainstream British media.
In 2015, a rebel group called the Houthis grew stronger in north­ern Yemen. Soon, they captured the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. In March 2015, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and members of his government fled the country and established a government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia. Hadi’s government is internationally recognised and was forced out by the Houthis.
On fleeing, Hadi invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter, which provides for the right of countries to engage in self-defence, including collective self-defence, against an armed attack. The government of Yemen requested Saudi intervention to use force to remove the Houthis and that was communicated to the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia, therefore, is not invading or bombing Yemen unilaterally. It is using military force on the explicit legal author­ity and invitation of the president of Yemen who has been ousted by rebels. It is bombing Yemen at the invitation of Yemen.
The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216 in April 2015 in which it “reaffirmed its support for the legitimacy of the presi­dent of Yemen.” A coalition of Arab countries was formed, led by Saudi Arabia.
Of course, when military force is used, the force must be proportional. One must follow international humanitarian law by keeping civilian casualties to a minimum and avoid targets such as schools, hospitals, etc. There are questions as to whether the Saudi-led coalition is being too rough or aggressive.
However, a distinction must be made — which is not being made in most if not all centre-left British media — between lawful military force where there are questions on the intensity of the military force and military force, which, irrespective of intensity, is unlawful in the first place. Saudi Arabia falls into the former category in that its intervention is legal.
Yet the British public is seem­ingly unaware, given that perverse comparisons to dealings with the IRA are seen as akin to relations with Saudi Arabia, that Saudi Arabia and its coalition are actually on the right side of the Yemen war, notwithstanding any unsettled issues on the intensity of the military force which, of course, need to be addressed.