Analysis | The war on Yemen is about capitalism, not sectarianism

In the first essay in our three-part #StopDSEI series, Tom Anderson reviews the roots of the crisis in Yemen, where the civilian population has been enduring a brutal bombing campaign by a Saudi-led coalition, supported by the UK, since 2015.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, September 1, 2017 11:30 - 0 Comments

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(Photo: Amnesty International)

This is the first of a three-part Ceasefire series of essays on the war on Yemen, published ahead of next week’s DSEI,the world’s biggest arms fair, which will take place on September 12th-15th. In part two, Safa Al-Shamy offers a personal firsthand account of the impact of the war on her country’s civilian population. In part three, Paul Cudenec looks into the toxic politics and disregard for human rights at the heart of DSEI, and the upcoming #StopDSEI protest action planned against it.


Since 2015, Yemen has been enduring a brutal attack by the Saudi military and their allies. According to Yemen’s Sana’a-based Legal Centre for Rights and Democracy, 11,929 people have died as a result of the Saudi offensive, including over 2500 children. Hundreds of medical facilities have been destroyed. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Less than half of the country’s medical facilities are still functioning.” This, and the devastation to infrastructure caused by the bombing, has resulted in a devastating cholera outbreak, which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 2000 people, with 500,000 more also infected.

Genesis of the crisis

The Saudi aggression in Yemen has its roots in the Saudi rulers’ wish to politically dominate the region and to regain control in the wake of the people’s movements for democracy and freedom that arose out of the Middle-Eastern and North African uprisings – known as the Arab Spring – that began in 2011.

In 2011, inspired by the people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis rose up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was forced to flee to Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, and never returned to office, but instead handed the presidency to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However in January 2015, Zaidi-Shia Houthi rebels advanced on Sana’a. Hadi was forced to resign and, like Saleh before him, fled to Riyadh. Once Hadi was safely in Riyadh, he rescinded his resignation, and announced his intention to set up a temporary government in the Yemeni city of Aden. 

Saudi’s rulers were not willing to allow their ally to be toppled by a Shia force, which they allege to be supported by Iran, their main opponent in the region. Rather than let this happen, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes and a ground invasion on 26 March 2015. 

A war for money and power

Part of the motivation for the Saudi alliance’s continued invasion is, of course, power and money. The war being carried out by Saudi Arabia and its alliance in Yemen is intended to benefit Saudi capitalism by reasserting its regional dominance, dominating strategic ports and creating a captive market for investment and consumer goods for Saudi and its allies.

The war in Yemen may also be motivated by a wish to maximise profits from the export of oil by eliminating the competition. According to Ryan Riegg of the Lawyerence of Arabia writing group, Saudi Arabia would benefit from disrupting or controlling “the Bab Al Mandeb Strait (BAM) and/or chokepoints in the Red Sea, through which Qatar and Iran ship nearly all their natural gas to Europe”. This could be achieved by expanding the war in Yemen.

Backing up this argument, in 2017 Saudi Arabia began an economic blockade of Qatar, demanding it shuts down the Al Jazeera news network and severs links to groups including Hezbollah – the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia movement – and the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, Qatar was removed from the Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen.

Power struggle with Iran

Saudi Arabia is a WahabiSunni Islamist state, ruled by an autocratic monarchy. Saudi state nationalism is constructed around Wahabi-Sunni theocratic ideology. As such, the regime sees the Shia state of Iran as a threat to its domination of the region, and it sees the region’s Shia inhabitants as potential allies of Iran.

Although the Saudi rulers are Sunni, 10% of the Saudi population is, in fact, Shia. And yet, the regime is currently engaged in a deadly attack on them in Awamiya (inside its own borders). Similarly, the Sunni regime in neighbouring Bahrain, a de-facto Saudi client-state, was backed up with Saudi military force against the popular uprising of 2011, and continues to rule over an overwhelmingly Shia population. This, coupled with the Iranian state’s support for Shia political movements, means that Saudi Arabia sees the violent repression of these movements as a key part of enforcing its hegemony in the region. This is why the seizure of power by the Houthi Shia-Zaidi rebels was met by such a violent response.

However, this doesn’t mean that the invasion is motivated, either wholly or principally, by religious differences, as Western mainstream media often imply. Instead, sectarianism is used by the Saudi regime to justify waging colonial wars intended to assert Saudi dominance and benefit Saudi capitalism.

The role of Britain and the US

The US has been closely allied to the Saudi regime since the 1930s, when agreements were made for Saudi oil reserves to be exported to the US. One of President Trump’s first international visits was to Riyadh to facilitate a $110 billion dollar arms deal. According to UK cooperative Campaign Against Arms Trade, UK arms sales to Saudi totalled £5.6 billion under David Cameron. It is not surprising then that both the US and the UK have been enthusiastic supporters of the Saudi-led coalition’s attacks on Yemen.

War starts here, let’s stop it here

One way to show solidarity with the people of Yemen is to join the campaign against the DSEI arms fair, the world’s largest arms fair; which is set to take place in East London’s Docklands in September 2017. An official political and military delegation from Saudi Arabia attends each DSEI event to browse weaponry and potentially make arms deals. 

Susannah Mengesha, one of a group of activists who was arrested in 2015 for blocking the gates of the arms fair, said “By formally inviting Saudi to the DSEI arms fair, and by continuing to arm them to the teeth, the UK government is demonstrating a callous disregard for the value of human life in Yemen and Bahrain.”

A coalition of groups are planning to take action against the DSEI arms fair. Their slogan is ‘War starts here, let’s stop it here’. The week of action will be focused on stopping the event from taking place by preventing the deliveries of weapons to the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands. Actions are taking place from 4-11 September, with a big protest planned on Saturday the 9th. Go to www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk to find out how to get involved.

Follow Stop the Arms Fair @Stopthearmsfair #StopDSEI

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Tom Anderson is a member of Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of independent writers and researchers, writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.Follow @ShoalCollective on Twitter

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