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Yemen: 'Forgotten war' or 'deliberately ignored'? Open in fullscreen

Hilary Aked

Yemen: 'Forgotten war' or 'deliberately ignored'?

A Yemeni woman inspects the damage at a factory allegedly targeted by Saudi-led airstrikes [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 September, 2016

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Comment: Yemen's civil war should be situated in the context of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, writes Hilary Aked

The British media can agree on one thing about the current destruction of Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition: It is a "forgotten war". From The Times to the BBC, from The Guardian to the New Statesman, this moniker has become the standard label for the conflict since bombing began in March 2015.

The terminology has some well-intentioned origins: Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and anti-poverty research bodies such as the Overseas Development Institute have used the phrase in an attempt to encourage engagement with the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in the poorest country in the Middle East.

But the reality is that Arundhati Roy's observation "there's no such thing as the 'voiceless', there's only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard" also applies to war in the globalised world. There's no such thing as a "forgotten" war, there's only the callously unheeded and the deliberately ignored.

Western complicity has generated a sort of self-conscious amnesia. Headlines about Yemen as a "forgotten war" have been rolling out for over a year with little discernible impact on the will of UK leaders to change their stance. It is almost as if, by persisting with this narrative, the media actually license the political class to continue to overlook the suffering they have helped to cause in the country.

We have made a point of forgetting our deep historical connection to Yemen, much of which was, after all a British colony for many years.

Western complicity has generated a sort of self-conscious amnesia

But the strategic value that Aden had for imperialists of the British East India Company in previous centuries, is not matched today. The southern city is a stronghold of forces loyal to current the President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who fled the capital Sanaa when it was captured by Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels who support the ousted President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have allegedly had assistance from Iran. Far from having much incentive to act to stop the violence, Britain is in fact making a killing selling arms to Riyadh.

Together with the US, the UK has continued to arm the Saudis throughout the conflict, wilfully ignoring evidence of possible war crimes (schools, hospitals, markets and other civilian targets including refugee camps and the international airport, have been attacked, especially in the Saada region and the city of Taiz). The hypocrisy of calling for Britain and America to "help ease the humanitarian suffering" with one breath while acknowledging their role in arming the main perpetrator is staggering.  

Besides the lucrative arms trade - UK licensed £3.3 billion in arms sales the first year of the conflict alone - there are other factors at play. Yemen's civil war should be situated in the context of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a rivalry the US is clumsily seeking to mediate by reassuring the Kingdom of its pre-eminent status as number one American ally in the region, following the nuclear deal which thawed relations with Iran.

This dimension means that the US and UK are prepared to tolerate indiscriminate attacks on civilians by a state power

The nine-nation Saudi-led Sunni coalition involves the richest countries in the Middle East, including Gulf Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, whereas Yemen is a country that was gripped by economic crisis even before the civil war began. This economic power asymmetry is pertinent to understanding why Saudi is enjoying impunity similar to that of another US ally in the region, Israel, which has been repeatedly allowed to bomb Gaza and kill thousands of Palestinians with zero consequences.

If Yemen is therefore one of the world's ignored wars – others have included, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo where over 5.4 million died in less than a decade - but what has been noticed by international political leaders?

The answer is the influence of the chaos and misery on the never-ending global "war on terror". As with Syria, this dimension means that the US and UK are prepared to tolerate indiscriminate attacks on civilians by a state power in the hope that the same government will be a bulwark against terrorist groups.

While this big power politics ensues, the people of Yemen experience malnutrition on a mass scale

In Yemen, the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has occurred despite opposition from both of the main warring sides, as well as its rival Islamic State, which has carried out several suicide attacks in Sanaa. The grim truth is that the presence of AQAP could ensure continued support for the marauding Saudi armed forces, if they give assurances to Britain and the US of a renewed focus on defeating the group together with the insurgency.

While this big power politics ensues, the people of Yemen experience malnutrition on a mass scale. An estimated 80 percent of the country's population - more than 20 million - require humanitarian assistance such as food aid, while famine affects some areas as a result of the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia on the north of the country.

More than two million people have been displaced and over 10,000 have been killed. British politicians, though, seem determined to remember to forget.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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