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Britain's dark shadow looms over Yemen funeral tragedy Open in fullscreen

Martin Armstrong

Britain's dark shadow looms over Yemen funeral tragedy

More than 140 people were killed in Saturday's attack on a funeral in Sanaa [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 October, 2016

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The UK has sold £3.3 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia since Yemen's conflict began despite claims that Riyadh has been targeting civilians.
A devastating attack in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, has reignited an ongoing debate over both the morality and legality of the UK’s lucrative arms contracts with Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday a purported airstrike on a funeral wake for the father of Houthi interior minister Jalal al-Roweishan in the Haddah neighbourhood of Sanaa at around 2 pm local time left at least 140 people dead, and a further 500 injured.

The involvement of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states currently conducting airstrikes against Houthi targets in the country is widely suspected.

The coalition supports the exiled government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, against the Houthis who are reportedly backed by Iran and pledge allegiance to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia has since said it will carry out internal investigations into the attack after initially denying responsibility.

Sanaa in mourning

Hussain Albukhaiti, a Yemeni journalist from the town of Dhamar, located around 90 km south of Sanaa, said on Monday that people in Yemen were in a state of shock.

"There is a lot of anger, this attack has reached every house in Sanaa and beyond, every family. The hall was full, it was an open event. After the first strike people outside went in to look for survivors. This is when the second strike occurred," said Albukhaiti. 

There is a lot of anger, this attack has reached every house in Sanaa and beyond, every family. The hall was full, it was an open event. After the first strike people outside went in to look for survivors. This is when the second strike occurred

According to military analysts, Saturday’s attack consisted of a "double-tap". This occurs when a warplane carries out an initial bombing raid on a target, and then waits for either signs of survivors, or rescue workers to arrive, before executing a second, or more, consequent attacks.

Albukhaiti said that the process of identifying some of the victims had been rendered near impossible. Mourners had been reduced to bone, dust and ash by intense heat generated by the attack. 

"There is a lack of DNA experts to help identify the victims," said Albukhaiti. "Sometimes people blame the UK and the US before they even mention Saudi Arabia. They know that without these (military) contracts and support Saudi Arabia would not be able to launch these attacks."

The process of identifying some of the victims had been rendered near impossible. Mourners had been reduced to bone, dust and ash by intense heat generated by the attack

A lucrative business

Since the start of the conflict, the UK has sold over £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, a sum bettered only by the United States.

This £3.3 billion includes payments worth £2.2 billion for the purchase of aircraft, helicopters, and drones; £1.1 billion for the purchase of grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures; and £430,000 towards the purchase of armoured vehicles, and tanks.

This £3.3 billion includes payments worth £2.2 billion for the purchase of aircraft, helicopters, and drones; £1.1 billion for the purchase of grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures; and £430,000 towards the purchase of armoured vehicles, and tanks

On Saturday afternoon as news of the devastating attack began to appear on global news bulletins Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that staff in six hospitals it supports in Sanaa were struggling to treat all those in need.

"The situation was very chaotic. Over 400 people in emergency rooms, severe burns and shrapnel cases, panicked-stricken relatives and friends arriving at hospitals to try and find out the fates of loved ones," Colette Gadenne, MSF’s head of mission in Yemen, told The New Arab.

Gadenne explained that the severity of Saturday’s airstrike had lead MSF to put a plan into action to assist hospitals in Sanaa which the organisation ordinarily does not. 

"We were helping with trauma amongst victims, with dialysis… the hospitals in Sanaa are the best in this part of the country but there are massive shortages of medicine, oxygen, even electricity. There is a strong referral system in place in which those with severe injuries from attacks outside Sanaa are often sent here for treatment," continued Gadenne. 

"But now they are completely overloaded and we have been asked to refrain from referring patients."

Humanitarian objections

International human rights and advocacy groups have long argued that British military hardware has been used in attacks targeting civilians in Yemen. 

"The current agreement with Saudi Arabia is in breach of international law," Andrew Smith, a media spokesperson with the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), told The New Arab.

International human rights and advocacy groups have long argued that British military hardware has been used in attacks targeting civilians in Yemen

In July a British High Court ruled in favour of a case presented by CAAT challenging the British government’s continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. A judicial review of the case is set to take place by February 2017. 

But discussions over further exports remain ongoing.

BAE Systems – historically the prime contractor in UK-Saudi arms deals – revealed last week that it was in talks with Riyadh over a new multi-billion-pound arms contract.

Over a 20-year period, between 1985 and 2005, the British defence company received over £43 billion from Riyadh through al-Yamamah deals.

In return Saudi Arabia paid for BAE’s military hardware through the delivery of up to 600,000 barrels (95,000 m3) of crude oil per day to the UK government. 

Gadenne explained that in August, MSF was forced to withdraw its staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after an airstrike hit the Abs Hospital in the Hajjah governorate, killing 19 people. 

Amnesty International has since said that remnants of either UK or US manufactured bombs were found at the scene of the ruined hospital. But investigations into coalition airstrikes in Yemen, conducted by Saudi Arabia, earlier this year concluded that they had "adhered to international humanitarian law". 

Remnants of either UK or US manufactured bombs were found at the scene of the ruined hospital. But investigations into coalition airstrikes in Yemen, conducted by Saudi Arabia concluded that they had 'adhered to international humanitarian law'

Previously, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir claimed that British and American officials were present in the control centre for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen but played no role in choosing their targets.

"Targeting civilians and hospitals is totally unacceptable. We have called on all parties to respect this," said Gadenne.

"But nevertheless we have seen hospitals and civilians targeted. International governments who support Saudi Arabia have a responsibility to make sure rules governing war are respected. If you sell, you facilitate."

Aid to Yemen Vs. Arms to Saudi

In September, after objections were raised against the UK-Saudi arms deal in parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May defended the arrangement stating "actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

"When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism. It is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe," said May, speaking at the time. 

In contrast to the £3.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia since March 2015, the UK has provided £100 million in aid to Yemen over the same period of time. According to the UN over this 19 month period, 10,000 people have been killed, and over three million people displaced, while 60 percent of all civilian deaths have been attributed to coalition airstrikes.

Additional reports suggest that half of Yemen’s 28 million people are already short of food, with 370,000 children enduring malnutrition due in large part to a blockade enforced by Saudi Arabia. 

By Sunday thousands had taken to the streets of Sanaa in protest to the attack. One Houthi spokesman claimed that it had occurred "with international collusion that reaches the level of direct participation."

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has since called for an escalation of attacks against Saudi Arabia, raising concerns of further violence. On Monday, a US naval vessel in the Red Sea intercepted two missiles fired from Houthi-held territory in Yemen.

"I don’t understand how anyone could justify selling weapons knowing full well that civilians are targeted and that in turn violates international humanitarian law. Economics cannot rationalise war crimes," said Dr Riaz Karim, co-founder of Mona Relief, a UK-based charity currently working in emergency relief in Yemen.

I don’t understand how anyone could justify selling weapons knowing full well that civilians are targeted and that in turn violates international humanitarian law

Reviewing relations with Saudi Arabia

Soon after Saturday’s deadly attack the United States, the world’s largest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, said it would begin an "immediate review" of its military support hazarding that cooperation with Riyadh "is not a blank cheque."

The UK government remained tight lipped on the escalating situation until Monday when one Downing Street spokesman told The Telegraph "I am not aware that there is any plan at the moment to review our relations with Saudi Arabia."

In Sanaa last week, local residents had observed that the skies above the ancient city had seemed unusually calm amid rumours of back-channel negotiations between Houthi representatives and a delegation of the Hadi government aimed at establishing a ceasefire deal.

But speaking to The New Arab on Monday, Albukhaiti noted that the situation had changed. Some families, he said, were still unsure of the fate of loved ones.

"It is common for people to travel to Sanaa from around the country, for work, for access to better electricity networks… Usually they are gone for a few days and then they return, it’s normal," said Albukhaiti.

"But now many people are in mourning, some still do not have clear news." 

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