Deadly airstrikes have been orchestrated by the Saudi-led coalition, leading to the decimation of many areas and civilian casualties.PHOTO SOURCEL FLICKR, FELTON DAVIS

The role of the media

As Catherine Happer wrote in The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change, ‘the media… are key to the setting of agendas and focusing public interests on particular subjects.’ In a content study of 1989 news bulletins relating to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she found that ‘there were only 17 lines of text (from transcribed bulletins) relating to the history of the conflict. When journalists used the word ‘occupied’, there was no explanation that the Israelis are involved in a military occupation… Palestinian perspectives were effectively marginalised.’

Such under-contextualised reporting on complex geopolitical issues is the central cause of the reality that the vast majority of us are under-informed on the Yemeni Crisis. ‘People don't realise how involved the US and UK governments are in creating this catastrophe in Yemen,’ says Shireen al-Adeimi, assistant professor at Michigan State University. ‘It's construed as something that just is happening somewhere to people who are fighting each other - as a sectarian war.’

Since 2015, the US and UK have collectively sold more than $12 billion dollars-worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia. The UK government issues arms licenses to private defence companies, allowing them to sell weapons which have been used in Saudi-UAE coalition bombings against Yemeni hospitals and funerals, and which have directly killed at least 2,582 civilians. The UK has also provided the Saudis with a fleet of Typhoon military jets which a former Saudi Air Force officer claimed are so crucial that ‘without the Typhoon they will stop the war.’ On July 6th 2020, Dominic Raab announced that the UK government intends to impose sanctions ‘against those involved in serious human rights violations,’ and yet the following day, the government announced its decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, dismissing the ‘possible’ war crimes committed in Yemen as ‘isolated incidents.’

"Consistent underreporting by the British media on the events in Yemen means that too many of us are unaware of both the heinous complicity of our own government..."

These events highlight a startling degree of cognitive dissonance at the heart of government. As Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said, “How the Government can seriously describe a five-year Saudi-led aerial assault on Yemen which has seen numerous examples of civilians killed in schools, hospitals, funeral halls and market places as a set of ‘isolated incidents’ is almost beyond comprehension.’ Private defence companies have often been the largest beneficiary of foreign arms exports, with estimates suggesting that by 2017, British weapons firms had earned £600 million in profit from arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Yemeni conflict. However, the government recouped £30 million of this in corporate tax receipts, in addition to subsiding arms exports by between £104 million and £142 million. The result is a moral fiasco in which the government simultaneously allocates public funds to the production of weapons used in the killings of Yemeni civilians, and reaps revenue from them. 

Suggestions that private companies bear the moral responsibility for these arms exports initially appear plausible, until one considers that the most senior members of the UK government have engaged in shameless lobbying on behalf of private defence companies. In November 2012, former Prime Minister David Cameron made a 3-day tour of Gulf States for the explicit purpose of promoting arms sales, and in February 2016, Cameron boasted of the UK’s ‘brilliant’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt denounced calls to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia as an action that would ‘surrender our influencein Yemen. But at what human cost do we acquire this ‘influence?'

'From 2010 to 2012, a series of anti-government protests took place across the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring. Among other things, this led to the ousting of Yemen’s president..."PHOTO SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

As a country, we have profited off of war crimes, and yet there has been little public outcry. Consistent underreporting by the British media on the events in Yemen means that too many of us are unaware of both the heinous complicity of our own government, and of the disastrous humanitarian consequences which that complicity has wrought. When we lack understanding of a crisis, it becomes easier to claim ignorance and push it to the peripheries of our minds – to conceive of the crisis as an abstract reality happening far away. But the 19 million people who lack access to clean water are not an abstract reality. They desperately need our help. So what is happening in Yemen, and what can we do to help?

The crisis in Yemen

From 2010 to 2012, a series of anti-government protests took place across the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring. Among other things, this led to the ousting of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Upon his ousting, his Vice-President, Abdrabbuh Hadi, assumed the Presidency, but in 2014, a rebel group named the Houthis began seizing territory across the country.

In January 2015, the Houthis seized the Presidential palace and strategic military installations, and in February, they declared themselves in control of the Yemeni government. What ensued was a civil war between the Houthis and forces aligned with Hadi’s government, including a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries from West Asia and Africa. That civil war is ongoing to this day.

The civilian population of Yemen has been decimated by the conflict. The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have engaged in firefights in civilian areas, and the coalition have launched airstrikes, both leading to huge numbers of civilian casualties.

Beyond direct civilian casualties from the fighting, the war has precipitated the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Fighting has damaged essential hospital, water supply and sanitation infrastructure. Out of Yemen’s 29 million people, about 19 million do not currently have access to safe drinking water. This has been compounded by the ongoing cholera outbreak, which has been happening since October 2016, and has killed more than 2,500 people, 58% of whom are children.

"Fighting has damaged essential hospital, water supply and sanitation infrastructure." 

Add to this the Covid-19 pandemic, for which effective combat requires robust health infrastructure, regular hand-washing, PPE for doctors and a comprehensive test-and-trace system, and the Yemeni population becomes mortally endangered by poverty. In a country of 29 million people, there are only a few hundred ventilator machines, and the fact that the number of coronavirus cases is unknown means that the virus has been able to spread unchecked throughout the population. ‘The coronavirus may be the straw which will break the camel’s back,’ said the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The range of compounding impacts of the war is staggering. NGOs report that women and children are at increased risk of sex trafficking as a result of the war, and UNICEF estimate that at least two million children have dropped out of school since the conflict began. According to the UN, at least 13 million people are on the brink of starvation. 

Very often, our society tends to ignore crises that unfold slowly, as well as crises that unfold seemingly separately from the Western hemisphere. But we can’t afford to ignore the crisis in Yemen. Babies are starving. Young girls can’t go to school. Each one of the 13 million Yemenis at risk of starvation is a person who deserves the world’s attention. 

How to help

Currently,  donations are what is most urgently needed. Millions of Yemenis are currently dependent on food, water and medical assistance provided by NGOs. Doctors Without Borders are providing emergency medical assistance on the ground; UNICEF is working to provide water, nutrition, education and protection to vulnerable children; and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) provides over 12 million people in Yemen with monthly food assistance. These organisations depend on our donations to continue operating. We must donate. 

We also need to educate ourselves. Reading about suffering is difficult, but if the Black Lives Matter protests have taught us anything, it’s that those of us with the privilege of living violence-free lives must not turn a blind eye to oppression. It is our imperative duty to pay attention. What I’ve provided is a highly simplified version of events that excludes the complex geo-political factors involved in precipitating the war that we see today. For a more detailed account of the crisis, please visit the websites listed at the foot of this article.

".... we need popular outrage now more than ever."

Crucially, we must recognise that as British citizens, we are indirectly profiting off of Yemeni deaths. In a report entitled ‘The economic costs and benefits of UK defence exports,’ the four economists who authored the report estimated that the Ministry of Defence would lose between £40 and £100 million annually if arms exports were halved. Theoretically, the savings made by permitting these arms sales to continue allows the government to invest more in public services. But such an economic upshot is unconscionable. 

Just as one million people turned out onto the streets of London in 2003 to oppose our government’s participation in international thuggery in Iraq, we need popular outrage now more than ever. We must petition our government to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia, no matter the economic benefit we reap from them. We must write to our MPs and implore them to support economic sanctions for Saudi Arabia and any other nations that commit human rights violations. The UK is the sixth largest economy in the world. As a nation, we have substantial influence when we choose to use it.  

That goes for the rest of us too. Social media has blessed us each with a megaphone to amplify the causes that we care about. Activism in the digital era is no longer just about turning up to protests. It’s about donating, educating ourselves, and writing to our MPs to demand the change we want to see.

So donate, educate yourself - take time for yourself, but when that’s over, turn back to the work. Use your megaphone for good.



Organisations to donate to:

Further reading:

Articles used in the writing of this article: