West right to ‘collude’ with Saudi Arabia on Yemen crisis
Jeremy Corbyn last week gave what many commentators are describing as the best speech of his career as the UK’s Leader of the Opposition. The bar was not high. At least he didn’t read the stage directions, as he did in 2015. But he sang enough of his back catalogue to keep his fans happy.
On international affairs, he was depressingly predictable, following the path of least resistance. Everything is easy. The world is divided into good and evil, and Corbyn will stand on the side of the righteous. He is for peace and against war. Aren’t we all? The problem is he has no idea how to achieve peace in any context beyond bland commitments to dialogue.
Corbyn wants Britain to prevent injustice across the world — but never intervene. This man, who his supporters credit with bringing peace to Northern Ireland (despite a striking lack of evidence), will speak and warring parties will put down their arms.
Of course, the war in Yemen received special attention, but it was a curiously one-sided description. In Corbyn’s telling, it is a Saudi war of aggression backed up by imperialist Western allies, and Saudi Arabia alone bears responsibility for the suffering the war has brought.
This leads me to reflect — not for the first time — on the capacity for many in the West to ignore Iran’s self-evident imperialism, driven by an expansionist ideology, and on the curious way in which the Houthis are barely mentioned when the war in Yemen is discussed. The repeated obstacles that the Houthis put in the way of peace have been ably discussed in these pages by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg.
The intellectual laziness of Western media and politics is helping drive this trend. The Houthis are not a threat to the West — at least, not the kind of visceral threat that Daesh poses, graphically illustrating their hostility by beheading Western hostages and claiming stabbings and rammings on the streets of Europe.
Houthi actions have led directly to a humanitarian catastrophe but, while the West will wring its hands, it is easier to blame the internationally recognized Yemen government or its coalition of supporters.
The threat that the Houthis pose is less marketable. They threaten to close the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, but who in the West has heard of it? They lob rockets into Saudi cities, but there is not about to be a refugee influx from Saudi Arabia into Western countries. Their actions led directly to a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale but, while the West will wring its hands, it is easier to blame state actors like the internationally recognized Yemeni government or its coalition of supporters including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, than to draw attention to the precise causes of the war and their consequences.
It cannot be said that the coalition is free of mistakes in the conduct of the war; it has admitted making them. But it must be acknowledged that it is not in the interests of any of the coalition members, let alone the legitimate Yemeni government, for this war to drag on any longer than it needs to. The Houthis could end the war tomorrow by reverting to the status quo ante — but they won’t.
I wrote an article for London’s Times newspaper in June, calling for the Houthis to be recognized for the extremists they are. The fact that they are religious extremists is recognized by all reasonable observers, but not necessarily publicly. My article attracted a letter in response by a group of academics, who asserted that the Houthis are in fact “Yemeni nationalists whose horizons are confined to Yemen, with no wider proselytizing aims. They are motivated by Saudi interventions in their country, including Saudi promotion of militant Salafism."
What a benign image this letter paints. Unfortunately, it is an image that the authors and other commentators on Yemen will only use when it is politically expedient. In a book, “Yemen in Crisis,” one of the letter’s authors states openly that “ideologically, the Houthis share the social characteristics of other fundamentalist groups,” and “there is little difference (between Houthis and extremist groups) in terms of the social norms they try (to) impose.” She concludes: “Throughout the areas under their control, they have foisted their norms and beliefs on others… Typical of the retrograde culture of fundamentalist Islam, they imposed restrictive rules on women’s lifestyles… all supposedly to follow religious dogma.”
The crucial line in the academics’ letter, though, is not the claim that the Houthis are merely “nationalists” (which they clearly do not believe), but that their “horizons are confined to Yemen.” This is why the West does not care. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain, promoting his policy of appeasement, spoke of “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” The lesson history taught is that such quarrels have consequences.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the West ignored Salafi and other forms of Sunni extremism because we were not affected by it. By the late 1990s, that had changed, with devastating consequences. It seems we will make the same mistake with other forms of extremism. Before I am accused of suggesting that the Houthis will turn on the West — I don’t think it is likely. But the regional ambitions of Iran are a threat to the entire world. At the very least, it is incumbent upon us to recognize that the crisis over which we are wringing our hands has, at its origin, a brutal extremist group that is supported by Iran and is determined to enforce its will on Yemen. And that this is part of a wider threat from Iran against neighboring countries.
In his speech last week, Corbyn accused Britain of “collusion” in war crimes and devastating suffering. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, we may say that he is right that those fighting extremism must demonstrate their own virtue. But fight it they must, and Britons should be proud that their government “colludes” in that battle.
Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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