The Domestic Politics War

Britain and the Red Sea Crisis

Bombing Yemen is one of the forgotten traditions of British foreign policy.

Just returned from Yemen. RAF Typhoon, Cyprus.

Almost a hundred years ago, the Royal Air Force was dropping explosives on disobedient towns and villages in that country.

And yet, here we are again in 2024.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed the 12 January airstrikes prevented further “escalation” in the Red Sea Crisis. This is a bit like trying to put out a fire with petrol.

Predictably, the Houthis are still attacking ships two weeks later.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps (formerly Michael Green) has been on the airwaves insisting the Houthi campaign has “nothing” to do with the Sukkot War in Gaza.

This is necessary to sidestep growing demands for a ceasefire. Anyone asking difficult questions can be dismissed as a Houthi apologist.

After all, we’re told the Houthi movement is responsible for a litany of evils: piracy, slavery, terrorism, and child marriage.

No one could make excuses for such a movement.

All of this messaging is just for London-based journalists and the British public in need of their racist tabloid fix.

The government can count on the 24-hour news cycle and widespread ignorance of Yemen to ensure its nonsensical claims will go unchallenged.

The connection between the Red Sea Crisis and Gaza can’t be acknowledged because if Israel agrees to a ceasefire, the Yemeni issue will be solved.

Israel’s right to level Gaza is unquestionable in much of UK news media, with tabloids, in particular, relishing the Jewish state reprising its violent role in the region.

But it’s not just the last three months which are inconvenient. It’s history, period.

Inconvenient History

The RAF flew its first bombing campaigns in Yemen in the 1920s. These operations continued into the 1930s.

The port of Aden had been a British colonial outpost going back to 1839, a key port for trade from the British Raj heading to Europe.

In the interwar period, British rule in South Arabia (as South Yemen was known) was being challenged by the Kingdom of Yemen (where the Houthis hold strong today), which had taken shape after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918.

However, the British were also facing opposition from tribesmen in South Yemen.

At one point in 1934, the RAF dropped 166 bombs an hour on targets across the country. Most of it was directed to cause maximum disruption to any resisters.

By the 1950s, the South Yemeni nationalist movement had evolved into a socialist party and trade unions.

General strikes and mass protests were the first efforts to demand independence, but the British would not go.

After the humiliation of the Suez Crisis, the government saw retaining Aden as a major strategic concern.

British decline seemed certain if Yemen went independent. Staying in Yemen was justified on the grounds of national interest.

Independence in all its forms was the real enemy, even though the sun had already set on British imperialism. Not everyone had noticed.

“The prosperity of our people rests really on oil in the Persian Gulf, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the gold, copper, and precious metals of South- and Central Africa,” said Julian Amery, a Tory cabinet minister at the time.

“As long as we have access to these; as we can realise the investments we have there; as long as trade with this part of the world, we shall be prosperous,” stated Amery.

“If the communists or anyone else were to take them over, we would lose the lot.”

The so-called Aden Emergency, known as the Radfan Uprising in Yemen, began in 1963 and lasted until 1967.

Insurgents based in the Radfan mountains waged an armed struggle to free the country from British rule.

In the early 1960s, the South Yemeni nationalists took up arms just as a civil war broke out in North Yemen between royalists and republicans.

The British ended up bombing left-wing insurgents in the south while backing Islamists and royalists in the north.

The SAS was deployed with Saudi financial and logistical support.

Picking up from the Tories, the Wilson government would continue supporting this counter-insurgency campaign.

However, the Labour government soon faced pressure from financial markets – including capital flight and a bank run – to reconsider its spending commitments. A cut in defence expenditures seemed inevitable.

It wasn’t until November 1967 that the British were finally chased out of Yemen by armed resistance.

Soon after, the rebels toppled the South Arabian government and declared a people’s republic with Aden as its capital.

Many SAS officers felt victory was within sight. It felt like yet another surrender in the midst of decline.

The truth is that British rule in Yemen was unsustainable, never mind unjustifiable.

Britain would gradually retreat from its East of Suez policy, while Yemen would disappear in the British collective memory.

We have forgotten the history, but the people of Yemen have not.

Despite everything, Yemen ended the decade divided between two republics, and the British army and the SAS had to withdraw from the territory.

The country wasn’t unified until 1990. Nevertheless, the north-south divide continues to haunt Yemen.

Another Forever War

After a decade of civil war, the Houthi movement – officially named Ansar Allah – controls most of North Yemen today.

The country has returned to its fractured past, but even the Saudi army (with British support) could not defeat the Houthis.

We’re supposed to believe that the airstrikes will mean Ansar Allah will back down. The US plans just to keep bombing regardless of the efficacy of its strikes.

As US President Joe Biden put it: “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”

The facts on the ground in Yemen don’t matter in Westminster. What matters is the country’s perception that the government is taking decisive action.

Rishi Sunak is more concerned about looking weak (because he is weak) than the results.

Fortunately, the Labour Party can always be counted on to take a courageous position in foreign policy.

Labour leader Keir Starmer soon made it very clear that the opposition supports the Yemen strikes, while his acolytes went into defensive move.

Journalist Paul Mason, who is hankering after a safe Labour seat, soon claimed the airstrikes were necessary to defend “our brothers and sisters in the maritime working class”.

Say what?

Showing no concern at the prospects for a regional war, Mason claimed in December: “Real socialists stand with the Royal Navy sailors protecting the workers on those vessels.”

No doubt the Wilson government was doing the same in the mid-60s.

The British waged a dirty war in Yemen throughout the decade, directly and indirectly, to ensure the safety of brave workers manning the ships to Europe.

Only a few sensible voices in Parliament opposed the strikes on Yemen.

One such voice was Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, warning that the risk of a larger conflict is very real.

“Past mistakes in the Middle East should have taught this house that military interventions starting out as limited can quickly escalate, risking a sequence of events far larger and more terrible and risk even dragging us into war,” said Sultana.

The response she got was Tory MP Adam Percy demanding she tell Hamas and the Houthis to “de-escalate the situation” – as if she has any influence over what they do.

Later, Sultana claimed this was an Islamophobic trope. There’s no arguing it was.

Right-wing trolls soon emerged on social media to mock this claim.

They made out that she was saying criticism of the Houthis is Islamophobic rather than the insinuation that British Muslims have dual loyalties.

The spin never stops.

Yemen is just another faraway land to the British right. The theory of military success is simple: we bomb the Houthis, they stop attacking the ships, and we win.

It’s not like the Houthi movement has been fighting British allies for the best part of a decade.

Some journalists are talking as if the Houthis are Somali pirates seizing shipments of goods, while other pundits are making out Ansar Allah is like Hamas and Hezbollah.

The language of the War on Terror is still with us.

Out of the two parties, the Houthi movement may have the most in common with Hezbollah and is said to have been trained by them, along with Iran.

The problem is that the British journalists who make such claims are the sort that conflate ISIS with Iran because they’re both Muslim.

Never mind the fact that ISIS are Sunni, and the Houthis and Iranians are Shi’ite.

The Israeli government regularly tries to blur such distinctions in its propaganda. Hamas are ISIS, as Bibi has repeatedly said.

The fact that ISIS is a competitor to Hamas and Fatah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and has so far failed doesn’t speak well of this comparison.

Not long after the bombing, the Houthis rallied their supporters in Sana’a in a display of united defiance.

In bombing Yemen, the UK has helped mobilise support behind Ansar Allah.

The Houthis are still attacking ships out of solidarity with Hamas. They say they will continue to do so until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.

But the West hasn’t completely lost patience with Bibi’s “Genesis War”, as he has attempted to brand the conflict in Gaza.

The US is still fighting the Houthis, and the Yemeni missile-and-drone campaign against Israel isn’t having its desired effect.

For Biden, the Red Sea Crisis is about protecting Israel’s southeastern flank while it fights a two-front war in Gaza and, increasingly, in Lebanon.

While the White House surely appreciates UK involvement, the fact of the matter is that it’s more symbolic than anything else.

Four Typhoons and a tanker aircraft flying from Cyprus are a drop in the bucket compared to American and French assets fighting in the area.

With the Tories looking more defeated than ever before an election, the RAF can put on a much better show of strength than Sunak.

The only thing open to question is how much more it will have to do so.

Photograph by Sgt Lee Goddard, courtesy of UK MOD. Published under a MOD Crown Copyright News/Editorial license.