THE more I’m seeing of the still new US administration, the more I’m appreciating just how awful the last four years were. Erratic policy-making, rash decisions, unstable priorities and a feeling that there was no particular sense of vision, or morality, in US foreign policy. This has all been replaced with clear, calm and methodical announcements, followed up with considered action. Nowhere is this more important than in Yemen, as we discussed in Westminster this week.

It is safe to say Yemen is a complicated place and has been benighted by decades of colonial legacy and foreign interference, corruption and sectarian strife. It is also one of the most staggeringly beautiful places on Earth, and its people have had tragedy upon tragedy heaped upon them by a series of feckless leaders.

Yemen’s latest conflict broke out in late 2014 when Houthi rebel fighters, backed by Iran, seized large swathes of the country, including the capital Sanaa, prompting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to assemble a Western-backed military coalition to try to restore the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Cold War playing out between Tehran and Riyadh became hot in Yemen, and several other states became involved too, including the UK.

That was seven years ago. This power struggle turned into a protracted and ruinous conflict that has caused the spread of disease, ravaged much of the impoverished country’s infrastructure and left some 80% of the population (approximately 24 million people) in need of urgent food, fuel and health care aid. Since the conflict began, the coalition has enforced an air and naval blockade of Yemen. In short, the situation amounts to the world’s worst man-made catastrophe.

As of Monday this week, after 2147 days of conflict, 9810 civilians have been killed, 8758 have been injured and 22,485 air strikes have taken place. On top of this, with an estimated one million cases of Covid-19, Yemen is also facing an emergency within an emergency.

The UK is supporting the coalition in every practical way short of engaging in combat. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest arms customer. To be clear, I am not a pacifist. I see a case for arms sales, and carry no torch for the Houthis or Tehran, they are trying to depose the legitimate (by the standards of the region anyway) government, they should be stopped and it should be defended by its allies.

But as I said in the exchange at Westminster this week the UK cannot with any credibility claim to be an honest broker focussed on humanitarian aid and peace-building while simultaneously being the biggest arms dealer to the conflict. The UK is not impartial, it has taken a side. The humanitarian consequences of the war that the UK ministers are so proud of sending aid to alleviate are caused by our foreign policy – it is clear that without UK assistance Saudi would be unlikely to carry out the military actions in the way it has.

The scale of the weapons sales is huge. The UK has licensed at least £5.4 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since Riyadh entered the conflict in March 2015. The sales include £2.7bn worth of aircraft, helicopters and drones, as well as £2.5bn worth of grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures. More is in the pipeline.

Arms sales have continued despite the court of appeal ruling in 2019 that the UK Government had not sufficiently examined whether the coalition regularly breached international humanitarian law. In July 2020, Trade Secretary Liz Truss insisted that any potential breaches of international law committed by Saudi-led forces did not constitute a pattern and were “isolated incidents”.

The UK has military personnel deployed at the Saudi command-and-control centre for coalition air strikes. In September 2020, a UN report singled out how the UK is “aiding and assisting” the catastrophe in Yemen.

But on top of all this, the UK is looking increasingly isolated from mainstream international opinion. On Thursday last week President Biden announced that the US is ending its direct and indirect support for the Saudi-led coalition, including announcing a suspension of arms sales. This follows a similar suspension of US arms sales to the UAE announced in January. President Biden is also reportedly set to revoke the terrorist designation for the Houthis (a last-minute policy change by Donald Trump), citing the need to mitigate one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The designation did not impact the Houthis in any practical way, but it stopped food and other critical aid from being delivered inside Yemen and would have prevented effective political negotiation.

This is a real and significant test of Global Britain, and to my mind the UK is failing it. The coalition has failed, the situation on the ground is intolerable for some of the poorest people on Earth and no amount of humanitarian aid will make good the damage done by all the arms the UK continues to send.

Now is the time to suspend arms sales and get behind international efforts to build a just peace. Yemen may be far away but I know there is a keen interest in Scotland in the conflict – and a deep shame at our role in perpetuating it. If the Tories and their “Global Britain is a force for good” mantra want to be taken seriously, they should change policy now.