I flew into at Sana’a airport just after midnight with a fiver in my pocket and no other means of financial support. My debit card was way over the limit and no cash point machine would give me money – which was a bit academic because the airport cashpoint was broken. None of this mattered. My friend was going to meet me. “Come to the Yemen”, he said, “you won’t need money, just come”.
To a penniless student waiting to go off to theological college it was a dream offer. Except he wasn’t there to meet me. A curfew started in an hour and a number of intimidating looking technicals – civilian pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns – patrolled the airport grounds. That was the beginning of the first adventure. The first of many. Welcome to Yemen.
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My final destination was Taiz, a city over 150 miles to the south, up in the mountains. My friend made a living selling large cartons of Rothmans cigarettes to the locals, touring the middle part of the country in a Toyota land cruiser packed with fags. With our gnarled-looking local guide and protector, who lost an eye fighting the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war, we travelled into every out-of-the-way village, every part of a town or port, flogging our cancer sticks to absurdly grateful locals.
Some children had never seen westerners before and would run out to greet us. Rothmans, Toyotas and Kalashnikovs – these were gestures of acknowledgement to the twentieth century, everything else felt like the Middle Ages. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. The smells, the sounds, the flies, the Qat, the gun souks (markets), the in-your-face intensity of the temperature and humidity.
In the day I would wander over to the leper colony and play chess with men and women, who would grasp the pieces between their wrists because they had lost all their fingers. No doubt Edward Said would accuse me of the worst kind of sentimentalised Orientalism as I lay on the roof at night and listened to the call to prayer waft over the town. But aesthetically, I still find Islam the most beautiful of the world’s religious traditions. And I fell in love with Yemen and with Taiz.
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Today, however, Taiz has been flattened, obliterated. Photos of it look like the surface of the moon. Or like Dresden after the Second world war. And while I recognise a few of the local natural landmarks in the photographs, I recognise none of the town itself.
Since 2015, Taiz has been one of the major front lines in a complicated civil war that turned into a proxy war between regional rivals of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of people have been killed. And it’s not just Taiz, the whole of Yemen has been on the edge of collapse, with food supplies so disrupted that an estimated 14 million people are close to starvation. It is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Death is everywhere.
Earlier this year, the UK government announced a £170 million aid package to Yemen, to address this growing humanitarian catastrophe. Sounds quite a lot of money, I suppose. But there is something more than a little ridiculous about the UK giving aid to Yemen, when so many of the bombs and weapons that have destroyed it have originated in our country. According to a new Christian Aid report, over the last five years, the UK has sold over two thirds of its major arms exports to Gulf states, 49% of these to Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni gun souks I visited as a student, with their cheap knock-off Russian weaponry, reminds me that Yemenis have probably been fighting each other for as long as anyone can remember. But never has such a sophisticated level of technological weaponry been trained on the small towns and villages of this beautiful country. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spends a whopping $69.4 billion a year on its military – that is $12,000 per household. This sucks in the ever-eager arms dealers from all over the world, including from Britain. And we sell more weapons to the Saudis than to anyone else.
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I know the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul shocked many; it gave the victims of Saudi murderousness a face and a name. But the British-made bombs that rain down on residential areas, and on markets and hospitals, in Yemen represents a moral crime that is so much greater in scale and more horrific in nature even than this.
And it’s all justified under the rubric of trade. At this year’s annual general meeting at BAE systems, the chairman, Sir Roger Carr told shareholders that he does not know if his company’s weapons are being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, adding weakly that the company has an “impeccable record on values”. The technical and philosophical term for this is sort of PR puff is ‘total and utter bollocks’.
Christian Aid’s important report calls out Britain’s “double standards” of supporting the arms industry in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, and then patting itself on the back for giving aid to the Yemeni government to clear up the catastrophe that we have helped to create. This is genuinely absurd. We build the bombs, we massively profit from the deaths of Yemenis, and then we make out that we are the good guys by giving them back a few million quid in aid. The UK gives half it its aid to conflict areas. Fine – but what’s the point of that if we are the ones supplying the very guns that people are using to kill each other?
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The world is now spending more on weapons that it ever has. In 2017, that figure was up to $1.7 trillion, which is $231 dollars a year for every man, woman and child on the planet. That is what we should be thinking about this Christmas. Instead of just singing blithely about the Prince of Peace and angels delivering a message of peace and goodwill to all, we ought to be doing something a bit more practical about it.
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.