Yemeni Children Live in Nests, But the UK is Open for Saudi Business
As Labour’s Chris Bryant accuses Liz Truss of misleading a select committee about challenging Gulf leaders on human rights, Sian Norris reports on the impact of Saudi Arabia’s armed violence on Yemen’s children
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In the city of Marib, in the heart of Yemen, children grow up in structures known as ‘nests’.
Perhaps ‘structure’ is too formal a word. These nests are makeshift shelters pulled together from palm fronds, twigs, oil drums, and scraps from the street. It’s home, but it’s a home that can barely keep children safe in a country struggling with years of conflict, and where displaced families are vulnerable to infectious diseases such as cholera and Coronavirus.
Some of the nests are made of little more than sticks and straw – a classic fairytale turned into a nightmare, these fragile homes blown down by bombs and bullets, not wolves.
“Most families are living in overused and worn-out tents, or makeshift shelters known locally as ‘nests’, which are built from any material they can find, such as cloth, plastic, and wood,” Lucy Greenwell, ShelterBox’s programme manager for Yemen, told Byline Times.
The children living in nests are the victims of one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, fuelled by a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has taken thousands of lives and caused many more families to be homeless. Almost 75% of the population – 23.4 million people – need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection for their survival this year, an increase from the 20.7 million people estimated to be in need in 2021.
ShelterBox has been working in Yemen for the past year in partnership with the Benevolence Coalition for Humanitarian Relief, supporting thousands of displaced people in Marib with emergency shelter and essential household items. “Many other families are sharing crowded shelters, and in some cases are forced to sleep outside in the open,” Greenwell continued. “These solutions don’t provide families and children with adequate protection from the elements, including extreme heat and cold nightly temperatures, wind, and rain – and leave families exposed to other protection risks”.
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While Yemeni families seek shelter under sticks and oil drums, 1,500 kilometres from Marib, in Riyadh, it’s a very different picture.
In his official residence in Al Yamamah Palace, King Salman of Saudi Arabia lives in the luxury of grand halls embossed with intricate gold decor; where light comes from chandeliers that drip with crystal glass, and where portraits of the ruling family adorn the walls.
His son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud owns multiple homes, including a French chateau worth £230 million. Visitors can meditate in the soothing setting of its aquarium, or take a swim in one of two swimming pools. The only nests to be found are in the vast ornamental gardens, which are modelled on those where Marie Antoinette played Shepherdess in the nearby Palace of Versailles.
The Prince was initially expected to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, however instead Saudi Arabia was represented by Prince Turki bin Mohammed al Saud. Had he arrived at Westminster Abbey, he may have enjoyed the chance to exchange words with new Prime Minister Liz Truss who has repeatedly affirmed that Saudi Arabia an “important partner” of the UK. King Charles III has also enjoyed close if controversial ties with the country.
Death, Destruction and Displacement
Since 2015, there have been 10,917 civilian casualties including 55 children in 708 incidents of explosive weapon use in the country by Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-led coalition, and Saudi-backed militants. Of those casualties, just under half (5,219) were killed, and 5,698 were injured.
While some of the civilians were killed in attacks on armed groups, in at least six cases civilians were the intended target. The data was collected by the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and is based on English language media reports. It does not include casualties caused by UXOs, stockpile explosions, or accidental detonations.
Explosive violence leads to displacement. “The conflict in Yemen has had a devastating impact on families and children and humanitarian needs are growing every day,” said Greenwell. “It has uprooted millions of people, resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and casualties, and caused the collapse of the economy and basic services”.
“Most families living in camps have been displaced for years – in some cases since the conflict broke out in 2015 – and often more than once,” she continued. “We’ve spoken to families in Marib who have been uprooted as many as five times since their initial displacement, each time moving from one precarious situation to another”.
The destroyed lives, the bombed out homes, and the children in their nests are far away from the luxuries of Riyadh, and they often seem out of sight of the British establishment, who are more likely to be courting, rather than condemning, the residents of Al Yamamah.
Warm Handshakes and Hopeful Deals
Back in March, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia to try and secure commitments from the regime to step up its oil production. The meeting had been made more urgent by the Russian invasion of Ukraine three weeks earlier, and the threat now posed to global energy supplies.
That threat is now being felt in the UK, with rising energy bills plunging people into fuel poverty, although other factors beyond war in Europe have contributed to the challenges facing Britain.
Since Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has led to 921 incidents of explosive weapon use by Russia, Russian mercenaries, and Russian-backed militants, resulting in a reported 6,241 civilian casualties (2,573 killed, 3,668 injured), according to English language media reports analysed by AOAV. The invasion on 24 February this year led to speedy sanctions against Putin’s regime in recognition of Russia’s violation of human rights and alleged crimes against humanity in places such as Bucha.
There is no argument that sanctioning Russia and taking a strong stance against the invasion was the right course of action – to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and to condemn Russia’s violence was the only proper response.
It is a response, however, that contrasts deeply with the UK Government’s approach to that other energy rich, but aggressive regime responsible for crude and cruel human rights violations: Saudi Arabia.
From the hopes of Saudi oil deals to the welcoming of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Newcastle United Football Club, the UK has become increasingly willing to turn a blind eye to the regime’s actions at home and abroad, although sanctions were imposed on 20 Saudi officials alleged to have been involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Johnson failed to secure a commitment on oil, however the pair did sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to form a strategic partnership council. His visit followed one made in February by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Digital, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries, where she signed an MOU on cultural cooperation during the Diriyah Biennale in the Jax district on the outskirts of Riyadh. It apparently was not a contradiction for the minister in charge of media to sign an MOU with a regime where 26 journalists are in prison.
And while Johnson did not get the commitments he wanted on oil, he left office hoping he would get some kind of investment on nuclear: the i reported this month that the former Prime Minister had approached investors in Saudi Arabia to help plug the gaping hole in the project’s funding.
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The new Prime Minister Liz Truss is now under renewed pressure about previous statements she made about challenging Gulf leaders on human rights abuses.
During an exchange with Labour’s Chris Bryant in June, Truss replied to a question about Mohammed bin-Salman and the murder of Khashoggi that “Saudi Arabia is an important partner of the United Kingdom” and that she was “focused on making sure that we are dealing with the major threats to the world, the number one threat we are dealing with at the moment is the threat from Russia”.
Truss told Bryant that she had challenged Gulf leaders on human rights – although was unable to provide specific examples during the hearing. Bryant has now accused Truss of apparently misleading the Commons foreign affairs committee after a subsequent letter, which promised to give examples of those challenges, merely mentioned a meeting with Gulf leaders at Chevening, which included the then junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly, where “a wide range of issues were discussed, including human rights”.
Back in August, Leeds University student Salma al-Shehab was jailed in Saudi Arabia for 34 years over her use of Twitter. The Labour MP Hillary Benn called on Truss to intervene in her role as Foreign Secretary – however it was reported that she had left it to her officials to deal with and she failed to condemn the sentencing outright.
Saudi Arabia is the UK’s 27th biggest trading partner, with total trade worth £11.3 billion in 2021. This accounts for 0.8% of the UK’s trade. The top product imported from Saudi Arabia to the UK is, unsurprisingly, refined oil – worth £702.9 million or 38.5% of all imports. £50.7 million or 2.8% of all goods was crude oil, although currently 3% of UK oil imports are from Saudi Arabia.
But should this increase, and should Saudi investment continue to be welcomed into everything from Newcastle to nuclear power, it will send a signal to human rights abusers and aggressors across the world that Britain is willing to turn a blind eye. It’s a lesson, as Byline Times has reported before, that we seem unable to learn from experiences with Russia and even China.
Back in Yemen, and ShelterBox is working to offer durable emergency shelter to struggling families. “Providing tents and tarpaulins helps families improve their living conditions, giving them somewhere to shelter from the harsh conditions of the desert, and privacy,” said Greenwell.