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UK concerned about own economic interests in Yemen war, expert notes

Dr. Matthew Crosston 

A senior global security expert believes that Britain’s strong objection to Germany’s decision not to issue arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia is not about “security” concerns as much as they are about “economic” ones.

Professor Matthew Crosston of the American Military University made the remarks in an interview with Balkans post, adding, “It is more about feeding its own voracious military industrial complex, and the jobs it subsequently maintains for the British people, than it is about ensuring global security.”

Following is the full transcript of the interview:

BP: The U.S. Army said recently that it is still providing support for the Saudi-led aggression against Yemen, in spite of the dire need for a ceasefire in the war-torn country. How does this impact the world’s impression of Washington’s human rights claims?

Matthew Crosston: Obviously, it does not signal to the rest of the world that the United States places human rights on an equal footing with its own economic interests when those interests could be compromised or challenged. The reality is that there has always been something of an unnoticed or ignored contradiction in the Yemen war when it comes to the supply of Saudi weapons via exporting countries. Since the war began in 2015 in earnest, the world has dramatically reversed its initial neutrality: one by one, many countries that had previously supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia have either drastically reduced or outright froze their exportation to the Kingdom. Despite this fact, the actual overall value of Saudi weapon imports since 2016 has increased by 38%. The answer accounting for this enigma is the fact that the United States has rather eagerly stepped into the void to fill the Saudi weapon coffers. President Trump rather famously said in 2018 that cancelling weapons contracts with the Saudis (even though many other ally countries were doing that very thing) would be ‘foolish’ because the only thing to come of it would be China or Russia stepping into the gap and supplying the Saudis themselves. In other words, the President of the United States, whether intentionally or accidentally is anyone’s guess, admitted before the world that it was more important to not allow China and Russia opportunities in the big business world of weapons-dealing than ending a conflict in Yemen that has been called by many to be the world’s worst man-made disaster. Thus, unfortunately, the ultimate moral takeaway from such statements and data-points is that gamesmanship between great powers still holds greater sway than resolving humanitarian catastrophes happening in less powerful countries.

BP: Germany announced in November that it would no longer issue arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia following the Riyadh regime’s murdering of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Britain then strongly objected to Germany’s decision, warning that the new policy damages Berlin’s security commitments while adversely affecting the British military industry. What’s your take on this?

Matthew Crosston: I find it a fascinating primer for people around the world to realize the full extent and consequences of the global economy on foreign affairs. I am sure when people read that headline they could not rightly understand how it was possible. Why would Germany’s political decision (when Germany barely supplied 2% of Saudi armament needs) so drastically affect Great Britain and its military industry? The unspoken answer is that many of the crucial parts of important British weapons/military systems are manufactured in Germany and exported to Great Britain. The German ban could mean the British would be unable to immediately obtain all of the parts necessary to fulfill their own weapon orders to Saudi Arabia, including important promised shipments of the Typhoon fighter jet and the Meteor air-to-air missile system. Consequently, this little noticed news report could become an important piece of education material for those wanting to understand international relations and foreign affairs in the modern day: can Britain negotiate a ‘side deal’ with Germany or will Germany hold firm to its stated purpose and begin to impact Saudi Arabia’s long-term ability to wage unfettered war on Yemen? Is Germany’s ban more about its own desire to honor ethical codes of international behavior or is it trying to subtly influence the Yemen conflict without directly engaging major actors? Is Germany’s strategy repeatable by other countries? Is it more effective than directly engaging stronger powers like the United States? These questions are indeed important ones that all people the world over should take greater interest in, whether they care about the situation in Yemen or not. Finally, be careful of how slippery language can be in such situations: the warnings from Britain really are not about ‘security’ concerns as much as they are about ‘economic’ ones. It is more about feeding its own voracious military industrial complex, and the jobs it subsequently maintains for the British people, than it is about ensuring global security.

BP: Saudi Arabia has reportedly been included in an EU draft list of countries that pose a threat to the bloc due to their alleged lax control on money laundering and terrorism financing. What would be the consequences of such move?

Matthew Crosston: I would consider this to be a second chip in the wall against the blatant arming of countries that have proven themselves to be a bit too reckless in how they ultimately use their weapons. As with the question above, concerning Germany’s subtle maneuver to indirectly impact Great Britain’s ability to continue massively arming Saudi Arabia, this new EU decision acts in very much the same light, backing up the original German decision and, if anything, upping the diplomatic and monetary ante. Perhaps ironically, these maneuvers are really nothing but the proper adherence to international banking laws already on the books for years and years. The problem was that they were never truly enforced and many turned a blind eye toward questionable activities and transactions. Thus, it is arguable that Saudi Arabia has perhaps created its own ‘chickens coming home to roost’ situation: these initiatives clearly only gained momentum when the Kingdom seemed to show little interest in slowing down its war in Yemen and its almost total disinterest in looking for a diplomatic solution to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis there.

For example, Saudi Arabia has always been somewhat lax in terms of stopping money-laundering and being stalwart in the fight against financing terrorism. But there was never any previous desire to add Saudi Arabia to a so-called ‘blacklist,’ i.e. when it wasn’t engaged in an overt military initiative that was creating a massive humanitarian crisis. So, in a manner of speaking, its own Yemen war forced the hand of the EU to a point that the European bloc could no longer in good conscience pretend it did not notice the suffering of the Yemeni people. To be sure, these are still subtle moves and not immediate solutions that might bring relief to those in need in Yemen. But they do represent a small change in the diplomatic wind for the first time since the war began in 2015. Sometimes the greatest momentum begins with the smallest of steps.


Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Faculty for the Doctoral Programs in Global Security and Strategic Intelligence at the American Military University. He has published top-tier research that has impacted real world decision-making in the US and beyond, with over 30 peer-reviewed scholarly articles and over 100 analytical editorials and commissioned opinion pieces representing the full spectrum of global security translated into Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish, Farsi, Greek, and Uzbek. He also serves as Co-Editor of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, hailed by the American Intelligence Community as the top journal of record for intelligence professionals. He has a BA from Colgate University, MA from the University of London, and PhD from Brown University.