Years of political turmoil and war in the Middle East since the 2002 invasion of Iraq have left swathes of rich history across the region either in dust or looted for sale on the black market. Now, with 78 pieces of Yemeni history already damaged or destroyed, experts have warned that the situation is both a cultural and humanitarian disaster on a massive scale, with increasing criticism being levelled both at the Saudi-led coalition and British government after the deaths over 50 people, many of them children, just yesterday.
The war in Yemen is a complex conflict that centres around the civil war between the Houthis and loyalist troops against a wide-ranging coalition centred around President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia. The anti-Houthi Saudi-led coalition includes southern separatists, tribal militias and Islamic militants. Foreign forces in Yemen include those from the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Sudan, Morocco, Qatar, French special forces and international mercenaries. The United Kingdom has provided weapons sales and both tactical and political assistance. Saudi Arabia and the United States sees the Houthis as being backed by Iran and the conflict has become another chapter in the regional battle for hegemony between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran, while critics of the Saudi regime have claimed that the war is an attempt by the Saudis to create a client state in the country.
“It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen” – United States National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, 2015
Critics of the Saudi operation believe that Riyadh is deliberately targeting both civilians and Yemeni cultural targets, including those from the ancient pre-Islamic Kingdom of Saba and the Himyarite Kingdom, actions with echoes of Islamic States’ wanton destruction throughout Syria and Iraq.
Playing a critical role in the economic and cultural role of the region from 1000 BC onward, the ancient kingdom of Saba in what is now central Yemen was vast in its riches, monopolizing the export of frankincense across a vast area from Persia to Rome. Temples such as the (at risk) Temple of Awwam and impressive feats of engineering such as the Marib Dam were built across the land, the kingdom being conquered in AD 280 by the Himyarites.
The Temple of Awwam is considered to have been the seat of the fabled Queen of Sheba, mentioned in Islamic, Christian and Jewish texts. While there is some discussion as to the origins of the Queen, most experts agree that she likely hailed from Yemen and that the temple played a key role in her reign during the era of the Saba Kingdom.
The Marib Dam meanwhile was hit in 2015 during a coalition bombing raid, leaving a deep gash in a well-preserved sluice gate. Having been targeted several times and unpopulated with no military value, critics point to the attacks as evidence of deliberate targeting of historic sites by the Saudi coalition.
“If the targeting of heritage sits of archaeological significance continues to be falsely denied with no proper investigations or repercussions or when hit they are deemed to be collateral damage and there will be nothing left effectively standing in the way of such actions that violate the people’s cultural rights.” – Mohammad Alwazir, director of legal affairs for the Arabian Rights Watch Association
The museum of Dhamar which contained thousands of relics from the Himyarite Kingdom has been completely obliterated, many other sites have suffered similar fates or been severely damaged. Sites hit include Aden’s Sira Fortress and the ancient al-Qassimi neighborhood in Sana’a.
Sana’a, one of the longest inhabited cities in the world, has long been seen as one of the most beautiful of all Arabian cities, rich in historic flavour. Since the onset of war however, UNESCO notes that “the majority of the colourful, decorated doors and window panes characteristic of the city’s domestic architecture have been shattered or damaged.”
Also suffering heavy damage is the historic town of Zabid, a UNESCO heritage site. Considered to be one of the architectural jewels of Yemen, the ancient city was Yemen’s capital from the 13th to 15th century. Containing the world’s fifth oldest mosque, Zabid was already on UNESCO’s “danger list” as of 2000 through neglect and local poverty.
The chair of Yemen’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums based in Sana’a believed the attacks amount to cultural genocide:
“Our immortal history has been wasted by wars… After 3 years of assessing the damage, I believe the bombing is being done with a purpose, since many of these sites are not suitable or useful for military use” – Mohanad Ahmad al-Sayani
Speaking to Science, Sarah Japp of Berlin’s German Archaeological Institute agreed:
“The Saudis were given information on important cultural heritage sites, including exact coordinates [by UNESCO], There is no reason to say all of these [bombings] are just accidents.” – Sarah Japp, German Archaeological Institute
Speaking to Fox News, Iris Gerlach, Head of the Sana’a Branch at the German Archaeological Institute Orient Department says that the danger is one to Yemini identity itself:
“The historical sites are of great importance to Yemen and are part of Yemeni history and identity… Ultimately, this would be comparable to the destruction of the White House or the Statue of Liberty for Americans. The intentional destruction as well as war-related collateral damage is a crime on the world cultural heritage. As long as the war is going on, more monuments will be destroyed.” – Iris Gerlach, German Archaeological Institute Orient Department
The war in Yemen has been declared a level 3 emergency by the United Nations, the highest possible level. The situation is described as “dire” and over 80% of the population is believed to need some form of assistance and the United Nation’s high commissioner for human rights has stated that the “carnage” caused by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition would appear to be war crimes.
Britain has provided vital political and military support for the Saudi-led coalition, being a staunch defender of Saudi Arabia and increasing arms sales by 11,000% since the beginning of the war. The sum total of sales to the Saudi state now exceeds £3.8 billion. Britain’s technical and logistical assistance to the Saudi coalition includes assisting with target selection in what is claimed to be a training capacity, with critics alleging that the UK role includes full military logistical support.
While both sides have to take the blame for the continuation and carnage of the war, must experts point to the Saudi coalition as being responsible for the majority of the humanitarian crisis and cultural genocide that is happening across Yemen. Human Rights Watch has stated that “airstrikes have damaged or destroyed numerous civilian objects including homes, markets, hospitals, and schools, as well as commercial enterprises” which “appear to be in violation of international law” as they “do not discriminate between military targets and civilian objects.”
The war has pushed millions to the brink of famine and killed thousands.
Amnesty International argues that western powers are complicit in the crimes being committed in Yemen:
“Countries such as the USA, UK and France, which continue to supply coalition members with arms, are allowing Saudi Arabia and its allies to flagrantly flout international law and risk being complicit in grave violations, including war crimes.” – Amnesty International
The organisation urges all those involved, including the United Kingdom, to “immediately halt the flow of arms and military assistance to members of the Saudi-led coalition for use in Yemen. This includes any equipment or logistical support being used to maintain this blockade.”
Further criticism has been levelled at the Saudi coalition yesterday and today after an airstrike on a school bus killed 50, at least 29 of them children. The action was a “legitimate military action” according the Saudis, promising to investigate only after widespread condemnation, including from the United Nations.
“Our staff are telling us that the students were on their way back to school from a picnic when the driver stopped to get a drink. The attack happened while the bus was stationary. We are unable to verify the details at this moment. “ – Save The Children
British reaction to the carnage has been muted, with foreign Office minister Alistair Burt tweeting that he was “Deeply concerned.”
“First and foremost, it is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen that needs to be resolved by an immediate end to the war, yet it is also important that the rich and unique cultural heritage of Yemen not be destroyed…” – Daniel Varisco, Senior Postdoctoral Scholar for the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences
The destruction of middle eastern culture and history, alongside the immense human cost, will to future generations be seen in the same light as the crimes of the age of imperialism. The British government, through logistical support and vital weapons sales, is enabling the cultural and humanitarian genocide in Yemen. The question becomes as to what value we as a society place upon the life, liberty and culture of another people. Unfortunately the answer does not seem to have changed much since the days of the Boer War and the Raj.
Where as once we carried away other nations cultural treasures, now we are happy enough to see them blown to bits. Where as once we sought diamonds and gold in the Transvaal, now £1.13bn of weapons contracts are all it takes for 27 children being blown to bits to be merely “concerning.” A moral vacuum has descended across the world where human rights abuses and cultural destruction is once again becoming commonplace and might even be said to be acceptable amongst leading nations. Britain must take a stand to set an example to the world, show that human life and culture is ultimately far more important to our future than any amount of money. Unfortunately past experience shows that £1.13bn is very persuasive in allowing governments to look the other way.