Amid the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, some of its soldiers were taught in the UK how to look good in front of the world’s media in case of any “potential wrongdoing,” a new report says.
Ministry of Defence data published by Declassified UK reveals that hundreds of Saudis entered the country for training at six Royal Air Force (RAF) sites in 2019. As the Saudis arrived, their country’s campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels entered its fourth year, and a ban on UK-made weapons exports to the desert kingdom came into effect, in response to growing human-rights concerns.
Although the UK’s training of Saudis is not a secret, Declassified’s report reveals more details about the volume of foreign military troops being trained in the UK, and what that training entailed.
Some of this training was of the traditional military variety. Ninety Saudis were trained in the use of the Typhoon fighter jet, manufactured by British defence firm BAE Systems. The Saudi military operates a fleet of Typhoon fighters, which have played a central role in its devastating aerial campaign against the Houthis – and the country’s civilians and their food supply.
Another 180 were trained at RAF Cosford’s Defence College of Technical Training in Shropshire, and 20 instructed in a fast jet flying at RAF Valley on Anglesey. However, given the global outrage over the Yemen campaign, it’s unsurprising that a number of Saudi troops were schooled in public relations during a “tactical targeting” course at the Royal School of Artillery in Larkhill.
This 10-day course aimed to teach attendees the basics of “humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict,” according to a Ministry of Defence brochure. Students learnt how to stay on “the right side of the law,” and what to do to “keep us popular with the press and not allow countries/media to exploit any potential wrongdoing.” The course also detailed the importance of combing social media for “non-lethal targeting and gathering information.”
As the Saudis reaped the benefits of military PR, the United Nations accused the coalition of perpetrating war crimes in Yemen, including indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes, attacks on hospitals, and “siege-like tactics,” the latter of which contributed to a “man-made famine of Biblical proportions,” in the words of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The UN’s report, published last year, also blamed the Houthis for their share of atrocities, and pointed the finger at the UK for its complicity in the bloodbath, given that Britain has sold Saudi Arabia more than £4.7 billion ($5.86 billion) worth of weapons since the beginning of its Yemen offensive.
BAE was among a number of arms giants named in a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court in December accusing the company of being party to Saudi Arabia’s alleged war crimes. Activists claimed last month that, despite the 2019 embargo, Britain continues to export weapons to Saudi Arabia.