“Drones as Air Proscription? The case of South Arabia and Yemen in comparative perspective”: Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security: 6 June 2016, 3:00: Muirhead Tower Room 417

Speaker: Clive Jones, Durham University Clive Jones is Professor of Regional Security (Middle East) in the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA), University of Durham. He specialises in the politics and security of the Middle East with a particular focus upon Israel and the Arab Gulf states. Read on here.

The use of airpower to subdue often ‘restive natives’ across the Middle East marked the development of aerial policing by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the aftermath of World War One. The extent to which the use of RAF bombers should enforce control over the hinterlands of Empire – most notably across the tribally based entities across what was then Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Palestine and South Arabia – certainly has echoes with how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Drones are used against comparable targets and often in the same geographical vastness.

Indeed, as more than one commentator has noted, even issues surrounding the moral rectitude of ‘remote killing’ stand comparison: the dropping of bombs on tribesman from 3000 feet with the technology then at hand was about as distant as it could get in the 1920s.

The concentration on ethical norms, human rights and the violation of state sovereignty that has come to dominate debates over the use of airpower (and drones in particular) has however obscured other lines of enquiry that offer alternative perspectives on the impact – operational, legal as well as moral – over the use of airpower in and among tribally based societies.

children drone killed

The most evident is how effective are such drone strikes and do they necessarily alienate the target populations – not least when collateral damage and deaths to civilians ensue – thereby driving support for a rebellion or insurgency?

The obvious answer, and in some cases the correct one – might be an unambiguous yes. Equally however, our implicit understanding of the political (and normative) context in which such strikes take place are informed by a Weberian construct of the State.

The proposition to be put forward here is that this state-centric construct offers only a partial understanding over how airpower has impacted upon polities where identity and legitimacy are more clan or tribally based than grounded in any wider allegiance to an established state order.

By comparing and contrasting the development of aerial policing by the RAF across South Arabia over several decades, with the use of Drones across Yemen since 2001, this paper makes the case that a more nuanced understanding of this ‘tribal landscape’ remains integral to how we should conceptualise the practical use of drones in shaping regional order across the Middle East.