UK Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Euan Stone

Everything we do is in our British national interests.” These were the words of Theresa May, last year, when attempting to provide a decisive justification for the UK’s ever controversial ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia. Yet for many, these words ring hollow given the vast and continual reports of human rights abuses by a Saudi regime, which appears to share very little in common with the perceived values and interests of the United Kingdom.

What is unquestionable is that the UK’s long standing friendship with Saudi Arabia has been mired in controversy from the outset. In 1985, the Thatcher Government were involved in the clinching of the Al-Yamamah arms deal, which later became a high profile corruption scandal where BAE were directly implicated in concealing secret payments in order to secure what was at the time Britain’s largest ever arms agreement. The Blair Government later faced accusations of a cover up in 2006, when the then-Prime Minister shelved an investigation into the deal so as to avoid disrupting the ‘special relationship’. Throughout this time, there has also been the persistent abuses of human rights and domestic suppression by the Saudi regime, seen shockingly at the beginning of 2016, with the mass execution of 47 people in a single day. This included the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, which drew widespread condemnation from around the world.

Because of this, the strong bilateral relationship has always gone hand in hand with steadfast criticisms of the perceived lack of diplomatic manoeuvring from the UK to effect progress in such controversial areas. Yet, for the UK, there has perhaps never been such intense criticism on the relationship than from 2015 to present, with Britain becoming directly involved in the civil war in Yemen. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition responded to the request of Yemeni President Hadi for support in the face of a rebel Houthis invasion in Yemen. Since then, the UK Government has continued to provide weapons to the Saudi regime, with over 30% of all UK defence exports being licensed to Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Under its commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the UK has a legal requirement to suspend weapons sales to a country where there is a “clear risk” that these may be used to commit violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Despite this, the UK government has refused to halt arms export licenses to the Saudis and has instead repeatedly placed the onus on the Saudi regime’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team to investigate such cases.

The evidence of violations of International Humanitarian Law is not only clear, but exhaustive. NGOs, including Amnesty International and Oxfam who are working directly on the ground, have continued to provide the Government with detailed evidence of breaches of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition. This has included the use of banned cluster munitions, with the Saudi regime admitting at the end of last year that UK-manufactured cluster bombs have been used in Yemen, directly in violation of British commitments under the Cluster Munitions Convention. On top of this, the international community have made continuous efforts to highlight incidents of IHL violations, including at the UN, where in January the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen reported “widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and human rights norms.”

Violations were also clearly evidenced in the recent high-profile joint parliamentary report in 2016 by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and International Development (DFID) Parliamentary Committees on ‘The use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen.’ The report recommended that “the UK suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, capable of being used in Yemen” and that the “evidence of IHL violations, is inconsistent with the UK’s global leadership role in the rule of law and international rules-based systems.”

Troublingly, if we compare the UK Government’s response to Saudi violations with allegations of war crimes in Syria, the difference is striking. In October 2016, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson criticised Russia as being “in danger of becoming a pariah nation,” due to evidence of their war crimes in Syria. The Foreign Secretary directed specific criticism at the use of a ‘double tap’ bomb procedure, where a second bomb is dropped shortly after the first, so as to hit those aiding victims of the prior strike. Mr Johnson stated “One thing I think is certainly a war crime is the double tap procedure… that is in my view unquestionably a war crime.” Johnson’s objection, however, appears disingenuous given evidence repeatedly provided to the British Government of Saudi Arabian forces using the ‘double tap’ technique, including on a funeral in 2016 that killed over 140 people and injured 600.

So why then is the UK so willing to put its reputation on the world stage at risk and undermine its commitment to the international norms of universal human rights and international law? For many, the sheer level of finance that the UK receives from Saudi Arabia in return for its arms exports cannot be ignored. In 2015, the 30% of all UK defence exports that were licensed to Saudi Arabia exceeded £1.7 billion for combat aircraft and over £1 billion for air-delivered bombs, between April and December 2015. Just six months after the ‘double tap’ funeral strike mentioned above, the Government had approved a further £283 million of arms sales to the Saudi regime. Whilst, last month, then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon celebrated the announcement of a new Military and Security Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, which followed Theresa May’s announcement in December that over the next decade the UK would be investing over £3 billion in Gulf Arab states defence capabilities.

Included in this reasoning, is also the extent to which the Government rely on Saudi counter-terrorism information. This was highlighted by David Cameron in 2015 when pushed on the issue by Channel 4 presenter John Snow, where Cameron stated that “we have a relationship with Saudi Arabia because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.” Yet, given the widespread accusations of Saudi funding of extremism in the Middle East, it certainly does raise questions as to whether this support is a double edged sword that could have the effect of endangering British security in the long run.

The British Government has always justified its relationship with Saudi Arabia on account of its ability to put pressure on the regime to modernise. However, the immediacy of the situation in Yemen and the evidenced inability of the UK to prevent IHL violations and humanitarian suffering, renders this excuse invalid. Whilst on an international legal front, the continued provision of weapons to the Saudis appears unsustainable in the long term, in July of this year, the High Court ruled in favour of the Government, ensuring that arms exports can continue.

Following Brexit, with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox continuing to travel to the Gulf region in order to secure free trade deals with human rights abusing states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, it should be expected that the Government’s ability to turn a blind eye to such violations will likely continue. This may well end up being just one further unanticipated result of the new ‘Global Britain.’


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Image: Number 10 @Flickr 

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