Europe

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue despite Yemen war

Weapons sales to Riyadh fuel British economy amid Brexit uncertainty, COVID-19 lockdown, says expert

Karim El-Bar   | 29.04.2020
UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue despite Yemen war

LONDON 

Leading UK arms dealer BAE Systems has sold Saudi Arabia £15 billion ($18.7 billion) worth of arms and services as the kingdom continues to wage a crippling war in Yemen now in its fifth year.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade, a London-based group aimed at abolishing the international arms trade, analyzed BAE Systems' latest annual report.

It found that the company made £2.5 billion from Saudi Arabia in 2019 alone and £15 billion between 2015 and 2019.

This makes the Saudi government BAE's third-largest client after the US and UK, racking up earnings of £6.5 billion and £3.9 billion in 2019, respectively.

Osamah Alfakih, advocacy and communications director at Mwatana for Human Rights, told Anadolu Agency that UK-made weapons had been used by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition in "unlawful strikes" in Yemen. Mwatana is an independent Yemeni human rights organization.

Instead of playing a "positive role" in Yemen, the UK is fueling "armed conflict" with arms sales, Alfakih explained.

"The UK should support efforts of accountability for human rights abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, including the coalition and the Ansar Allah group," he added, referring to both the Saudis and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who overthrew Yemen's government in 2015, plunging the country in civil war.

The crisis escalated in 2015, when the Saudi-led military coalition launched its devastating air campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi territorial gains.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis, including civilians, are believed to have been killed in the conflict, which has led to the world's worst humanitarian crisis as millions remain at risk of starvation and disease.

Holly Topham, an editor at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, told Anadolu Agency that there was "a lot of evidence to suggest that UK arms sales and support of the Saudi Air Force play an important -- if not instrumental role -- in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on Yemen."

Topham recounted that a UN-appointed panel found last year that the UK, among other states, may be "complicit in violations of international law" due to its intelligence and logistical support, as well as arms sales to Riyadh.

UK officials and British nationals working in the defense sector have implied that the coalition "could not carry out these airstrikes without the support of the UK," she said.

Identifying a "persistent issue of transparency" surrounding the sales, she noted that the UK government neither provided information on the numbers of weapons sold nor tracked "what happens to them" after the weapons transfers were made. This makes accountability "problematic," she explained.

"In terms of outlook, we're seeing a general groundswell of calls for greater scrutiny of arms transfers globally," she said, adding that the UK High Court ruled last year that the British government's processes for granting export licenses to Saudi Arabia were "unlawful," specifically in relation to assessing Saudi Arabia's international humanitarian law record, domestic review either ongoing or being pushed for in other key exporting states like the US, Germany and France.

The British Court of Appeal halted the country's arms sales to Riyadh in June 2019, ruling that sales could not resume until the government assessed whether the Saudi-led coalition was engaged in a "historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law."

The UK government is appealing the decision in the Supreme Court.

"But equally, the UK-Saudi relationship remains strong and the kingdom is by far the top buyer of UK arms sales -- almost half of the total weapons sold by the UK over the past decade have gone to Saudi Arabia. The sector employs over a quarter of million either directly or indirectly," Topham said.

She warned that pressure for greater scrutiny would continue to face resistance from "those who advocate the sector's economic necessity."

"With Brexit and the repercussions of COVID-19, we are likely to see this economic reasoning become ever more forceful."

Despite this, neither the UK nor BAE, however, accept any wrongdoing. A recent article in the Guardian quoted a British official as saying that the UK took its export responsibilities "seriously."

Similarly, a BAE Systems spokesperson told the newspaper that the firm complied with "all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate and our activities are subject to UK government approval and oversight," suggesting no intention to curb weapons sales to the kingdom.

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