The UK government has refused calls to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and bring its policy towards the Gulf Kingdom in line with its major ally, the US. In one of his many policy reversals from the Trump era, the new administration of President Joe Biden suspended arms sales to Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates due to concerns over human rights abuse and alleged war crimes in Yemen.
Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, urged the UK “to align itself fully with its closest security ally and end similar arms exports connected to the war … The US reset is very much to be welcomed and poses our first big test as to what global Britain means in practice.” Ellwood said that the US suspension of arms sales was necessary to create the conditions for peace talks.
Rejecting calls to end arms sales to Riyadh UK Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly said: “The decisions the US takes on matters of arms sales are decisions for the US. The UK takes its own arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we continue to assess all arms export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.” Cleverly argued that British arms sales licences were issued with great care to ensure they did not lead to any breach of humanitarian law.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy suggested that Number 10 was complicit in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. “The UK arms trading and technical support sustain the war in Yemen … The US decision on arms sales leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated,” said Nandy.
She also questioned the UK’s ability to carry out the role of UN “penholder” with its insistence on selling arms to the Saudis. The role of the penholder within the UN system includes leading negotiations and drafting legislation. “The UK cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict,” said Nandy pointing to the apparent contradiction in British policy.
Between 2010 and 2019, 40 per cent of UK arms exports went to Saudi Arabia. According to the UK-based rights group Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) £11 billion ($15.5 billion) worth of arms has been sold by the UK to Riyadh since 2008. The largest increase in arms export was in 2015 at the start of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
The devastating humanitarian consequences of the war prompted questions about Britain’s role in what the UN has described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Insisting that arms sales to the Gulf states were illegal in light of evidence that the UK made weapons were being used to carry out alleged war crimes, campaign groups challenged the Tory government in court. In 2019, a court ruled that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia were indeed unlawful, prompting the government to tighten its export licence to the Gulf states.