Government resumes arms sales to Saudi Arabia

By Mike Phipps

The government has announced it will resume licensing arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen, after Trade Secretary Liz Truss ruled that Saudi Arabia was not regularly deliberately breaching international law in bombing Yemen.

Arms sales to Saudi had been frozen following a judicial review mounted by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) last year. The Appeal Court found that the government had failed to properly assess the risk of weapons exported from the UK being used in violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. It ordered the government to carry out a review and retake all its previous decisions in a lawful way.

Liz Truss says the government has now completed that review and concluded that war crimes committed in the attacks on Yemen were “isolated incidents” so there was no “clear risk” in resuming arms sales .  She said it would now begin “the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners.”

Over the last five years Saudi-led forces have bombed weddings and funerals, market places and warehouses, schools and hospitals. These are scarcely isolated incidents, but a pattern of repeated breaches of international Law.

The UK has licensed billions of pounds of arms sales to the coalition – at least £5.3 billion in published figures since the war began, but many billions more under the secretive open licensing system. UK weapons – warplanes, bombs and missiles – are regularly used by the Saudi-led forces in Yemen. Save the Children reported in February that the coalition had killed another 26 children in a single air strike.

Andrew Smith, of the CAAT, said its lawyers would now be looking at “all options” to challenge the government . “This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision,” he said.

Shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry called on Truss to explain the decision which “flies in the face of a Court of Appeal decision last year”.

The conflict in Yemen has cost an estimated 100,000 lives, with 80% of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says “the crisis is of cataclysmic proportions”.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is the worst in the world today, with almost 50% of children suffering from chronic malnutrition and 9.5 million unable to access safe water, sanitation or hygiene.

Last month UNICEF published a shocking report, “Yemen five years on: Children, Conflict and Covid 19”.  Four in five children -12.3 million – are in desperate need of aid.  10.2 million do not have access to healthcare.  Two million children under the age of five are malnourished. More than 1.7 million children have been forced to flee their homes.

The healthcare situation is dire. Yemen has just 500 ventilators and 700 ICU beds.  Most Yemenis cannot receive medical treatment as half of the country’s medical facilities have been closed.  There are fewer than five hospital beds per 10,000 people.

Despite the widespread suffering, the Saudi regime is currently preventing ships from unloading in Hodeida port, despite the fact that these ships have received permission to do so from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen, set up to prevent arms smuggling.

These ships contain gasoline, diesel, food and medical supplies.  Denying them entry exacerbates the crisis. In June, 24 hospitals in seven provinces issued a statement that they were running out of fuel and urged the UN to intervene and release the ships.

But the war is good business for some. BAE Systems, the UK’s largest defence contractor, is a significant arms supplier in this conflict, with 15% of BAE’s annual earnings coming from its sales to Saudi. BAE has sold £15bn worth of arms to Saudi over the last five years, principally to supply and maintain the Tornado and Typhoon aircraft used in the Yemeni bombing missions.

“Britain’s modern relationship with the Gulf Arab countries is the product of the history of empire,” writes David Wearing in his book AngloArabia (Polity Books, 2019). Yet today, many ordinary people in Britain would be appalled by the close links Britain maintains with an absolutist theocratic regime, utterly hostile to human rights, and women’s and LGBTQ plus rights in particular, and which is central to the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideas across the world.

When I interviewed Wearing last year, I asked him about the Labour Party’s stance on the conflict.

“Labour’s position is a good one,” he told me, “but we shouldn’t take for granted that it will be implemented. The party’s overall record in respect of Saudi Arabia has been poor. Many of the jets bombing Yemen indiscriminately over the past four years were sold by the Blair-Brown government, and many in the Labour movement, not just on the right of the party, think there’s a legitimate trade-off to be made between arms industry jobs and Yemeni lives. Labour needs an industrial strategy that will create alternative employment for arms industry workers, since business as usual at this point is simply not an option. Party members need to put pressure on the leadership to make sure that all of these things happen, and fight back against those forces in the party and movement who support the status quo.”

Protests took place around the country last weekend to highlight and condemn the atrocities in this five-year long war. And there is a further protest in London this Sunday July 12th, starting at Portland Place at 1.00pm.