Will the UK follow the US in banning arms sales to Saudi?

By Mike Phipps

Newly elected US president Joe Biden has temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a decision hailed by Amnesty International as “a welcome relief in an otherwise shameful chapter of history.”

Amnesty’s statement continues: “Since 2015, the Saudi and UAE-led Coalition carried out scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate air strikes on civilians and civilians’ objects, hitting homes, schools, hospitals, markets, mosques, weddings and funerals.  Amnesty International has documented over 40 coalition air strikes that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, many of which amount to war crimes. These have resulted in more than 500 civilian deaths and 400 civilian injured.”

The US decision to halt arms sales will hurt the Saudi regime. This week it emerged that the Saudi Royal Family has hired at least 16 firms to do its bidding in Washington over the last two years alone, a sign of its concern that public outrage at it is war on Yemen may be getting through to policymakers.

The UN is meanwhile asking questions about the circumstances in which nine women and children were killed in a Saudi air strike on Yemen last September. This was no aberration: almost a third of all air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen hit civilian targets.

The UN warned that escalating violence in the Hodeida governorate in western Yemen has led to the displacement of at least 700 people in the last two weeks of January alone. Yemen’s government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, launched an offensive on the Houthi-held Hodeida governorate in June 2018.

President Biden has also temporarily stayed a ban on transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement while it reviews a decision by his predecessor to designate the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

The change of line came a day after 22 aid organisations working in Yemen called on the US to lift the “terrorist” designation as it would worsen the humanitarian crisis and risk plunging the country into widespread famine.  Already almost 50% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 9.5 million are unable to access safe water, sanitation or hygiene. The UN estimates that 24 million people in the country, which was already one of the poorest on the planet prior to the war, will need humanitarian assistance in 2021.

Trump’s “terrorist” designation froze US-related Houthi assets, banned Americans from doing business with them and made it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement. Biden’s lifting of the ban is welcome.

Italy has gone a step further than the US and introduced a permanent ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a decision hailed by the country’s Peace and Disarmament Network as “historic”.

The decision came despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ranked 10th and 11th in the list of the biggest markets for Italian arms exports. Exports to Saudi Arabia were worth 105.4 million euros, while those to the UAE were worth 89.9 million euros.

These steps intensify pressure on the UK government to halt arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. As the Guardian reported recently: “The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that US-made arms have accounted for almost three-quarters of the volume of all arms sales to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2019. The UK’s Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT) claims the UK has sold Saudi Arabia £5.4bn worth of arms since the Yemen war began, making the UK the second largest exporter. Germany has already suspended some sales, a decision that splits its government.”

Britain sold £11 billion of arms in 2019, 60% of which went to the Middle East. One of the UK’s biggest suppliers is BAE Systems, which has generated £15 billion in revenues from arms and services to Saudi Arabia since the war on Yemen began.

The pressure will need to be kept on the US government too to stick to its arms ban. The Obama administration authorised $60 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Biden is filling his cabinet with figures from the Obama years.

UK and US support for the Saudi-led coalition is not confined to arms sales, as Labour Hub has previously reported.  During the Trump presidency, there were over 200 air and ground strikes, by the US directly.  

Saudi combat aircraft pilots receive training in the UK by the Royal Air Force. Over half of the combat aircraft used for bombing raids by the Saudis are supplied by the UK.  And the British Navy gave the Saudi Navy training in tactics that enable it to impose its devastating blockade on Yemen, causing a horrendous famine that has claimed the lives of 85,000 children under the age of five.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Destroyed house in the south of Sanaa, Author: Ibrahem Qasim, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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