UK to continue Saudi weapons sales despite criticism

UK to continue Saudi weapons sales despite criticism
While Washington has halted the sale of precision weapons to Riyadh in objection to their indiscriminate use in Yemen Theresa May does not appear set to follow suit
3 min read
15 December, 2016
Rights groups say UK-manufactured munitions have been used in attacks killing civilians in Yemen [AFP]

British Prime Minister Theresa May rejected on Wednesday a call for the UK to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, a day after the United States decided against a shipment of precision munitions to Riyadh.

Rights groups hold that US and US manufactured munitions have been used by Saudi Arabia in attacks that have killed civilians in Yemen.

During Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday the SNP’s Angus Robertson questioned the morality of continued arms sales to Yemen.

“Civilians have suffered grievously with the bombing of hospitals, of schools, of markets. The UN believes 60 per cent of civilian casualties are caused by air strikes,” Robertson said, addressing the British Prime Minister on Wednesday.

“In the last 24 hours the United States has stopped the supply of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen. When will the UK follow suit?”

In particular criticism has been levelled at both the US and the UK to discontinue selling munitions to Riyadh after a Saudi-led airstrike targeting a funeral attended by Houthi officials resulted in at least 140 deaths, causing widespread outcry.

In response to Robertson, May defended Westminster’s relationship with Riyadh stating that the UK has a “very strict regime of export licenses” related to the sale of munitions and military equipment.

The British Prime Minister also said that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen was backed by the UN, and that Riyadh’s cooperation in issues of counter terrorism “has saved potentially hundreds of lives here in the UK,” a line of argumentation that May has previously used to justify ongoing sales.

“As the right honourable gentleman knows the intervention in Yemen is a UN-backed intervention. As I’ve said previously, where there are allegations international humanitarian law then we require those to be properly investigated,” said May, speaking on Wednesday.

Yemen’s ongoing civil war pits Iran-backed Houthi forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Saudi-supported exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Since conflict broke out in March 2015 the UK has sold over £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, a sum bettered only by the United States.

This £3.3 billion includes payments worth £2.2 billion for the purchase of aircraft, helicopters, and drones; £1.1 billion for the purchase of grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures; and £430,000 towards the purchase of armoured vehicles, and tanks.

According to the UN over 10,000 people have been killed in the country over this period. 

Additionally, due in part to a naval blockade, over half Yemen’s 28 million population is food insecure with thousands at risk of starvation. 

On Tuesday an anonymous US official said that the decision to halt the delivery of precision munitions to Riyadh was a result of perceived “systematic, endemic” problems in Saudi Arabia’s aerial operations in Yemen.

"We've decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs (precision-guided munitions)," the official said.

"That's obviously a direct reflection of the concerns that we have about Saudi strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties." 

Despite a frosting in relations between Washington and Riyadh US will however continue to offer considerable military support 

Speaking to The New Arab following October’s deadly funeral strike in Sanaa, Andrew Smith, a media spokesperson with the the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said that Westminster’s ongoing sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia was “in breach of international law” since they had been used in attacks that killed civilians. 

A UN panel has since found that "double-tap" strike was a violation of international humanitarian law.

In July a British High Court ruled in favour of a case presented by CAAT challenging the British government’s continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. A judicial review of the case is set to take place by February 2017.