UK urged to follow US in ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia

UK urged to follow US in ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia
UK MPs and activists urge the British government to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and support an end to the war in Yemen.

3 min read
06 February, 2021
UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia resumed following a high-profile court defeat [Getty]
Pressure on Boris Johnson's government to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased on Friday, after US President Joe Biden said his country will end support for the devastating war in Yemen and will freeze arms sales to Saudi forces.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood urged the British government to "follow suit and rethink military sales", seven months after the government restarted them following a high-profile court defeat.

Ellwood, who is also the Conservative chair of the defence select committee and a former defence minister, said the UK needs to work with the new US administration in developing "a fresh strategy" to help end the six-year conflict.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in Yemen's war, which the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

Labour MP Emily Thornberry said the US move should prompt a rethink among British ministers.

"For five years Labour has demanded the suspension of arms sales for use in Yemen and urged action to impose a ceasefire, open up humanitarian corridors and resume proper peace talks. For five years the Tories have refused. Now surely they must listen," Thornberry, who is also the shadow international trade secretary, said.

Biden on Thursday ended US support for Saudi Arabia's devastating war in Yemen, which he said "has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe".

He appointed a US special envoy for Yemen, veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who Biden said would support UN efforts to reach a ceasefire and revive peace talks between the government and Houthi rebels who control much of the country, including the capital Sanaa. 

"This war has to end," Biden said. 

The US is the world's largest arms exporter, with US sales accounting for around one third of the world's total arms trade.

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 2015-2019.

Saudi Arabia's air force has been accused of being responsible for many of the estimated 8,750 civilian deaths in air raids.

While the strikes have slowed in 2020 due to the pandemic, the attacks continue, according to the Yemen Data Project.

Biden's Thursday announcement turns the UK into Saudi Arabia's main weapons supplier for its offensive in Yemen.

'Ending this terrible war'

Since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, the UK has licensed at least £5.4 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime, including £2.9 billion worth of ML10 licences (aircraft, helicopters, drones) and £2.5 billion worth of ML4 licences (grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures), according to anti-weapons campaign group CAAT

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"In reality the figures are likely to be a great deal higher, with most bombs and missiles being licensed via the opaque and secretive Open Licence system," CAAT said.

"The US Government is the biggest arms dealer in the world, so this could be an important step towards ending this terrible war," Sarah Waldron of CAAT said in a statement.

"It also puts the spotlight firmly on to the UK government and companies that have armed, supported and enabled the brutal bombardment," Waldron said.

"Saudi-led forces have killed thousands of civilians and bombed schools, hospitals and homes. No matter how dire the crisis has become, they have been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK government," Waldron added. 

"That support must end, and so must have the arms sales that have done so much damage."

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