UK refuses to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite US weapons' freeze

UK refuses to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite US weapons' freeze
The UK has refused to follow the US' decision of suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying London makes its own decisions about selling weapons
3 min read
09 February, 2021
Yemen is war-torn [Getty]

UK ministers have refused to follow the US decision to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia over their potential use in the Yemen war.

On Monday, the UK Foreign Office Minister, James Cleverly, said he had noted the US review but claimed that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries are done with "great care" to ensure they did not lead to any breaches of humanitarian law.

"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," he said.

Saudi Arabia represented 40 percent of the volume of UK arms exports between 2010 and 2019.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, pushed 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".

Washington's suspension of arms sales was designed to create the conditions for talks between the warring parties, Ellwood added.

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, told MPs "the UK arms trading and technical support sustains the war in Yemen… The US decision on arms sales leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated."

The opposition bench politician said: "The UK cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict."

Last week, US President Joe Biden 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, to 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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