UK must stop arming the Middle East

UK must stop arming the Middle East
Comment: The UK exports billions of dollars of weapons to the Middle East, some of which are used on civilians. It is time for this to end, says Hilary Aked.
3 min read
07 Apr, 2015
The UK sold jets to Saudi Arabia, which were then used to bomb civilians [Getty]
Human rights organisations have highlighted hundreds of deaths in less than two weeks of bombing in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including many civilians.

Humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have reported that the Saudi coalition is blocking aid deliveries, water and medical supplies.

Saudi Arabia is the UK's biggest customer for weapons - and it looks like the events in Yemen will not change that fact. Indeed, the UK's deputy ambassador to the UN, Peter Wilson, stood by the Foreign Office's unequivocal statement of support for Saudi-led intervention.

Between June 2010 and September 2014, the UK approved hundreds of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, with a total value of about $5.8bn.

The statement stressed that fact that Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was "the legitimate president of Yemen" but legitimate rule in non-democratic Saudi Arabia itself is not up for questioning.

Similarly, Wilson's call for a "genuine political solution" to be found without "using force" paid little attention to underlying political causes of the violence, notably Houthi concerns about marginalisation in Yemen. And none of this is likely to change while Saudi Arabia remains Britain's biggest weapons customer.

Figures compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) from data from the UK's business ministry show that between June 2010 and September 2014, the UK approved hundreds of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, with a total value of about $5.8bn.

Campaigners have urgently called on the UK government to ensure weapons supplied by UK companies are not being used in the ongoing raids in Yemen.

Amnesty International said "extremely likely" that a 2009 Saudi campaign in Yemen had lead to "indiscriminate or disproportionate" attacks involving Tornado aircraft, which were supplied by the UK.

There is every reason to believe UK-made weapons are being used in the current bombing as well.

In the Middle East and North Africa region alone, the UK also sells arms to Bahrain, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE.

Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain during an 2011 uprising against Bahrain's government. They travelled in UK-made armoured vehicles.

The UK has heavily promoted its arms sales directly to the Bahraini regime, with members of the royal family - notably Prince Andrew - forming part of the marketing package.

The UK and Israel

Former foreign secretary David Miliband admitted after Israel's 2008-9 bombing of Gaza that UK-made parts were 'almost certainly' used in the attacks.

Meanwhile, despite Israel's routine assaults on Gaza, the UK has consistently supplied the country with weapons, and vital components for F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters.

David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary, admitted after Israel's 2008-9 bombing of Gaza that UK-made parts were "almost certainly" used in the attacks, which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead.

Yet even after the subsequent intense bombing campaigns of 2012 and 2014, and the deaths of thousands more Palestinians, the UK has not suspended its arms trade with Israel.

In fact, the UK continues to buy weapons, especially drone aircraft, from Israel, which the latter markets as "battle tested" having used the occupied territories, a real-life laboratory for experimentation.

Calls for a two-way arms embargo on Israel are growing in the UK as Palestine solidarity campaigners step up calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions across the board.

But the UK's relationship with the entire region remains marked by a shallow rhetorical commitment to human rights undermined by massive promotion of arms sales to even the most repressive Middle Eastern regimes, motivated by sheer economic self-interest.

In the long term, altering this pattern will require rupturing the easy consensus between all the major parties in evidence as the UK gears up for a general election.

Unpacking the powerful myth that the arms trade is one of few industries the government can and should subsidise to underwrite jobs is the sizeable challenge facing those seeking to set the country on a genuinely ethical foreign policy footing.