Legal appeal against UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia

Since bombing began in Yemen in 2015, the UK government has licensed the sale of at least £4.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. A three-day appeal by Campaign Against Arms Trade concluded yesterday, calling on the High Court to reverse its decision to allow the export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. As we await the verdict, Alan Story questions whether the UK Government will listen to reason.

Protestors at a London demonstration against the UK-Saudi arms trade
Protestors at a London demonstration against the UK-Saudi arms trade

Flickr / Alisdare Hickson / cc by-sa 2.0

Alan Story

A few months after Saudi Arabia began its military assaults in neighbouring Yemen in 2015, a former CIA analyst explained how this genocidal war could be halted. "If the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told [Saudi Arabian] King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow," said Middle East specialist Bruce Riedel.

But neither the US nor the UK ever made that call. Instead, permitting – indeed promoting – the sale of British-made fighter aircraft, missiles, cluster bombs, drones, and assorted high tech weaponry to Saudi Arabia for use in the killing fields of Yemen has arguably become the worst foreign policy crime of the UK government.

And Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to talk up his ties (and those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner) with the United States’ closest ally, leading weapons buyer and surrogate in the Gulf region. Trump’s first foreign trip as US president was to Saudi Arabia.  

Today, Saudi Arabia is by far the largest buyer of UK-made arms. Since the bombing began in Yemen, the UK government has licensed the sale of at least £4.7 billion worth of arms to this repressive regime. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, Yemen has become the site of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Over 60,000 people have been killed as a direct consequence of this four-year-old war in the poorest country in the Middle East. Almost 10 million are at risk of starvation.  

Legal appeal by Campaign Against Arms Trade

This is the context for a three-day appeal that concluded yesterday (11 April) in London. At stake is whether the United Kingdom should be allowed to continue selling arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in (and over) the territory of Yemen.  

The appeal was launched by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), seeking to overturn a 2017 High Court judgement that decided the UK government could continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. A decision from the Court of Appeal on CAAT’s case is not expected for some weeks.

“We are taking this action because we believe the sales aren't just immoral, they are also illegal, and they are playing a central role in the bombardment and devastation which has followed," CAAT spokesperson Andrew Smith told Al Jazeera this week.  

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Saudi Typhoon fighter plane made by British company BAE Systems

Wikimedia Commons

A Saudi Typhoon fighter plane, built by British company BAE Systems


Most of the fighter aircraft have been made by BAE Systems, the largest defence contractor in Europe and Britain's largest manufacturer of any type of product. (Their Saudi pilots are being trained in the UK as well.) According to one media report – and this from before the war in Yemen began to expand – Saudi Arabia has twice as many British-made warplanes as those that are available for the entire Royal Air Force.

Most international law experts have concluded that the British and US arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen are illegal.

The UK is a party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that came into force in 2014. Under Article 6 of this Treaty, a country is prohibited from authorising an arms transfer if it has knowledge at the time of authorisation that the arms would be used in the commission of ‘attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party’.

Inside Yemen, independent investigations by Amnesty International and other groups from as far back as 2015 have revealed that the Saudi missile and bombing attacks were definitely targeting civilians. Just last month, a report by a Yemen-based human rights organisation documented 27 Saudi military attacks between 2015 and 2018 on homes, schools, businesses, farms, a health clinic and similar structures that ‘killed at least 203 civilians [including many children] and injured at least 749.’  

Hammond: “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way…” 

Right from the start of the bombing in Yemen, the UK government has been at the side of the Saudis. In 2015, then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond promised that “we’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.”    

The ties between Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK stretch back for decades and even before petroleum was first discovered there by US interests in 1938. At present, Saudi Arabia is the world’s third largest oil producer (after the USA and Russia) and, crucially, the world’s leading exporter.

It is the gigantic Saudi fossil fuel industry that overwhelmingly finances this regime’s social and military spending, and hence its purchase of arms from both the UK and the US.

Just how gigantic and profitable this industry is has been revealed in recent weeks during the process of privatising the government-owned petroleum monopoly, Saudi Aramco. Required to open its books for the first time, Saudi Aramco accounts showed, in the words of a headline writer, that it has a profit ‘that makes Apple’s seem puny.’ (Last year, this oil giant generated an income of US$111.1 billion compared to the computer giant’s 2018 income of US $59.5 billion; Aramco’s income was four to five times larger than that of Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil.)  

No matter what happens in this week’s CAAT-launched appeal, the brutal Yemen conflict and civil war already have prompted more and more countries to halt their arms sales to Saudi Arabia or to make pledges to do so. These include Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland.

In the past month, both the US Senate and House of Representatives have passed resolutions criticising the US role in Yemen (Trump is expected to veto the resolutions). One recent UK poll from Populus showed that a mere six per cent of UK residents support such continue weapons sales to the Saudis.  

And the murder last October of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a murder that the US CIA concluded was ordered by the son of King Salman – has rather taken the glow off what was being touted by some commentators as a ‘new’ and more liberal Saudi Arabia.

MBS discredited  

The son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS), has now become so discredited that his father, King Salman, had to replace him during a February 2019 visit to London to see Theresa May.

Once considered by some to be the ‘serious, young and energetic reformer the kingdom needed’, the duplicitous actions of MBS are now being revealed in articles such as a recent brilliant expose, “The Saudi Lie”, in The London Review of Books, written by Saudi Arabian social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed.

It was defence minister MBS who, after all, ordered the initial attacks on the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  

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Damage to buildings in Yemen after an airstrike

Flickr / Essa Ahmed / Agence France-Presse

Damage to a cholera treatment centre in Yemen after an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition


During the second Gulf War (2003-2011), former US General Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush, was asked how many Iraqis he thought the United States had killed in that war.  

Powell’s response – and this is a direct quote as reported by a former US Attorney General – was:  “Frankly, that’s a number that doesn’t interest me very much.”

Fifteen years later in the same region, the number of deaths in Yemen caused by UK-made aircraft and missiles doesn’t appear to interest Theresa May very much either.

For donations to the work of Campaign Against Arms Trade, visit the CAAT website.

Alan Story is a member of the Sheffield Green Party.

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