Brexit, the arms trade and Yemen: A window of opportunity for the UK government to review its relationship with Saudi Arabia

By Armida van Rij

The Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is in London today meeting Theresa May. On the agenda are the reforms MBS has been passing in his Kingdom under his agenda known as Vision 2030. May and MBS will also be discussing the ongoing war in Yemen that Saudi Arabia has been pursuing since March 2015, which the UK supports directly and indirectly though intelligence, advisors and arms sales.

Nearly 50% of all UK-manufactured weapons are exported to Saudi Arabia. Since the start of the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen, which took place at the request of Yemen’s President Hadi, in an attempt to counter Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the revenue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia for UK companies has risen to £6 billion, with £30 million in tax revenues. At the same time, the war in Yemen so far has caused 5,295 civilian deaths, put 20.7 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance or protection, and led to the largest cholera outbreak in recent history.

In addition to the human and economic costs to the country as a direct result of the war, there have also been allegations of human rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians, as well as potential breaches of the Arms Trade Treaty – all of which the UK is a signatory of, and Saudi Arabia is not.

These allegations have increasingly cast the international spotlight on the consequences of the war, with various human rights and advocacy groups across countries calling for an end to the provision of arms to parties involved in the conflict. In part as a result of the pressure from these organisations and public opinion, several countries have – with varying conditions – done exactly that.

Germany, as part of the new coalition negotiations, announced it would end the supply of weapons to warring parties in Yemen. In January, Wallonia in Belgium announced it had ceased to export arms to Saudi Arabia that would be used outside the country since 2017. Finland’s newly re-elected President Sauli Niinisto stated during the election campaign that his country would stop exporting weapons to the UAE, and so did Norway over concerns that these weapons could be used in Yemen. Outside of the European continent, Canada revealed that it had stopped approving new permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia during the summer of 2017. It is clear that there is a growing momentum to halt arms sales at the national level.

While these are important and indeed laudable steps, these countries are not the major arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia; that would be the US and the UK, who together account for nearly 80% of Saudi Arabia’s total arms imports and nearly 65% of the UAE’s.

In a debate more about domestic democratic oversight, three prominent US senators from across the political spectrum have now introduced a resolution forcing the Senate to vote on whether or not the US should continue to support Saudi Arabia.

The UK government, so far, has merely offered an inquiry in 2016 into the use of UK-supplied weapons in Yemen by the parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls. A judicial review in 2017 seeking to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia over humanitarian concerns brought to the High Court by Campaign Against Arms Trade, was dismissed based on secret information heard in closed sessions. Meanwhile, MBS’s UK visit tallies with rumours that Britain’s leading defence company, BAE Systems, will secure a new order for 48 Typhoon jets from Saudi Arabia.

So what should the UK government do? During this time of Brexit, the UK has an opportunity to establish and pursue whatever role it wants to play on the international stage. Does it seek to become the upholder and defender of international law, norms and values? If so, the UK government should follow the example of many of its allies, as they undertake steps to seriously and systematically review the allegations about the misuse of their weapons in Yemen.

Perhaps a more compelling argument to British policymakers is that the government needs to figure out what it is gaining from its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and whether that indeed outweighs the financial and reputational costs the UK is currently incurring due to its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. If it does not, the government should suspend these arms sales.

The official Downing Street statement ahead of the visit declared that the relation between the UK and Saudi Arabia ‘enables us to talk frankly and constructively’ about issues of concern, and iterated that the premise for Global Britain is an ‘outward-looking country strengthening our relationships around the world and standing up for our values’. It is time for the UK to step up and follow its own government’s line.


This blog is the second of two leading up to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the UK on 7 March. The Policy Institute at King’s is currently undertaking a study seeking to understand the extent to which the UK’s strategic objectives have been met through its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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