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.

Saudi Arabia gets little bang for its buck for investing in its armed forces – but that may be about to change

By Armida van Rij

Nearly 50% of all UK-manufactured arms are exported to Saudi Arabia. Some of these weapons are being used to wage war in Yemen, a war which, by conservative UN estimate, has caused 5,295 civilian deaths between March 2015 and November 2017. Now Saudi Arabia is looking to increase its military strength further.

Since 2015 the Kingdom has been leading a coalition of predominantly Arab states in an increasingly costly proxy war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are allegedly being backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The war, which has reached a military stalemate, has had a high financial – as well as human – cost: as much as $5-6 billion a month by some estimates.

Last Monday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a series of royal decrees signalling an overhaul of the Saudi Ministry of Defence (MoD), based on recommendations of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who’s tipped to be the King’s successor.

Ostensibly, the main aim of the overhaul is to increase the performance and professionalism of the Saudi Arabian armed forces, which currently has a notoriously poor reputation – despite the country being the world’s fourth largest spender on defence and first in terms of percentage of GDP.

The quagmire in Yemen has underscored how possessing the latest military equipment and having top foreign military advisors cannot make up for a poorly trained and under-performing armed forces that are heavily dependent on its air force.

The royal decrees issued last week saw the naming of a new military chief of staff, and new commanders for the land forces, air forces and air defence forces. While the extent to which these new appointees will seek to drastically shift current Saudi military strategy in Yemen is still an open question, it is unlikely the new chief of staff will devise a new strategy for Yemen at this stage. The overhaul is predominantly geared towards an external audience, to showcase the continued trend of reforms under MBS.

Over the long term, there are likely to be implications for Saudi Arabia’s defence procurement and the professionalism of its forces. The country had already planned to decrease its reliance on western partners for defence equipment, and has set a goal of spending 50% of its defence equipment budget procuring from domestic industries by 2030, up from just 2% in 2016.

Coupled with the pursuit of a new culture within the MoD whereby promotions are based on merit, it is clear that the Kingdom is seeking to become more self-reliant when it comes to designing military strategies and undertaking operations. Currently, in order to carry out its operations in Yemen, the country is still heavily supported by both British and American advisors and targeted intelligence, and relies on American air-to-air refuelling for its air force.

While the Kingdom’s desire to become more autonomous and pursue military actions independently from their Western allies is understandable, it may well have detrimental consequences for civilians in areas of Saudi Arabian military engagement: cases of their intelligence failures leading to civilian casualties are increasingly well documented.

In addition, this drive to become more self-sufficient when undertaking military interventions is also likely to have implications closer to home. A commonly heard argument is that by engaging with Saudi Arabia through arms sales, the UK is able to exert leverage and influence over Saudi foreign policy (something the Policy Institute at King’s is seeking to assess and quantify). But as Saudi Arabia’s need for UK-manufactured weaponry diminishes, so too does the supposed opportunity to exercise soft power (if indeed the leverage existed in the first place).

The MoD overhaul, then, signals three things: first, it is the latest sign that the Kingdom is attempting to acquire the skills and resources needed to successfully pursue its foreign policy ambitions. Second, it is the latest manifestation of MBS’s attempts to further consolidate his power. And third, placing the overhaul in a geopolitical context, it provides a means by which MBS can try to demonstrate to Saudia Arabia’s western allies that he is attempting to bring positive change to his country – a message he will be keen to reiterate while visiting the UK and the US this week.

However, for some of those on the receiving end of his decision-making, such as the 20.7 million Yemeni civilians in need of some form of humanitarian assistance or protection largely as a result of the war, these messages offer anything but solace.

Armida van Rij is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute.

This blog is the first 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.

Achieving a post-landmine world: The decades-old threat that just won’t go away


Photo credit: Rodney Evans/AusAID, via Wikimedia Commons

What is currently being reused and deployed by so-called Islamic State and also threatens anyone playing the game Pokémon Go on their smartphones in Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam? The answer: landmines.

Antipersonnel landmines were first used in the Second World War, and continued to be deployed in conflicts ranging from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. They are now used in only a handful of conflicts, meaning that the vast majority of mines contaminating land today were laid before the turn of the current century. Continue reading

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If British defence industry shrinks any more, the special relationship could be doomed

The new Conservative party’s pre-election manifesto included a commitment “to seek value for money in defence procurement, recognising the important contribution that the UK defence industry makes to our prosperity”. It also reminded us that Britain is currently meeting NATO’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence.

However, given what some see as inevitable post-election austerity cuts, the defence industry has good reason to worry. If austerity starts to eat into it, there will be real and pressing implications for the “special relationship” with the US.

We recently produced a study of the available evidence concerning the economic and strategic value of the UK’s defence industry. The study tested the basic premise that the UK’s domestic defence industry can contribute positively to the UK, not merely in terms of security benefits, but also in terms of economic benefits through increased employment, taxes, exports and spin-off effects. Continue reading