Will EU stop arms sales to Saudi in wake of Khashoggi killing?

Experts say a united European response on arms sales to Riyadh unlikely as business interests trump over rights abuses.

Jamal Khashoggi Murder Trial Begins In Istanbul
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on October 2 [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo]

Istanbul, Turkey – European powers condemned the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with Germany pledging to suspend arms sales to Riyadh – the world’s biggest arms buyer.

“As long as [Khashoggi’s murder] is not cleared up, there will be no arms exports to Saudi Arabia. I assure you of that very decidedly,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said following the killing that has caused a global outrage.

In the United Kingdom, several Members of Parliament called to halt similar arms deals with the Gulf kingdom.

But will the European Union adopt a common position on the supply of arms to Riyadh for its alleged involvement in the dissident’s killing in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2?

After weeks of denial, the kingdom admitted that the killing of Khashoggi – a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Mohammed – was premeditated murder.

Experts say European countries may not suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has also been criticised for its devastating war in Yemen, due to economic incentives.

Saudi Arabia buys most of its military equipment from Western countries such as the United States, the UK, France, Italy, and Germany.

Since 2010, the Gulf Kingdom has bought military equipment worth more than $18bn from all over the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Governments of both the UK and France, the two biggest European exporters of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, have said they do not plan to halt such deals.

“There’s no possible prospect of Europe collectively calling for suspension of arms sales because the French and British won’t have it,” Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at European Center on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Al Jazeera.

“So I expect the European Union response will be a lot of deploring, because that’s what Europe tends to do,” he said. “It ‘deplores’, and it ‘expresses concern’, and it ‘calls for action’.”

‘Coordinated response’

Giovanna Maletta, research assistant in the dual-use and arms trade control programme at SIPRI, told Al Jazeera that Europe will most probably not speak with one voice because countries like the UK and France have a major economic stake.

“Even before Khashoggi’s case, it was hard to achieve a coordinated response at the EU level on whether or not keeping exporting weapons to the Saudis,” Maletta said.

“Unless the major European exporters will lead such an action, it is unlikely that EU member states will be able to agree on a unified response,” she said, adding that seems unlikely at this point.

“France’s position still seems at odds with the German one,” Maletta said, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to Merkel’s comments in which he asked Merkel “what is the link between arms sales and Khashoggi’s murder?”

Spain, Maletta added, had a similar political discussion but decided to continue its arms sales worth $400m.

“In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May replied to similar calls arguing that the UK already has in place very strict rules on arms exports,” Maletta from SIPRI said.

Witney agreed with Maletta, saying that especially with Brexit happening in several months, the UK needs deals like that with Saudi Arabia.

“The only decent manufacturing industry the UK has left is defence and aerospace, so they’d do anything not to jeopardise a relationship like this,” he said.

Maletta added that the EU parliament motion urging action in the wake of the killing is non-binding.
“The EU Parliament doesn’t have the authority to impose such decisions.”

Commercial competition

But Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said a unified response to the Khashoggi case is not just one that only concerns Europe and Saudi Arabia.

“The issue of an embargo on military sales is a difficult one, not simply because of multiple EU countries involved, but more importantly because of the stated US position that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a matter of commercial competition,” Pierini, whose research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey, told Al Jazeera.

“Given the hostile stance taken by President Donald Trump vis-a-vis the EU on trade matters, a European embargo would likely be used by the US president to his advantage.”

The US president has made clear where the US stands when it comes to choosing between economic incentives and human rights abuses.

When asked last week if the Khashoggi murder was sufficient reason to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump simply replied by saying “[it is] not helpful for us to cancel an order like that”.

Last year, the two countries signed a deal worth more than $110bn, larger than any deal Saudi Arabia has made with any European country.

For ECFR’s Witney, Trump’s remarks showed that economic incentives for most countries, not only the US, are more important than the murder of a journalist in a consulate or the bombing of civilians in Yemen.

“It’s one of the rare Trump utterances where I didn’t reach for the sick bucket when I heard it,” Witney said. “For once he was speaking the truth.”

Renewed focus on Yemen war

Noha Aboueldahab, visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, agreed, adding that she did not expect the UK or the US, Saudi’s top two arms suppliers, to do anything.

“In terms of specific international actors, the country that has the most sway is the US,” Aboueldahab said.

The Khashoggi murder has not only put the spotlight on the arms deals between Western countries and Saudi Arabia, but it has also led to renewed focus on the destructive war in Yemen, where thousands of people have died as a result of the Saudi-led intervention.

Aboueldahab believes neither the murder of Khashoggi nor the renewed attention on the war in Yemen will change anything in the long-run.

“Given the long-standing relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia, I think this will be a bumpy patch in the relationship, but eventually they’ll go back to where they were more or less,” Aboueldahab said.

Source: Al Jazeera