UK approved $1.9bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since ban lifted

Anti-arms trade campaigners say ‘shocking’ figures show UK officials are putting ‘profit before Yemeni lives’.

A Saudi Arabia-headed military coalition has been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen during the latter's more than six-year-long war [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The United Kingdom signed off on arms exports worth nearly 1.4 billion pounds ($1.9bn) to Saudi Arabia between July and September last year following the lifting of a ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country – a move critics slammed as “immoral” amid the continuing war in Yemen.

The publishing of the figures by the UK’s Department for International Trade on Tuesday came days after new United States President Joe Biden said his country was ending all support “for offensive operations” by a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, including “relevant arms sales”.

The announcement prompted mounting calls for the UK – the US’s main ally – to do the same, but British officials have so far refused to follow suit.

The UK’s previous moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia came into effect in June 2019 after its High Court issued a landmark ruling forcing officials to pause sales amid concern the weapons would be used in violation of international humanitarian law.

A subsequent government review concluded there had been “isolated incidents” of possible violations by Saudi forces in Yemen, but “no clear risk” of future serious breaches. Officials announced in July 2020 that the UK would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia – its biggest weapons buyer – in the wake of the review’s findings.

In the three-month period following the restart, the UK authorised weapons exports worth 1.39 billion pounds ($1.9bn), according to the government figures. The category of arms including missiles and bombs accounted for 1.36 billion pounds ($1.88bn) of the sales, although the figures did not state which manufacturers received the export authorisations.

Anti-arms trade campaigners slammed the sales as “shocking” and said the figures “illustrate the UK government’s determination to keep supplying arms at any cost”.

“UK-made weapons have played a devastating role in the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis they have created, yet the UK government has done everything it can to keep the arms sales flowing,” Sarah Waldron, a spokesperson for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Now even the US is curbing its arms sales, while the UK government is continuing to fuel the war,” CAAT’s Waldron said. “They must change course now and work to support meaningful peace.”

Martin Butcher, international aid group Oxfam’s conflict adviser, said UK politicians had “once again … put profit before Yemeni lives” and branded the arms sales documented on Tuesday as “immoral”.

“Arms exports to Saudi Arabia should stop immediately,” Butcher said in a statement. “Yemen is living through the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two-thirds of the population reliant on food aid and yet people are profiteering from the misery caused by these arms sales.”

Al Jazeera contacted the Department for International Trade for comment on the criticisms levelled against the government. In response, a spokesperson said the UK operates “one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world”.

“The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria,” the spokesperson said. “We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”

The conflict in Yemen started in 2014 when the Houthis seized large swaths of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.

The war escalated in March 2015, when the Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened in an attempt to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The coalition has been assisted by several Western powers, including the UK and the US. According to CAAT, the UK has authorised arms sales worth 6.8 billion pounds ($9.3bn) to Saudi Arabia since March 2015.

Both sides in Yemen’s conflict have since been accused of war crimes during fighting that has killed more than 110,000 people to date, including in excess of 12,500 civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

Peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict have been stalled since late 2018, despite repeated efforts by United Nations officials to revive negotiations and end what it calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

According to the UN, 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people depend on humanitarian assistance to survive.

Source: Al Jazeera