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Hilary Aked

UK earns blood money arming Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been lobbying hard for these arms sales to continue [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 September, 2016

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Comment: UK complicity in Saudi state violence is having devastating consequences for the conflict in Yemen, writes Hilary Aked

UK Prime Minister Theresa May last week defended the country's massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying that close bilateral relations with the kingdom help to "keep people on the streets of Britain safe".

Her comments shamelessly defied the UK's own arms export rules which theoretically forbid arms sales where they may be used in violation of international law.

But even while schools, hospitals and other civilian targets in Yemen are being bombed by a coalition of nine countries led by Saudi Arabia, the UK government disregards these supposedly "rigorously" enforced regulations. Instead it is choosing to reap blood money by continuing to arm the authoritarian regime.

According to United Nations statistics, more than 10,000 people have been killed since the start of the bombing, including hundreds of children. Most died directly as a result of the Saudi-led operations intended to put down the Houthi armed insurgency; human rights organisations have documented widespread, systematic and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Yet while the government has acknowledged that UK-made weapons are being used to bomb Yemen (including missiles, warplanes and even cluster bombs), it denies that crimes are taking place, by simply ignoring the extensive evidence. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested that Riyadh could be relied upon to regulate itself, saying "they have the best insight into their own procedures".

The UK-Saudi relationship is deeply entrenched and has always reeked of corruption. During his term in office, Tony Blair was instrumental in quashing an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into allegations that BAE Systems paid bribes to Saudi princes to help them secure major arms deals.

The pretence of an ethical foreign policy goes out of the window when such huge sums are involved

With moves like this, the UK government has for many years now, gone to great lengths to protect its - and BAE Systems' - lucrative contracts to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, one of its biggest arms export customers. Human Rights Watch says the UK licensed £3.3 billion ($4.4bn) in arms sales to the country in the first year of the conflict alone.

Over David Cameron's time in Downing Street, the figure reportedly reached £6.7 billion ($8.9bn). The pretence of an ethical foreign policy goes out of the window when such huge sums are involved.

Add to this the fact that the Saudi regime has been lobbying hard for these sales to continue. The country's considerable political clout has previously enabled it to pressure the UN to remove it from a blacklist of violators of children's rights. And earlier this month Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir arrived at Westminster to privately brief MPs.

The likes of BAE Systems profit from the death and destruction that rains down on people in various countries that the UK helps to arm

His visit came amid growing parliamentary pressure to stop the sales, culminating in the release of a draft report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls. It stated that "the weight of evidence of violations" by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen made it "very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia while maintaining the credibility of our arms licensing regime". But the MPs call for an end to the arming of Riyadh has not been heeded.

Arms companies themselves also wield enormous political influence. The likes of BAE Systems profit from the death and destruction that rains down on people in various countries that the UK helps to arm, including several Middle East regimes, where - for example - Palestinians suffer at the hands of Israel, and those in Yemen and Bahrain are victimised by the Saudis. But many politicians enjoy a cosy relationship with such companies.

A well-documented revolving door sees ex-ministers end up on the boards of such corporations, where their government connections prove useful in securing defence contracts. Meanwhile, senior arms company executives are invited to sit on semi-official advisory groups bearing innocuous names about promoting British "industry" overseas.

The result of all this is deep UK complicity in Saudi state violence. Shockingly, evidence that the UK manufactured and sold weaponry to Saudi Arabia, even after the bombing commenced in March 2015, has been uncovered. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) called it "the most flagrant breach of UK arms export regulation we have seen".

A well-documented revolving door sees ex-ministers end up on the boards of such corporations

Earlier this year CAAT won the right to a judicial review in the High Court, concerning the government's decision to continue arming Saudi Arabia.

The last time such a high-profile legal challenge to the military export regime was mounted was in 1997, when Blair's new government was fiercely criticised for selling Hawk jets to the repressive regime in Indonesia. Labour, at least, has improved since then. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the party has called for the suspension of UK arms sells to Riyadh.

But since the Conservative government persists in arming the Saudis, ordinary people have taken direct action to try to prevent the deadly sales.  

In the immediate term, Saudi Arabia, with UK help, is devastating Yemen. More than 2.5 million people have been displaced, an estimated 14 million are in need of food aid and around 80 percent of the population require urgent humanitarian assistance.

In the longer term, the UK's actions actually make people on the streets of Britain less safe, too, by undermining the government's professed desire to stop "extremism". If that term has any serious meaning, as David Wearing pointed out in the Guardian, the Saudi regime fits the bill better than most.


Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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