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Surge in approved UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and war allies in Yemen

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
People walk on the rubble of a school destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Naif Rahma
The rubble of a school destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen. Photo: Naif Rahma/Reuters

The value of approved UK arms sales to Saudia Arabia and its allies in war-torn Yemen has soared to £6.4bn over the past five years, according to new research.

The British government has signed off £2bn more in arms exports since January 2015 than it approved over the previous five years, analysis by the charity Oxfam suggests.

It marks a 45% spike in licences for UK arms manufacturers, despite tougher global rules coming into force through the Arms Trade Treaty signed in 2014.

The treaty, supported by the British government, includes measures to deter arms sales where there is a substantial risk of usage that violates international humanitarian or human rights law.

Ruth Tanner, Oxfam’s head of humanitarian campaigns, said rising arms sales should be a “stain on our conscience” given the buying countries’ role in the Yemen conflict.

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Saudi Arabia has been accused of violating international humanitarian law in its military intervention in the country, which is now suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Saudi armed forces have used UK-built and licensed arms in Yemen, including Typhoon aircraft, bombs, and missiles, according to research by the House of Commons library.

The British government has come under heavy criticism for approving the weapon sales. Oxfam says £6.4bn of exports to eight states involved has been given the green light since January 2015.

The research suggests £3bn of exports was for aircraft, helicopters and drones, with another £2.6bn for items including bombs, missiles and drones. 385 open licences have also been approved giving exporters the right to export unlimited quantities of goods, according to the charity.

In this Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 photo, a soldier allied to Yemen's internationally recognized government stands guard at the port of Aden in Aden, Yemen. A sense of normalcy has returned to Aden, now the seat of power for Yemen's internationally recognized government, but many challenges remain for bringing a lasting peace to the Arab world's poorest country. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
A soldier for Yemen's internationally recognized government in Aden. Photo: Jon Gambrell/AP Photo

The British government was taken to court over arms sales to Saudi Arabia by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) in 2017.

The High Court dismissed their claim, but the Court of Appeal then found earlier this year that the government’s decision-making process on licences was “irrational” and unlawful.

It also noted that a UK-supplied bomb had been found at the site of a bombing on the Abs hospital in Yemen in 2016, which left 19 civilians dead and 24 injured.

The government then temporarily agreed not to sign off any new licences to Saudi Arabia and its allies while it appeals the decision and considers its implications.

A spokeswoman for the department for international trade told Yahoo Finance UK: “The Government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and issues export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.

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“We are fully committed to complying with the 20 June Court of Appeal judgment. While we appeal the judgment, we will not grant any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and other coalition partners for items which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

But Tanner of Oxfam said: “Just a few years ago, the UK government enthusiastically pursued the introduction of legislation to better control arms transfers to avoid the kind of indiscriminate violence that has been unleashed on civilians in Yemen.

“And yet now the UK is doing all it can to avoid suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. This rise in arms sales should be a stain on our conscience.”