The legality of British arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will once again be challenged in London’s High Court at the end of January.
According to legal submissions filed by UK-based organization Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Whitehall is flouting its own export license rules by permitting British weapons to be sold to Saudi Arabia while it continues its 7-year-long bombing campaign in Yemen.
UK-based companies require export licences issued by the Department of International Trade (DIT) in order to export military goods and services, or “dual use” materials which could be used either for military or civilian purposes. However, in practice, these licenses are often issued in secret, with little public scrutiny or parliamentary oversight.
His Majesty’s Government (HMG) has provided billions of pounds sterling worth of weapons – and other forms of military and logistical support – to Saudi Arabia since it launched its military intervention in 2015. This is despite Riyadh’s track record of conducting airstrikes in Yemen which have targeted schools, hospitals, markets, weddings, funerals, farms, residential areas, basic infrastructure, and even UNESCO World Heritage sites, over the last seven years.
The war has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, and pushed countless others to the brink of starvation. The majority of casualties have resulted from the actions of the Saudi-led coalition, according to most humanitarian reports.
Military and logistical support provided by the UK, US, and France is so crucial to the war effort, that, if it stopped, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen would have to end, according to a leaked report produced by France’s Direction du Renseignement Militaire (Directorate of Military Intelligence) in 2018.
A lengthy legal campaign
The UK temporarily suspended its arms sales to the kingdom following a 2019 decision by the Court of Appeal that the DIT had failed to properly assess whether there was a “clear risk” that British weapons “might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law” (IHL).
The Court of Appeal reversed a 2017 decision by the High Court which initially found against CAAT, who first challenged the legality of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia back in 2015. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Rights Watch UK, and Oxfam International all submitted their own reports in support of CAAT’s application.
However, in 2020, then-Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss, who briefly became prime minister in 2022, claimed that Saudi Arabia was not guilty of a pattern of serious violations of IHL – a decision labelled “deeply cynical” by Amnesty International.
Any serious violations by the Saudi-led coalition, if they did occur, were isolated incidents, Truss insisted. She then lifted the temporary ban on issuing new export licences for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the DIT returned to issuing new ones that same year. It is this decision which CAAT is currently appealing.
Yemeni investigative journalist Nasser Arrabyee expressed frustration and dismay when The Cradle asked him to comment on Truss’s decision.
“What can UK officials call killing of civilians sleeping at homes, studying at schools, being treated in hospitals, attending weddings and funerals?” Arrabyee asked rhetorically.
“What on earth can UK officials call weaponizing food, water and shelter of the Yemeni people for seven years now? If these are not war crimes, then what are?”
CAAT returns to court
CAAT is challenging the former secretary of state’s finding that there were only a “small number” of Saudi violations of IHL and that there was “no pattern” of violations.
“Even were it the case that the government’s conclusions” were correct, “it would not follow that no clear risk existed of further serious violations,” their legal submissions state.
CAAT also claims that Truss misdirected herself on what constitutes a “serious violation” of IHL.
The case is scheduled for three days, from 31 January to 2 February. Open and closed (i.e. secret) legal arguments and evidence will likely be presented by the government, as was the case the last time round.
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia represent the most “clear-cut case where it is unambiguously known, and indeed admitted by the government, that UK-supplied aircraft, bombs, and missiles are used in the bombing of Yemen,” CAAT’s research coordinator, Dr. Perlo-Freeman, explained to The Cradle.
CAAT has also “explored the possibility of a legal challenge relating to arms to Israel” and keeps in mind potential challenges in the future “where UK arms recipients are engaged in military repression” against its own citizens or its neighbours, such as Israel and Turkiye, he said.
The UK is the world’s second largest arms exporter, after the United States. Weapons sales, and the service contracts that go along with them, are big business, with the UK having sold over £23.3 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia since 2015 alone. Yet, due to the country’s incredibly opaque export licensing system, it is impossible to determine precisely how much weaponry HMG has sold to Riyadh.
Over 377,000 Yemenis have been killed
A “child under five dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes,” a 2017 UN report concluded. Three years later, the UN estimated that the death toll in Yemen had reached 233,000 primarily from “indirect causes.”
This number was projected to increase to 377,000 by the end of 2021. Controversially, the UN Human Rights Council voted, in October 2022, to terminate its official monitoring of the death toll in Yemen.
Currently, nearly three-quarters of the Yemeni population, or 23.4 million people, require humanitarian assistance, with 4.3 million people displaced from their homes, the majority of whom are women and children.
The destruction of Yemen’s national electricity grid by Saudi airstrikes also created the world’s largest cholera epidemic. Without power, Yemen’s wastewater plant leaks contaminated waste into the country’s irrigation canals and drinking water, leading to a bacterial infection – cholera – that causes intense vomiting, diarrhea, and death if left untreated. Children are particularly vulnerable to dying from this infection.
Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen, which the US, UK, and France are also complicit in, is so severe as to satisfy the legal definition of torture, according a report by the World Organization Against Torture released only last September.
The report, titled “Torture in slow motion,” details how the blockade is deliberately starving millions of civilians, in a country which is dependent upon imports for 90 percent of its food, fuel, and medicine.
An alliance spanning decades
The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia goes back to its founding in 1932. The Saudi kingdom possesses 17 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves as of July 2022, remains the UK’s key trading partner in the Persian Gulf, and represents Britain’s 19th largest export market worldwide.
From 1999 to 2021 alone, the UK exported a total £142,456 billion of goods and services to the absolute monarchy, £64,808 billion of which was exported since Saudi Arabia’s 2015 invasion, according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reviewed by The Cradle.
The ONS does not make clear whether the sale of military goods and services are included in these figures.
The Wahhabi state has invested billions in the UK economy and represents an ever-increasing market for British goods as well as access to markets in the region. But it has also provided finance, arms, and religious support – overtly and covertly – to anti-progressive and anti-secular operations in West Asia and far beyond.
“Valuable as this export market is,” UK ambassador Sir Willie Morris wrote to the-then Labour Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart in 1969, “it is of less importance to us than Saudi Arabia’s role in the preservation of our wider politico-economic interests in the Middle East [West Asia].” These interests include ensuring access to the substantial oil reserves in the Persian Gulf and the suppression of left-wing and other anti-imperial, revolutionary movements.
A state which enforces a deeply reactionary, ultra-conservative form of Islam, Saudi Arabia was a key anti-communist ally during the Cold War. In the 1980s, it assisted the CIA by covertly funding the Contra far-right death squads in Nicaragua, as well as the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (some of whom later formed the terror group Al-Qaeda). More recently, Saudi Arabia joined Turkiye, Qatar, and the UAE in supporting Takfiri jihadists in Syria during the decades-long CIA- and MI6-backed dirty war there.