The opacity of oil-drenched Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has failed to hide the blood-bath it has been shedding over several Middle Eastern nations, both directly and indirectly. A number of other countries have become suppliers to the Arab nation’s barbaric objectives that have been causing grave instability in the MENA region.
However, with increasing death toll in the war-torn regions, brutal killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations, Saudi’s partners in crime began pulling out their support.
The latest in the series of “unfriending” the Arab nation is the United Kingdom, which is the second-largest exporter of arms to the Saudis, after the United States, as the statistics suggest. Last month, the British government put a halt to the approval of any new licenses for selling weapons, after the judges ruled that the ministers acted unlawfully despite being aware about the possibility that it could lead to the violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen.
According to the UN, the Saudi-led military coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”. While Saudis, with support of its major partner UAE, has claimed to have been fighting the rebels, rights groups have been protesting that their attacks have killed thousands of civilians in the last four years. Human Rights Watch reported deaths of 6,872 civilians as of November 2018, with 10,768 wounded.
The UK master of the rolls — Sir Terence Etherton, Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Singh — ruled in favor of the campaigners, who have been against the arms trade. They concluded that the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was “irrational and therefore unlawful”, as he licenced weapons exports without judging if the past incidents broke international law and if there was a “clear risk” of future breaches.
Where the activists celebrated the courts of appeal ruling, the government is likely to challenge it and drag it to the Supreme Court. Fox stated that the government had suspended new exports licenses for the Kingdom and its coalition in the vicious war, but the existing grants would not be suspended.
UK’s Contribution to Destruction
The move could have come sooner, but it is still a major setback to the UK’s rearmament of Saudi Arabia. A day after the four-year-old war began under the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Saudi-led coalition dropped first bombs in Yemen on March 26, 2015, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond told reporters that Britain would “support Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”.
Since then, the UK arms companies, BAE Systems and Raytheon, increased the pace to keep up with the deadly attacks that Saudis are launching on thousands of civilians, along with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. According to the BBC, Britain licenced export of over 4.7 billion pounds (nearly $6 billion) to one of the biggest human rights abusers in the last four years. Moreover, from 2008-2017, the British government granted a total of 9,003 export licenses to the UAE, which included 6,038 exclusive grants for weapons and military equipment.
Where the UK ban on arms sale is being associated to merely weapons, not many are aware about the extensive assistance that the British nation solely provides to Saudi Arabia. Among the weapons that the Kingdom and UAE receive from Britain are precision-guided bombs, sophisticated armoured vehicles, grenades, rifles, rocket launchers and fighter jets.
As per a report by The Guardian, BAE systems and UK Raytheon were under government contract to manufacture Paveway bombs that costs £22,000 a piece, Brimstone bombs costing £105,000 per unit, and Storm Shadow cruise missiles for £790,000 a piece. Moreover, BAE has long been under a government contract to assemble jets in hangars located just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.
In addition to weapons, BAE has also been sub-contracted to deliver logistical support, ensuring the provision of engineers and weapons maintenance inside Saudi Arabia. Reports revealed that nearly 6,300 British contractors are stationed at Saudi’s forward operating bases.
UK has been providing the Gulf nation with the personnel and expertise that is helping them to continue such barbaric wars. For years, the British government has been deploying RAF personnel to train Saudi pilots as well as to work as engineers.
According to the Stats, the United Kingdom had issued 103 licenses in 2016 with the value of 679 million and 126 licenses in 2017 worth 1.129 billion to export military goods to Saudi Arabia.
Beginning of Arms Trajectory
UK and Saudi Arabia share a long history of dealing in weapons. These weapons have been used to create chaos and deaths in several countries in the MENA region – Yemen, Syria, Libya and Sudan. The UK has been supplying arms to the Arab nation since 1960s. However, the first major deal was signed in 1985.
Becoming one of the biggest arms deal in history, it came to be known as The Al Yamamah. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the then-UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of former Saudi Defence Minister and Crown Prince Sultan.
Under the deal, the Saudis were receiving weapons supply from BAE Systems, which provided 48 Tornado IDSs, 30 Hawk training aircraft, 30 Pilatus PC-9 trainers, 24 Tornado ADVs, a range of weapons, radar, spares and a pilot-training programme, until 2007.
Years later, the Saudi negotiator, Prince Bandar came under allegations of receiving payments of £30 million every quarter for at least 10 years, from BAE. It was reported that the payments were a lobbying effort by the UK government— Thatcher and BAE Systems. The massive bribes were reportedly offered to persuade the Gulf nation to change its choice of French Mirage jets, leading the Kingdom to instead sign the deal for joint UK-French made Tornado.
While BAE Systems came under investigations, former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was quick to cover the matter under a black cloth. As his government came into power, Blair broke the law and abandoned the fraud investigation into a multibillion-pound arms deal, giving birth to newer controversies.
The scandals and lobbyists became successful in keeping the arms supplying route free of hindrances. The arms deal that began for strategic purposes soon turned into an economic agenda.
In 2013 and 2014, the British government issued three special export licences to BAE, which permitted the sale of an unlimited number of bombs to the Kingdom. Becoming an immunity for Saudi, these licenses exempted the requirement of disclosure of total sale. Despite the major sales not being on record, Britain’s military exports to Riyadh augmented almost 35-fold in a year— from £83m in 2014 to £2.9bn in 2015.
While the UK weaponry was already being deployed for wars in MENA countries, the western nation became the major supplier of arms and military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen in 2015. The Guardian had reported that a majority of the bombs that fell on the war-torn country belonged to Britain.
Increasing Criticism, Decreasing Support
The country, under Prime Minister Theresa May, has been continuing the arms support, despite the increasing death tolls in both Syria and Yemen. On the other hand, protests from the Labour Party, world leaders and rights groups, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Amnesty International, continued to soar.
“Theresa May must prove that she is willing to stand up to the kind of repugnant behaviour shown by the killing of Khashoggi and halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately,” stated Belgian leader Philippe Lamberts.
May has been criticised of supporting husband Philip May, who’s an investment relationship manager at Capital Group, the largest shareholder in arms manufacturer BAE Systems. “While UK Prime Minister Theresa May supports Trump and Macron’s military action in Syria, she is also helping her husband’s investment firm to make a killing,” said political investigative journalist Johnny Vedmore.
After the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, where the UN recently reported to have “credible evidence” against Crown Prince MbS’ links in the operation, several countries — Germany, Belgium, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Finland — have discontinued arms trading with the Saudis. However, the major suppliers of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — the US, UK and France — decided to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s increasing human rights violations.
British foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, even tried convincing Germany to lift the ban. He wrote a letter to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, stating, “I am very concerned about the impact of the German government’s decision on the British and European defence industry and the consequences for Europe’s ability to fulfill its NATO commitments.”
The UK’s diplomatic lobbying and relentless support for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), raised doubts that for British leaders, an economy thriving on blood-money is more important than the millions of lives being killed brutally every day.
Re-routing arms to rogue elements
Several reports released in the past reveal a disturbing scenario. The investigations and analysis have revealed that the arms that the Saudis and the UAE received from western countries ended up in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda, hardline Salafi militias, rebel groups and other factions in Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Robert Fisk, The Independent’s correspondent, released a report in July last year, providing evidence that the arms sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were handed over to what the US State Department itself calls terrorist organizations’. He stated that ‘the buyers’ transferred several expensive weapons “to ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda … or some other anti-Assad Islamist group”.
Months later, in November 2018, The Guardian reported that an investigation into the weapons used in the Yemen war exposed how the weapons traded to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition by the US and UK, end up in the hands of militias. A report by journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ) alleged that the weapons are also openly passed on to marginalised and feuding groups fighting their own territorial battles that serve the interests of the two Gulf nations.
The Arab powers — Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition — have strategically caused havoc through proxy wars. The US and the European nations have been equal contributors to the prolonged destruction, despite the resistance from their own people as well as the rights groups.
Recently, Switzerland banned its aerospace firm, Pilatus, from continuing its operations in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The restrictions came after the revelation that the Swiss company was providing “logistical support” to armed forces of the two countries. The move came after several other nations had already extricated their support.
While Saudi Arabia and UAE’s major arms trading partners, the UK, has suspended export licenses, only the US and France remain as the crucial allies serving Saudis’ merciless objectives. However, the US President Donald Trump is also facing soaring opposition from his administration and the Democrats over his unwavering alliance with the Arab nation.
The Saudi-led coalition, though, is increasingly losing the support it has been receiving from its international allies. The brutality that these Middle East powers have been inflicting may finally have become too much to bear for the global community.