Michael Fallon has berated MPs who criticise Saudi Arabia, claiming their comments are making it more difficult to sell fighter jets to the country.
The Defence Secretary said instead “we need to do everything possible to encourage” the country to move forward on a deal on Eurofighter Typhoon jets currently being brokered by BAE and the British Government with Riyadh.
He added: “We’ve been working extremely hard on the batch two deal. I’ve travelled to Saudi Arabia back in September and discussed progress on the deal with my opposite number, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia – and we continued to press for a signature or at least a statement of intent as we’ve done with Qatar.
“I have to repeat sadly, to this committee, that obviously other criticism of Saudi Arabia, in this Parliament, is not helpful and ...I’ll leave it there, but we need to do everything possible to encourage Saudi Arabia towards batch two. I believe they will commit to batch two and we need to work away on the timing.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest spenders on UK arms purchasing £1.1 billion worth this year alone but draws criticism for its abysmal human rights record.
The oil-rich country is currently engaged in a conflict in Yemen which has killed upwards of 10,000 people and displace three million others, leading some to accuse the UK of “shameful profiteering” from the misery.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said:
“These comments from the Secretary of State for Defence are disgraceful. He is calling on other parliamentarians to join him in putting arms sales ahead of human rights, democracy and international humanitarian law.
“The Saudi regime has one of the most appalling human rights records in the world, and has inflicted a terrible humanitarian catastrophe on Yemen. Fallon should be doing all he can to stop the bloodshed and end UK complicity in the suffering, not urging his colleagues to willingly ignore the abuses in order to sell even more weapons.
“Arms sales to human rights abusing regimes like Saudi Arabia would not be possible without the support of Ministers like Fallon. If the government’s main concern is jobs then it should be shifting that support into more positive areas like renewable energy and low carbon technology, and other industries which are not dependent on war and conflict for profit.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said Sir Michael’s comments were “extremely concerning”, adding: “The sale of arms should never be prioritised over human rights, the rule of law, and the lives of innocent children in Yemen.”
The remarks come as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to “end extremism” and return the country to “moderate Islam.”
The 31-year-old, who was placed first-in-line to the throne in June following an unexpected reshuffle by King Salman, made his remarks at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) in Riyadh on Tuesday.
In comments reported by the Saudi Gazette, he said: “We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. We will end extremism very soon.”