Recent weeks have seen a renewed and long overdue focus on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Jeremy Hunt has joined his American counterparts in calling for a much-needed ceasefire. One thing he hasn’t questioned is the arms sales that have enabled the war, and the myths that are used to justify them.
For the last three and a half years Saudi-led forces have inflicted a terrible bombardment on Yemen. UK weapons have played a central role. Right now, UK-made fighter jets are being flown by UK-trained personnel who are firing UK-made missiles and dropping UK-made bombs.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced. The UN warns that Yemen is on the verge of the worst famine anywhere in the world for over 100 years. Yet, no matter how bad the situation has got, the arms sales have continued.
Since the war began in March 2015, the UK government has licensed almost £5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi military. It’s justifications have been as predictable as they are misleading.
Argument 1: The Yemeni government asked Saudi Arabia to provide fighter jets and bombs, so the bombing has a UN mandate.
There is a debate about the extent to which UN resolution 2216 actually mandated the bombing campaign. However, even if we are to accept it as the legal basis of an intervention, it cannot be regarded as the basis for a war which has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
In short, the resolution did not call for a three and a half year bombardment which has killed thousands of people and destroyed vital infrastructure all across the country.
A lot of the strongest criticism of the war has come from the UN. In 2016, a UN expert panel accused Saudi-led forces of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law. Subsequent reports have documented similar violations and abuses.
When those that argue in favour of intervention point to initial UN support, they rarely refer to the numerous criticisms and calls for a ceasefire that its agencies have issued.
Argument 2: Arms sales give the UK influence, and if Saudi Arabia didn’t buy UK arms then it would simply buy them from someone else.
This argument can be used to justify selling anything to anyone in the world.
However, regardless of the questionable morality that underpins it, such an argument can’t actually be made about arms sales to Saudi Arabia. UK personnel play such a key role in servicing and maintaining the Saudi Air Force that its role could not be replaced overnight.
For the sake of argument, even if Saudi forces were to find another seller, the construction of new fighter jets, and the negotiations and integration required to replace its current relationship with the UK would take years. The war in Yemen could not be fought without the arms sales and cooperation of the UK and US. According to former CIA analyst Brucie Riedel “the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
The argument also ignores the fact that arms sales don’t just provide military support. They also send a message of political support for the buyer. This was seen in February, when the UK government rolled out the reddest of red-carpets for the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. Those images were seen around the world and presented a major propaganda coup for the Saudi authorities.
On the point of influence, the truth of the matter was exposed last year when the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, called on MPs to stop criticising the Saudi regime’s human rights record in case it made it harder to sell arms.
Argument 3: Arms sales to Saudi Arabia are vital for the economy and provide much-needed jobs.
The arms industry is not a major part of the economy. But it has always enjoyed a totally disproportionate voice in the corridors of power.
According to the Aerospace, Defence & Security group, a trade body that represents arms companies, arms exports accounted for roughly 55,000 jobs. This figure, which is from 2010 so has almost certainly decreased in that time, equates to roughly 0.2% of the UK workforce. with arms counting for around 1.4% of exports.
It would be impossible to get an accurate figure on how many are employed in arms exports to Saudi Arabia. However, BAE Systems, which makes Typhoon fighter jets being used in Yemen, employs 33,000people in the UK (although most will work in MoD procurement rather than exports).
The industry is also supported and funded by government. In 2016, Bob Keen, then head of government relations at BAE, told the House of Commons Defence Committee “it simply is not possible to do a major defence deal without fundamental Government support.”
There is no shortage of industries that would be grateful recipients of the support and investment presently offered to arms companies. The renewable energy sector in particular stands out as one that requires many of the same skills as the arms trade, employs many of the same branches of engineering and is in need of skilled personnel.
For far too long, successive governments have talked about the importance of human rights and democracy while pouring arms into war zones and supporting some of the most authoritarian dictatorships in the world. The results have been devastating. It’s time for that complicity to end.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).