House of Commons Library

UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia: Q&A

Published Thursday, October 25, 2018

This short Commons Library briefing paper examines UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

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The conflict in Yemen has drawn attention to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during its military operations in Yemen. The UK is not a member of the Saudi-led Coalition but Saudi armed forces are using UK built and licensed arms in Yemen, including Typhoon aircraft, missiles and bombs.

The Government is resisting pressure from opposition parties and backbench MPs to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  Campaign groups actively lobby MPs to make this point.

Does the UK export arms to Saudi Arabia?

Yes. The Middle East is a major market for UK defence exports and Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of UK arms.  Typhoon combat aircraft and associated systems dominate UK exports to the Kingdom.

What does Parliament think?

Parliament is divided on this issue. The Labour party is calling for an independent UN-led investigation of all allegations of war crimes in Yemen and for the suspension of UK arms sales for use in this conflict until the investigation is complete. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru take a similar view. 

What is the Government's position?

The Government rules out suspending arms exports to Saudi Arabia. It says it operates "one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world" and assesses all export license applications on a case by case basis agains tht eConsolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. Middle East Minister Alistair Burt said in September 2018:

The Coalition acted in support of a legitimate Government; they are currently having missiles fired at civilian targets in their own state and I do not see the political justification for withdrawing our arms.

What is the Judicial Review?

In 2017 the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) took the UK government to court to obtain a Judicial Review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. CAAT’s case focused on Criterion 2c of the Consolidated Criteria, which says that licences should not be granted “if there is a clear risk the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law”. The High Court rejected CAAT’s claim in July 2017.  The Court of Appeal has granted permission to CAAT to appeal the judgement, and the Appeal hearing will take place in April 2019. The CAAT website has the judgement and legal documents.

Is the UK part of the Saudi-led Coalition?

No. The UK is not a member of the Saudi-Led Coalition. Nor does it have any role “in setting Coalition policy, or executing air strikes in Yemen.” 

However, the UK does provide considerable support to the Saudi armed forces beyond that provided in support of equipment, including liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to observe Saudi processes. The Government says these liaison officers "are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process".

Are UK weapons being used in violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen?

This is the key argument of those calling for the Government to halt arms exports.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) argues the UK Government "has continued to support Saudi air strikes in Yemen and provide arms despite overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian lawThe 

The International Development Committee and Business, Innovation and Skills Committee concluded in their 2016 joint report:

Given that the UK has a long history of defence exports to Saudi ARabia and its coalition partners, and considering the evidence we heard, it seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK.

A UN Group of Experts tasked by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Yemen examined allegations of violations of IHL. The Group concluded it has "reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law"

The Group of Experts was also critical of the Coalition's Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAC), leading to Aliston Thewliss MP to remark that "not only is the Saudi coalition marking its own homework, but it cannot be trusted to do so".

Have any other countries stopped supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia?

Some nations have taken action to restrict exports to members of the Coalition, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. Spain briefly said it would halt the sale of laser-guided bombs but later reversed its decision. Others, like France and Italy, have taken a similar view to the UK.

The Trump administration is resisting pressure from Members of Congress to halt arms sales. 

The death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has reignited this debate in the US and Europe. 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8425

Author: Louisa Brooke-Holland

Topics: Arms control, Defence equipment and procurement, Defence policy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human rights, International trade

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