For many years Saudi Arabia has spent billions on weapons systems – yet rarely put them to use. During Desert Storm (1990-91) there were reports that the Saudi military didn’t know how to operate much of its own high-tech equipment.
All that has changed. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia started a ferocious bombardment of Yemen, heading a coalition of Sunni-dominated Arab states bent on crushing Yemen’s Shi’a Houthi rebels, who had gained control of the capital, Sana’a.
The impact on the people of Yemen has been devastating:
The bombing of Yemen has been a bonanza for Saudi Arabia’s arms trading partners.
Chief among those are Britain (which accounts for 36% of arms sales to the kingdom), the US (35%) and France (5%).4 Canada has a profitable US$15 billion contract to supply light armoured vehicles.5
Between 2010 and 2014 Saudi Arabia was already buying four times more arms than in the period 2005-09.4 In 2014 it became the world’s largest arms buyer.
The British government licensed almost $8.3 billion of arms to the regime between May 2010 and May 2015, including Hawk and Typhoon fighter jets, machine guns, teargas, bomb components, military vehicles, and targeting equipment.6
As the bombing of Yemen escalated in March 2015, so did arms sales to Saudi Arabia:
The reasons given to legislators and the public for approving such sales was the need for Saudi Arabia to replace stocks that had been used up on ‘counter-terrorism’.
Human rights campaigners and others are not impressed. In the US, Human Rights Watch called on Congress to reject bomb sales to Saudi Arabia.
‘The US government is well aware of the Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate air attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen since March,’ said HRW spokesperson Joe Stork. ‘Providing the Saudis with more bombs is a recipe for greater civilian deaths, for which the US will be partially responsible.’10
Amnesty International called for a suspension of further sales of aerial munitions after it was shown that British-made missiles sold to the kingdom had been used for attacking civilian targets, in violation of International Humanitarian Law.11
An investigation by leading lawyers Philippe Sands QC, Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh came to the conclusion that the British government was breaking national, EUand international law in supplying arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.12
Meanwhile, Andrew Smith of the British Campaign Against Arms Trade said:
‘There must be an immediate embargo on all arms sales to the regime, and an end to the uncritical political support they are given. How many more people will be tortured and killed before the UK government finally says enough is enough?’
The British people seem to agree. Research by Opinium LLP has found that 62% of adults oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with only 16% supporting them.13
This feature was published in the March 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.