Saudi Arabia: Arming Up...
By Vanessa Baird /

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:


  • During 2015 more than 5,700 people were killed, about half of them civilians, according to the UN.1
  • Markets, factories, houses, schools and health clinics have all been targets – including a hospital run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières and a school funded by Oxfam.2
  • Cluster bombs banned by international treaty have been dropped from Saudi aircraft.3
  • By December 2015, 1.5 million Yemenis had been internally displaced, and more than 7.6 million – almost a third of the population – were in desperate need of food aid. Intensive bombing and a Saudi blockade starving Yemenis of vital supplies are largely to blame.1


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:

  • In July 2015 Britain transferred to Saudi Arabia $234 million worth of Paveway IVprecision-guided 500-pound bombs originally earmarked for its own Royal Air Force.7
  • In six months between March and September 2015, Britain issued 37 arms export licences for transfers to Saudi Arabia.8
  • In October the US approved an $11.25 billion deal for up to four Lockheed Martin warships for Saudi Arabia, along with weapons, training and logistics support.9
  • In November the US State Department approved the sale of $1.29 billion worth of air-to-ground munitions such as laser-guided bombs and ‘general purpose’ bombs with guidance systems.10

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

  1. Al Jazeera 
  3. The Guardian 
  4. SIPRI 
  5. Middle East Eye 
  6. CAAT 
  7. Defense News 
  8. The Guardian 
  9. RT 
  10. Human Rights Watch 
  11. Amnesty International 
  12. Amnesty International 
  13. CAAT£4billion-arms-to-SA 


Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 490This feature was published in the March 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.



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Saudi Arabia: Arming Up...