Uncomfortable assumptions about security: the UK vote on support for Saudi Arabia

Pervasive and problematic assumptions about the UK’s security lie at the heart of parliament’s recent decision to continue to support Saudi Arabia, despite accusations of war crimes in Yemen.

Celia Mckeon
4 April 2017
Airstrike Sanaa.jpg

Air strike in Sana'a, Yemen. Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr

This article was first published in November 2016.

On Saturday 8th October, more than 140 people were killed and over 500 injured when warplanes bombed a funeral in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. In the words of one rescuer, “The place has been turned into a lake of blood.” The airstrike, which was quickly attributed to Saudi Arabia’s military, prompted brief sparks of international outrage as civilians were once again targets in a war which has killed more than 10,000 people. The Saudi authorities later confirmed that the strike was a “deliberate error”. Those who pay greater heed to the Geneva Conventions, the so-called “Laws of War” that govern the conduct of armed conflict, might more accurately describe it as a war crime.

So how is it that less than one month later, MPs in Westminster voted against a Labour motion calling on the UK government to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led coalition? What arguments could possibly justify the decision made by 283 MPs to continue to back a government which stands accused, not just once but on repeated occasions over the last 18 months, of deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure?

Bombing Sadaa.jpg

Bombed higher educational facility in Sa'ada. Philippe Kropf/OCHA.

It would be wrong to suggest that the MPs who participated in the debate made light of the issues at stake. On the contrary - many spoke with passion, conviction and in some cases, deep knowledge, about the need to end the suffering of the people of Yemen. No-one disagreed with the necessity of securing a ceasefire and pursuing a political solution to the conflict. But several MPs argued that despite serious allegations of war crimes by the Saudi coalition, it remains right and proper to continue to provide support to the Saudi government, in the form of arms exports and specialist military advice.

The legal position

The legal question-marks hanging over UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia could not be clearer. In December 2015, barristers from Matrix Chambers published the opinion that:

“any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen, including to support its blockade of Yemeni territory, and in circumstances where their end-use is not restricted, would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.”

Two parliamentary select committees have subsequently argued that the government should suspend licenses to the Kingdom, pending independent investigations of alleged atrocities. And the High Court has given permission for a judicial review of the government’s position, in a case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Despite these grave concerns, some MPs argued that any action to suspend such deals would be premature. They suggested that Saudi Arabia should be given more time to undertake its own internal investigations of alleged violations, despite the lengthy delays and unsatisfactory outcomes so far. Boris Johnson seemed less perturbed still, justifying the continued approval of arms exports on the basis that other countries would “happily supply arms” without subjecting their exports to the “fairness and rigour” that characterise UK processes.

It is hard to see how this position can be squared with the government’s pride in the “leading role” it recently played in the negotiation of the legally-binding international Arms Trade Treaty. And this position is also at odds with its assertion in the 2015 UK National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review that the rule of law is a “core British value” - part of a “golden thread of conditions that lead to security and prosperity”. The strategy goes on to note that the UK continues “to lead by example, including supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross to strengthen compliance with the Geneva Conventions…. We will work with our allies and partners to strengthen, adapt and extend the rules-based international order and its institutions.”

The arguments put forward in defence of the status quo last week suggest otherwise. They imply that the principles and obligations that are supposed to define the UK’s role in the world are discretionary; they can be trumped, when required, by a series of pragmatic assumptions, priorities and interests. It is therefore worth examining and exposing these arguments, as they play a crucial role in shaping the UK establishment’s response not only to the current crisis in Yemen, but to national security policy more generally.

The ‘benign influence’ argument

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt MP claimed in the debate that current UK policy has a benign influence on the Yemen conflict, arguing that the expertise provided to the Saudi military helps to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. In a similar vein, Boris Johnson argued that if the UK suspended its support, it would immediately forfeit its diplomatic influence over Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and over Riyadh’s eventual support for a negotiated solution. Yet the evidence supporting either of these arguments is in short supply. The Report of the UN Panel of Experts attributed 60% of civilian casualties in the conflict to the Saudi-led coalition, despite all the targeting assistance provided up to now. And it is even more of a stretch to argue that arms exports are likely to increase the prospect of a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has long since suggested the opposite, noting that “Large-scale arms transfers can be a source of tension in peacetime and generate high levels of casualties once hostilities begin.” Indeed, it is probably more credible to argue, as the journalist Peter Oborne has done, that the parliamentary vote on Wednesday “sent the green light to Saudi Arabia and its allies to carry on bombing, maiming and killing”. Far from being benign, the UK’s approach is likely to fan the flames of this desperate conflict, as it has done in too many other parts of the Middle East.

The jobs argument

While the ‘benign influence’ argument is framed in terms of the best interests of the people of Yemen, more immediate domestic priorities were of greater concern to other MPs. Gerald Howarth began his intervention by reminding fellow parliamentarians that as MP for Aldershot, he “represents the headquarters of the fourth largest defence company in the world, BAE Systems”. He went on to say that the Saudis “should be commended for what they are doing, not criticized.” He noted that defence exports had made a significance contribution to the UK’s defence-industrial capability, generating prosperity across the UK.

Mark Menzies MP made the same case on a more human scale, arguing that 16,000 people in his constituency would be out of work without exports to Saudi Arabia. He reminded parliament that “every single one of those people is a human being, not a number; they have mortgages to pay, they have skills and they have jobs.”

The livelihoods of people living in the UK are clearly a legitimate concern in any public policy decision – and particularly amid the current economic and political uncertainties. However, this argument fails to acknowledge the massive amount of public subsidy for jobs related to arms exports – most recently calculated to be in the region of £700 million per annum by the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In the words of the Financial Times International Economy Editor, “You can have as many arms export jobs as you are prepared to waste public money subsidising.”

And what about the ultimate human impact of the political decisions to subsidise the jobs that make contracts like the Salam deal viable? Could it be the case that some of our MPs believe that the lives of the people of Yemen are a price worth paying for UK jobs?

The ‘regional security ally’ argument

A further strong line of argument was that, despite concerns about civilian casualties, the UK should stand by Saudi Arabia as a vital security ally, critical to regional stability and the fight against terrorism and radicalisation. In the words of Seema Kennedy MP, “Stability in Saudi Arabia is in the British national interest.”

Yet concerns about Saudi Arabia’s contribution to regional and global insecurity are well-documented. Moreover, evidence that arms exports play a positive role in building the UK’s security is hard to find. A 2015 study by Kings College London into the security, economic and strategic value of Britain’s defence industry was forced to conclude that it could not “quantify the net security gains” from export-driven relationships such as the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

However, even if these doubts did not exist, the argument that a UK ally should receive unwavering support in the face of accusations of war crimes deserves further scrutiny. As with the jobs argument, the implication of this position is that the lives of those thousands of civilians who have been killed by the Saudi-led coalition are somehow less important than the lives of people in the UK, who must be protected from the threat of terrorism at any cost.

It is likely that the MPs who spoke in defence of Saudi Arabia’s importance as an ally would want to distance themselves from that position. But the shameful reality is that parliament’s refusal to suspend its support for Riyadh gives exactly that message. And in doing so it shines an uncomfortable light on an assumption that lies at the heart of the UK’s current approach to security - that the security of people in this country is a supreme imperative, to which the needs of others can be legitimately subordinated.

In May 2016, the Ammerdown Group published a discussion paper, Rethinking Security, which offered a critique of the UK’s current approach to security. It pointed out that the problem with UK security lies in the dominant narrative about what security means, whom it should benefit, and how it should be achieved. It argued that this narrative privileges UK national security over the security of people elsewhere, rather than recognising security as a common right; that it aims to advance ‘national interests’ defined by the political establishment, including corporate business interests and UK ‘world power’ status, and so dissociates the practice of security from the needs of people in their communities, and that it assumes a short-term outlook.

The parliamentary debate last week is a stark illustration of the pervasive nature of this narrative, and its impact on the critical political decisions of the day. Shamefully, it is the people of Yemen who will pay the price for this approach, unless and until we challenge these assumptions and make a compelling case for a new approach to security, that can better meet the needs of all people, whether they live in the Middle East or the UK.

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