Debunking the myths that underpin Britain's arms exports to Saudi Arabia

The five main arguments for the UK to keep exporting arms to Saudi Arabia all hold little water.

Andrew Smith
31 January 2017

The Old City, Aden, Yemen. Jialiang Gao, Wikimedia Commons

In a week, the High Court in London will be scrutinising the legality of arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, following a Judicial Review application by Campaign Against Arms Trade.

For almost two years now, Saudi forces have been bombarding Yemen, which has exacerbated the ongoing civil war and created a humanitarian catastrophe. 10,000 people have been killed, with schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure being destroyed.

When the UK government is confronted with the terrible consequences of its arms exports, and of its uncritical political support for Saudi Arabia, its responses are as predictable as they are depressing. I’ve looked at the key arguments that are made and how we can debunk them.

Doesn't the UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia keep the streets of London safe? / Isn't Saudi Arabia helping the UK to combat terrorism?

This is an argument that comes up a lot, and one that Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May have used. First of all the premise is flawed, Saudi Arabia is already bound by international law to work with the UK and others to prevent terrorist attacks. Like the UK, it is bound by UN resolution 1373 which obliges it to share information and cooperate with other states to stop attacks.

Regardless, the UK's security strategy cannot be dependent on arms exports and providing uncritical political support to known human rights abusers and those that are accused of violating international humanitarian law. Human rights cannot just apply to some people, they also have to apply to the states that the UK considers to be allies.

There are also serious questions to be asked about the role of Saudi Arabia in fuelling terrorism and extremism in the region. There is no question that domestic solutions to terrorism are needed, but these are not aided in any way by arming human rights abusing regimes like Saudi Arabia.

The Yemeni government asked Saudi Arabia to provide fighter jets and bombs, doesn’t the bombing have a UN mandate?

The intervention has a UN mandate, but that was never for the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that has been unleashed on Yemeni people.

The conduct of the bombardment hasn’t just been immoral, it has also been illegal. In January 2016, a UN expert panel accused Saudi forces of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. The panel documented “119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.” In August 2016 it released a new report, in which it again accused Saudi forces of violating international humanitarian law.

UK arms export law is very clear. It says that licences for military equipment should not be granted if there is a clear risk” that it “might” be used in serious violation of international humanitarian law. By any reasonable interpretation these criteria should surely prohibit all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen.

If Saudi Arabia didn’t buy arms from the UK then wouldn’t it simply buy them from someone else?

This is the traditional (and in some ways inevitable) argument that anti arms trade campaigners come up against a lot. The morality of it is very questionable, not least because the same argument could be made for selling weapons to absolutely anybody – including Iran, Zimbabwe, Russia or any other oppressive regime that the UK rightly does not arm.

Arms sales don’t just provide military support, they also send a message of political support for the buyer. This was emphasised by a 2013 Foreign Affairs Committee report into arms exports to Bahrain, which said “Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government.” The point may have been about Bahrain but it applies equally to Saudi Arabia and any other country that is buying UK arms.

Aren’t arms exports vital to the economy? Surely the jobs are even more important in the aftermath of Brexit?

Although arms exports may be booming, industry jobs remain in a long term decline. The Department of International Trade’s statistics show that the UK government is the second biggest arms dealer in the world, but the number of jobs created by exports has been falling steadily for years.

According to the Aerospace, Defence & Security group, a trade body and lobby group that represents arms companies, arms exports accounted for roughly 55,000 jobs, 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, but BAE Systems which makes Typhoon fighter jets being used in Yemen, employs 33,000 people in the UK (most will work in MoD procurement rather than exports though).

The industry is also supported and funded by government, as Bob Keen, the head of government relations at BAE Systems, 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.

By working with Saudi Arabia the UK can influence it, wouldn’t walking away only make matters worse?

The Saudi regime has an appalling human rights record and there’s no evidence to suggest that decades of UK ‘engagement’ have done anything to change this. In a relationship based on arms exports then the power will always be with the buyer rather than the seller. Saudi Arabia isn’t just buying political and military support, it’s also buying silence.

The arms sales and fawning political support of governments like the UK are empowering the regime and making the chances of long-term peace in the region even more remote. The UK isn't just ignoring the abuses taking place, it is also helping to facilitate them.


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