In a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is said to have called for the country to end its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, and comply with international humanitarian law. Nonetheless, there is as yet no suggestion that UK arms sales to Riyadh will cease.
While Westminster remains in recess, ministers are still at work, jetting round the world on official trips, and hosting visits from allies — on September 4, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir flew to London for a “short” meeting with May in Downing Street.
The pair are said to have discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues, including the ongoing isolation of Qatar in the Gulf region, with the Prime Minister “reiterating her call” for all sides to take steps to de-escalate the situation and restore Gulf Cooperation Council unity — and Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” reform program.
“The Prime Minister noted [Saudi Arabia’s] focus on transformation, innovation and empowerment and said the UK looked forward to continuing to work closely with Saudi Arabia on this ambitious project. She hoped that Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman would be able to visit the UK in the near future to build on the historic partnership between the two countries,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.
Finally and most significantly, however, the pair have reportedly discussed Yemen, in particular “the need to bring the conflict to an end, and the continued importance of demonstrating compliance with international humanitarian law.”
Recognition at Last
Demands that hostilities in the region cease, and Saudi-led coalition forces respect human rights, are nothing new — in fact, grave concerns about the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the deliberate targeting of civilians by coalition forces, are almost as old as the conflict itself. However, May’s meeting marks the first time UK officials have acknowledged such anxieties — previously, ministers have at best been dismissed them, at worst ignored them outright. Notoriously, in May Defense Minister Michael Fallon said Riyadh was merely “defending itself” by raining down death and destruction on Yemen.
Every step of the conflict, the UK has shipped weapons — totalling almost US$4.5 billion in value — to Riyadh, with sales continuing even after the now infamous October 2016 airstrike on a Yemeni funeral, which killed 140 and injured hundreds, with Westminster approving export licenses totalling US$370 million.
The impact of the civil in war in Yemen on innocent civilians has been catastrophic — the conflict between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government and Houthi rebels, which has raged since March 2015, has seen over 10,000 killed, three million displaced, and many millions driven to the brink of famine by the Saudi-led coalition’s air and naval blockade.
Campaigners, rights groups and the United Nations have consistently warned Westminster is complicit in potential Saudi war crimes committed in the conflict due to their unbending readiness to supply arms to the country.
Campaign Against the Arms Trade activists launched a judicial review of the sales in 2016, arguing UK and EU export license law bans arms exports if there is a “clear risk” equipment could be used to break international law, but the UK High Court ruled in July the Government’s position was lawful and sales could continue.
The sales have even been maintained despite Saudi Arabia being listed on a UK government report listing 30 countries in which the UK is concerned about the state of human rights and democracy. The Kingdom is however not alone in this regard — in fact, Campaign Against the Arms Trade figures indicate the UK has exported arms totaling US$5.3 billion in value to 22 of the listed nations since 2015. In 2016 alone, US$389 million was sent to Saudi Arabia, US$324 million to China, US$12 million to Egypt and $5.2 million to Turkmenistan.