Pressure on Boris Johnson to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased on Friday after the United States announced it was ending support for Riyadh’s devastating war in Yemen, a decision which could leave the UK as the main supplier to the kingdom’s air force.
US President Joe Biden said Thursday he would end all weapons sales and support for its ally Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen, which he said “has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, told The Daily Telegraph: “We must not only follow suit in halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but, as the UN Security Council pen holder on Yemen, offer to work with the US, our closest security ally, to rally stakeholders together and develop a workable strategy to end the civil war.”
He called on the prime minister to consider committing British peacekeepers to Yemen.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy called the Government’s support for Saudi’s war in Yemen “morally wrong”, adding that it “increasingly leaves Britain isolated on the world stage”.
The Government said it was concerned by the situation in Yemen but avoided any commitment to curb the transfer of arms to Riyadh.
A spokesman said Friday: “The UK is deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and will continue to work with the US and other allies to find a peaceful resolution.
“The UK takes its arms export responsibilities seriously and we will continue to assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.”
The US decision could leave Britain as one of the main source of weapons for Saudi Arabia, after Italy ended sales last week.
“If the US drops away then the UK is certainly left as the main supplier to the air war [on Yemen]”, said Roy Isbister, head of the arms unit at international peace-building organisation Saferworld.
But it was not immediately clear whether the US ban would include weapons alone or extend to other hardware and aircraft maintenance. “There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in there,” Mr Isbister said.
Saudi Arabia launched a military coalition to support Yemen’s government in 2015 after Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa. The campaign quickly became bogged down and the ongoing fighting has brought the country to the brink of famine, creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
UN experts said Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign – which has used British cluster munitions – violated international humanitarian law, following reports of air strikes targeting civilian infrastructure, weddings and funerals.
In 2018, UN experts urged the UK to stop supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia to avoid complicity in potential war crimes. A legal challenge by campaigners the following year led the government to suspend sales.
But the Government announced last July that sales would resume, after a review found “isolated incidents” where Saudi air strikes had breached international humanitarian law but no “pattern” of violations. The Ministry of Defence later acknowledged it had logged 535 Saudi air strikes which may have violated international law.
Government export licencing data shows that since Saudi began bombing in March 2015, the UK has licensed around £5.4 billion worth of arms to the kingdom. That figure is likely to be a considerable underestimate, according to Amnesty International, as it excludes the nearly 100 open licences that are not required to report value, which represent about a quarter of the total licenses.
The Department for International Trade is expected to release statistics next week on the number of export licenses issued since the suspension ended.
“Oxfam is deeply concerned that the figures licencing news arms sales to Saudi Arabia are likely to show hundreds of millions of pounds of weaponry being exported to be used in Yemen,” said the British charity’s head of policy Pauline Checuti. “The UK government is now on the wrong side of both our courts and the US government – our prime minister should act now to ensure he is not on the wrong side of history.”
She added: “It is time for the UK government to follow suit and permanently end all sales of arms that are likely to be used against civilians.”
The International Rescue Committee also renewed calls to end British arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
“This is a test for ‘Global Britain’ – a vital opportunity for the UK to work closely with the new Biden administration to address years of gridlock in the UN and to bring Yemen a step closer to lasting peace,” said IRC UK Executive Director Melanie Ward.
Italy permanently ended arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last week, following an 18-month temporary suspension, blocking the sale of around 12,700 missiles to Saudi, part of a contract signed in 2016 worth nearly £350m.
“This is an act that we considered necessary, a clear message of peace coming from our country. For us, the respect of human rights is an unbreakable commitment,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a statement.
Amnesty International said the UK risked isolation following the US decision.
“Though we still need to see the full details of Joe Biden’s decision it unquestionably looks really significant, and coming after Italy’s recent halt to Saudi and Emirati arms sales the UK is now looking incredibly exposed,” said Oliver Feeley-Sprague, the watchdog organisation’s military, security and police programme director.
“Without the Trump administration giving the UK cover, the UK is in the indefensible position of being Saudi Arabia’s last major arms supplier, ” he added.