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Mon 24 June 2019
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Faisal Khan reports on the continuing questionable relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has a deplorable record on human rights.

In April, for example, the Saudi regime executed 37 people for alleged terrorism offices, in one case publicly pinning the dead body to a pole as a deterrent.

One of those killed was allegedly under the age of 18 at the time of the offence. In what is perhaps a new low even for a regime that has shown scant regard for human rights, it may soon be sentencing to death an 18-year-old who joined an anti-government protest when he was 10.

Last October, there was the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime and US resident who was tricked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and killed in a brutal manner. According to democracy research organisation Freedom House, “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on extensive surveillance, the criminalisation of dissent, appeals to sectarianism, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”

Then there is the war in Yemen.

Starting in March 2015 after Houthi forces took the capital Sanaa; it has fast become a humanitarian catastrophe. According to some estimates, 60,000 Yemenis are said to have been killed mainly from the Saudi-led coalition bombing and due to a blockade imposed by the coalition. An estimated 85,000 children died from starvation or preventable disease. The Saudi coalition has also manipulated the banking system to artificially inflate prices which has, according to the UN, helped put 14 million civilian lives at risk.

Following the end of the British Empire, the best way for Britain to maintain global influence was to develop a weapons industry on a global scale.

Britain has a strong and historic relationship with Saudi Arabia and has been selling weapons to the country since the 1960s.

In the case of the war in Yemen, despite the Government’s denials and obfuscation, Britain’s complicity has been well established. As academic David Wearing points out: “Under an arms deal established by the new Labour Government, Britain has provided the Saudi regime with a fleet of Typhoon military jets as well as the constant supply of ammunition, components, training and technical support required to keep those jets operational.”

In February, a House of Lords inquiry condemned the Government’s refusal to curb arms sales to the Saudi’s – worth £4.7bn since the war in Yemen began in 2015 – for being “on the wrong side” of international humanitarian law.

A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary ‘Britain’s Hidden War made clear the extent of British complicity in the war in Yemen and the dependence of the Saudi coalition on British support.

Crucially, the documentary suggested that Saudi bombing missions would have to stop within seven to 14 days if engineering support was withdrawn. In other words, Britain has the power to stop the war and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table should it desire to do so.


The Citizens Committee on the Arms Trade

Last month, a new Citizens Committee on Arms Trade met in Parliament, having been set up by Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle in response to frustration with the proceedings of the Committee on Arms Export Control.

The idea behind it is to generate public pressure to get the Government to act on British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Among those speaking to the committee was Anna Stavrianakis, senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, who argued that the Parliament’s arms committee process was “broken” and ineffective, lacking the power to hold the Government to account.

Rosa Curling, the lawyer for the campaign group the Committee against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said it is taking legal action to bring a judicial review of the Government’s decision to continue to licence the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The regime relies on extensive surveillance, the criminalisation of dissent, appeals to sectarianism, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.

Freedom House

Academic David Wearing, author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain’, said British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries was generally less a question of money and more about strategic interests.

For him, following the end of the British Empire, the best way for Britain to maintain global influence was to develop a weapons industry on a global scale. Instead of getting the British taxpayer to fund it, the weapons could be sold – with Gulf countries becoming some of the biggest buyers.

Mr Wearing told the committee that Britain is providing more than just weapons for the Saudi effort in Yemen, with the UK and US also supplying spare parts, ammunition and logistical support. In effect, the war in Yemen is not sustainable without British and American support, he said.

Both Rawan Shaif, journalist at investigative news site Bellingcat, and Bonyan Jamal, a legal expert at Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana, confirmed that they had discovered fragments of British weapons and bombs in the killing of civilians – a clear violation of international human rights law.

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John Deverell CBE, former brigadier and defence attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, argued that “no amount of aid can absolve the [British] Government’s role in the war”. For him, Britain’s combination of providing aid to Yemen and being complicit in the killing of its people, is akin to the slave trade. He also belittled the argument that, if the UK didn’t provide support, the Chinese or the Russians would.

The committee concluded by agreeing to stop export licenses to Saudi Arabia for paveway bombs. Going forward, further citizen committees are planned, to pressure the Government into acting on this.

Labour has voiced its opposition to the Government’s policy suggesting that, should it come to power, it would likely review the continuation of UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Whether the urgency of the issue can wait for this, however, is questionable.

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