BY MAX WHITE, Deputy Editor
Following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the resulting political turmoil and uncertainty has led to more and more questions being raised about the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly the thorny issue of arms sales. But what is the extent of this shadowy area of British foreign policy?
On 2nd October, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and critic of the Saudi government, entered the country’s consulate and never emerged. After more than two weeks of silence and dodging, the Saudi government admitted that the journalist was dead, having been killed in a “rogue operation” that the kingdom’s leadership was not aware of.
A great deal of speculation and accusation has embroiled world politics in the weeks following the journalist’s disappearance, with people on all sides adopting varying stances of condemnation of the Saudi government, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who many believe to be involved with Khashoggi’s death.
In the UK, the Prime Minister and the Government have strongly condemned the killing, but are yet to take any sanctions against the kingdom, such as those taken by Merkel’s Germany, who have halted all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, pressure is mounting.
The Calls for Action
MEPs have unanimously called for “an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia” in a resolution this week, wherein they “deplore the significant arms deals by EU member states” – arms deals that provide military equipment which “can be or is used for repression”. In this context, Theresa May has been called upon to follow suit with Germany’s actions, but has so far resisted. Philippe Lamberts MEP has also said that “Brexit must not be an excuse for the UK to abdicate on its moral responsibilities”.
These calls are nothing new – May has been under pressure for years from human rights groups, charities, Corbyn and other politicians to halt arms sales to the kingdom, after suggestions that the UK is complicit in international law violations and war crimes, such as civilian deaths in Yemen as a result of arming and aiding the Saudi military forces there.
However, the Government have repeatedly dismissed these calls, as Saudi Arabia is a huge business partner for the UK, and a key ally in the region.
According to The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK was the sixth-biggest arms dealer in the world in 2017, and the second-largest exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia, behind the US (around 23% of Saudi arms imports are from the UK, and around 62% are from the US (2013-17)).
UK arms exports to the kingdom also increased by two-thirds in the year 2016-17, equaling an increase of more than £450m in sales, and an increase in licenses for military goods, which in 2017 had a value of £1.129bn.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade also reports that since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in Yemen in early 2015, the UK has approved more than £3.3bn in military sales to the kingdom (up to September 2016).
Furthermore, it is important to note that Saudi Arabia has about 18% of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the world’s biggest oil exporter, according to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil accounted for more than half of the UK’s imports from Saudi Arabia in 2017, including crude and refined products.
The Question of the UK in Yemen
Two years ago, a UN report declared that the Saudi-led coalition was guilty of serious breaches of international humanitarian law by deliberately targeting civilians. In July of last year, however, the High Court in London dismissed a claim to rule UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia illegal.
There is incomplete and often confusing information out there about the details of the conflict in Yemen, and the possible UK culpability. However, the Washington Post estimated around 50,000 have died as a result of the Yemen conflict, and millions more have been displaced.
It is also uncertain about the extent of the UK’s involvement, with many wondering if the UK has blood on its hands. A leaked 2016 Parliamentary report concluded that this was “likely”. The report concludes that UK weapons have likely been used in violations of international humanitarian law, and that certain types of aircraft (manufactured by the British company BAE Systems) have been used in combat missions in Yemen.
The Government’s persistence
Given all of this, why is the UK persisting in supplying weapons? May is keen to point out that Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the region, and in particular a key ally in the fight against extremism and terrorism in the region. She defended the UK-Saudi relationship, claiming co-operation between the two countries had “saved the lives potentially of hundreds of people in this country” through intelligence sharing.
The Government also defends the sales by saying it has an extremely stringent licensing and safety checking procedures in the world, but opponents claim these checks are not being carried out thoroughly enough.
Groups such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade have also highlighted that Brexit is very important in this context, as the UK’s search for post-Brexit trade deals often means deals such as these have become more important to maintain, even at the moral costs.
Let’s not forget also that the UK does a great deal of non-arms trading with Saudi Arabia, including the aforementioned oil imports, total goods exports from the UK to Saudi Arabia of about £4.2bn, and total goods imports from Saudi Arabia of about £2.4bn (2017).
Vague awareness of the UK’s shadowy relationship with Saudi Arabia has existed for quite some time among many Britons, though the extent of this relationship was broadly unknown until it was thrust into the spotlight by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi this month. The relationship is a darker side of British foreign policy that is often brushed under the carpet of political discourse in the country because it is morally very dubious but financially very beneficial.
And this is the key sticking point for May and the British Government. Do they persist in supplying arms to the Saudis for the huge economic gains, despite the accusations of murdering political critics on foreign soil and targeting civilians in a war on foreign soil? Only the latest in a long list of morally questionable behaviour from, and accusations against, the kingdom. Or do they sever these ties or apply sanctions in accordance with their political and moral principles, at the cost of a lucrative economic relationship?
I believe it will be the former for the Government, for now. In their eyes, the relationship is too fragile to be sabotaged at this stage because not all the facts are known yet, and the Saudi leadership’s involvement in the murder, though likely, is not yet fully proven. They wouldn’t want to risk the relationship with this uncertainty – the body hasn’t even been found yet, for example. Turkey’s President Erdogan claims also to be withholding damning evidence that proves the Saudi leadership’s culpability, including gruesome audio recordings, which adds another dimension to this scandal.
This thorny issue of UK-Saudi arms sales, though, has well and truly been exposed with Jamal Khashoggi’s death, and the UK’s role in a ‘proxy war’ has also been widely publicised. The fact that more people have come to know more details about the relationship will prove very significant, and this will prove to be an issue the Government can no longer sweep under the carpet.