Why Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is about to change

A recent judgment could force a rethink not only of Britain’s support for the violence of the Saudi kingdom, but of the UK’s wider role in the world.

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Last week wasn’t good for Saudi Arabia's monarchy. In a dramatic judgment, the Court of Appeal ruled that the British government acted unlawfully in approving arms sales to the country. Though Saudi Arabia and the UK have a strategic relationship spanning over a century and encompassing arms sales, military cooperation, trade and investment, this could all be about to change.

Britain has been arming the House of Saud since the monarchy’s forces conquered the majority of the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s, fending off an early rebellion and establishing the kingdom that we know today. The United States later became the Saudis’ primary Western protector, but the UK’s role has remained pivotal.

Britain helped set up a praetorian National Guard in the 1950s and 60s to protect the monarchy from coups. Since the 1960s, the UK has supplied the Saudi Kingdom with successive fleets of military jets. In 1965, Harold Wilson’s government approved the export of a fleet of 40 Lightning aircraft . In 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “al-Yamamah” deal covered the export of 120 Tornados. The deal was dogged by allegations of corruption, but in 2006 Tony Blair’s government took the extraordinary step of pulling the plug on a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the deal, which in turn paved the way for a new contract covering the sale of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons in 2007.

British jets now comprise a significant proportion of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Each deal has also involved Britain supplying the services, components and ammunition necessary to keep the fleets operational. The Saudi war effort in Yemen effectively depends on British support. Its removal would seriously weaken the bombing campaign.  

The human toll of the war in Yemen is staggering: tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed, the majority by coalition bombers, and up to 85,000 infant children are estimated to have died as a result of hunger or preventable diseases, primarily the result of a coalition blockade.

Abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen are well documented. A panel reporting to the UN Security Council in 2016 noted a pattern of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. In August 2018, a school bus was hit with a 500lb bomb from a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, killing 40 primary school age boys.

Yet the UK government has continued to sell arms to the Saudi monarchy. Though the government is prohibited from selling arms if there is a clear risk that they might be used in serious violation of international law, a previous ruling concluded the government’s decision-making when licencing arms sales to Saudi Arabia had been rational, and therefore legal. The Court of Appeal’s latest judgment overturned this ruling, and hinged on one key fact: the government had not sought to assess whether British arms had been misused by the Saudis in Yemen in the past. Deeming this omission unlawful, it decreed that no new arms sales should be approved – and that past decisions should be reassessed.

The motivation for the government’s failure to assess past Saudi actions is clear: the UK arms industry stands to benefit, and Whitehall gets a strategic ally in the region. The consequences of the judgment last week could spell a sea change. Any previous assessment that failed to identify the atrocities committed in Yemen by Saudi forces, which have been copiously documented by unbiased observers, would also be open to legal challenge. Acknowledging that pattern could force an end to the arms transfers that sustain a large proportion of the Saudi bombing campaign.

And if the past behaviour of potential recipients of British arms is a legal barrier to future exports, then the UK arms industry has a major problem on its hands. A large and growing proportion of these exports flow to regimes that abuse human rights, with sales to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf now accounting for nearly half of total UK arms exports.

There is a widespread misconception that arms exports are of great economic benefit to the UK. Even in the first year of the war in Yemen, a peak year for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, total exports to the kingdom – military and civilian – comprised just 1.3 per cent of the value of British exports worldwide. Those exports do play a more important role in reducing Britain’s chronic trade deficit, but that represents a sticking plaster on a problem whose root cause is the failure of our post-1979 economic model.

The real value of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, from Whitehall’s point of view, is that they tie the UK closely to a strategic ally, and sustain the domestic arms industry that Britain needs if it wants to remain a global military power. Last week’s court judgment places a vital question mark over this longstanding tenet of UK foreign policy. It could force a rethink not only of Britain’s support for the violence of the Saudi kingdom, but of Britain’s wider role in the world.

David Wearing is a teaching fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of “AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain”.