UK declines to follow US in suspending Saudi arms sales over Yemen
British ministers have refused to join the US in suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia for offensive use in war-torn Yemen, saying the UK makes its own decisions about selling weapons.
The US president, Joe Biden, announced the suspension last week, meeting a longstanding campaign pledge.
On Monday, the UK Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, said he had noted the US review, but said British arms sales licences were issued with great care to ensure they did not lead to any breach of humanitarian law.
He added: “The decisions the US takes on matters of arms sales are decisions for the US. The UK takes its own arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we continue to assess all arms export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.” Saudi Arabia represented 40% of the volume of UK arms exports between 2010 and 2019.
Speaking in the Commons, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, urged the UK “to align itself fully with its closest security ally and end similar arms exports connected to the war … The US reset is very much to be welcomed and poses our first big test as to what global Britain means in practice.”
The US suspension of arms sales was designed to create the conditions for peace talks, Ellwood said.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, told MPs “the UK arms trading and technical support sustains the war in Yemen … The US decision on arms sales leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated.”
Highlighting the UK’s role as the UN’s pen holder on Yemen, ie the council member that leads negotiations and drafts legislation, she said: “The UK cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict.”
Nandy said the Foreign Office had promised that human rights were its key goal, and yet ministers had failed at this first test.
If the UK position on arms sales holds, it represents the first break with the Biden administration and points to a comparative UK reluctance to open a breach with its Gulf State allies.
Since the announcement last Thursday, the Biden administration has released few details on what support to Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen it plans to end – or how it will differentiate it from other US assistance and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Washington has also lifted the designation of the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organisation, a move that at minimum reassures aid agencies they can work with the Houthis to ease the flow of trade.
The US began providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen in March 2015, shortly after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched a military offensive in support of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The UK has previously suspended arms sales in response to a court order, but resumed them last year. Ministry of Defence officials also advise Saudi on its bombing campaign. Italy recently suspended sales.
Biden’s withdrawal of military support for Saudi offensive operations does not answer the more difficult issue of how to negotiate a peace between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Hadi government.
Tehran backs the Houthis, and although the degree of influence is disputed, it is thought Iran is one of the few countries with any leverage to persuade the Houthis to recognise that they have to share power in Yemen, and prevent the country dividing into two.