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Protesters call for end to Saudi arms sales as MPs mull proposed ban

Campaigners say Saudi foreign minister unprecedented meeting with MPs gives them hope for policy shift in line with 'public opinion'
Protesters stage protest against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia (MEE)

Protesters and prominent politicians gathered outside the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday to call on the British government to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The protests came as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made the unprecedented move of addressing members of parliament in London in an apparent bid to convince them not to vote for a proposed ban on arms sales to the Gulf kingdom.

Members of the Arms Control Exports Select Committee were due to vote later on Wednesday on whether to adopt a draft report calling for an "immediate" halt to weapons exports to Saudi Arabia.

Details of the draft report emerged on Tuesday night after it was leaked to the BBC.

Protesters with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), an activist group which has led calls for an embargo on Saudi weapons sales, said that Jubeir's visit to London gave them hope that MPs may back a ban.  

Author and activist Sue Hampton who was part of the protest told Middle East Eye that pressure was mounting on the Saudi government, which faces accusations war crimes during its 18-month war in Yemen

“I see [the visit from the Saudi FM] as a sign there is a possibility that this vote may go the right way today,” said Hampton.

She also added: “We have come a long way in the campaign to stop Saudi being armed by the British government and I think that it is a terrible crime against humanity that Britain continues to arm these monsters.”

Saudi Arabia is Britain’s second largest customer of weapons and has bought approximately £3.3b ($4.4b) worth of weapons from the country since the Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen began in March 2015.

Protesters unfurled a banner saying “Stop Arming Saudi” in a bid to cover the entrance of Portcullis House, where Jubeir was due to hold a private meeting with MPs.

Amy Clark-Byran, a volunteer for CAAT, said she felt the British government did not care about who it sold weapons to.

“It’s hard to believe that the government cares for Yemeni people when the UN and its advisory boards have called out Saudi on its human rights abuses in Yemen,” said Clark-Byran. 

Several politicians at the scene, including Clive Lewis, the opposition Labour Party's defence spokesman, and former Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond also expressed support for the protesters' cause

The activists were also joined by politicians from across the political spectrum as MPs were meeting in Westminster with the Saudi Foreign Minister.

Lewis, an ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, told MEE he supported calls to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. He also told MEE that he hoped the government would listen to the report written by MPs calling for a ban on arms sales to Riyadh. 

“The evidence of human rights abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia is conclusive and now is the time that the British government sides with public opinion and stops arming Saudi,” said Lewis.

He also added: “We are not against the arms industry but it must be done in a manner that ensures human rights are protected and not violated.”

Saudi Arabia has been accused of breaking humanitarian law during its intervention in the Yemeni civil war in support of the exiled Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who lost control of Sanaa, the capital, in 2014 to Houthi rebels allied with forces loyal to Hadi's predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis also face allegations of perpetrating war crimes.

Human Rights Watch earlier this year claimed to have found evidence that the Saudi coalition had used weapons manufactured in the US and Britain that targeted civilian economic structures in Yemen. 

In June, CAAT secured permission from the High Court to being a judicial review against the government's decision to continue arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

The judicial review, which will be considered by senior judges, calls on the government to suspend existing licenses and the issuing of further arms export licenses in light of its involvement in the conflict in Yemen.