Skip to main content

'Immoral': UK approved $1.9bn arms sales to Saudi Arabia after ban was lifted

Anti-arms trade campaigners say figures show UK officials are putting 'profit before Yemeni lives'
The UN has said the conflict in Yemen has led to the world's worst humanitarian disaster.
UN has said conflict in Yemen has led to world's worst humanitarian disaster (AFP)

The British government has been accused by campaigners of "putting profit before Yemeni lives" after it authorised the export of almost $1.9bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since a ban was lifted last year.

According to figures released by the Department for International Trade on Tuesday, the UK authorised the sale of $1.88bn worth of arms - including missiles and bombs - between the period of July and September 2020.

The UK resumed arms sales in July following a one-year suspension ordered by the Court of Appeal after a review concluded there were only "isolated incidents" of civilian casualties from bombing raids conducted by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels.

Campaigners said the newly released figures highlighted the discrepancy between the UK and the US, as President Joe Biden halted similar arms sales to Riyadh last week.

'Once again UK politicians have put profit before Yemeni lives'

- Martin Butcher, Oxfam

"These new figures are shocking and once again illustrate the UK government's determination to keep supplying arms at any cost," Sarah Waldron, of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (Caat), said in a statement.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


"UK-made weapons have played a devastating role in the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis they have created, yet the UK government has done everything it can to keep the arms sales flowing."

The comments were echoed by Martin Butcher, Oxfam's conflict adviser, who called the sales "immoral".

"Once again, UK politicians have put profit before Yemeni lives," he said.

"This is the largest increase in arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015 and takes the known total of licences up to £6.7bn since the Saudi intervention in Yemen started.

"Yemen is living through the world's largest humanitarian crisis, with two-thirds of the population reliant on food aid, and yet people are profiteering from the misery caused by these arms sales."

'UK arms sustain the war in Yemen'

Last week, Biden announced an end to US assistance to the kingdom's war effort, proclaiming that the conflict "has to end".

Yemen has endured years of chaos since the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in late 2014 and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to seek refuge in the coastal city of Aden, and then later Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom and its allies intervened in the country's civil war in March 2015, and have since carried out more than 20,000 air strikes in an effort to roll back the rebels, with one-third striking non-military sites, including schools, factories and hospitals, according to the Yemen Data Project.

The protracted conflict has triggered what the UN calls the "world's worst humanitarian crisis", with roughly 24 million people forced to rely on aid while 10 million are near famine.

Biden ends US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen
Read More »

In announcing an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, Biden said this also included "relevant arms sales".

Despite the US decision to suspend arms sales, UK ministers have refused to do so.

On Monday, UK Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said British arms sales are done with "great care" to ensure they do not lead to any breaches of humanitarian law.

"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," he said.

Still, speaking in the House of Commons, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, pushed the UK "to align itself fully with its closest security ally and end similar arms exports connected to the war".

Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said "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."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.