Skip to main content

UK government defends arms sales to Saudi Arabia during debate on Yemen

Middle East minister Alistair Burt met heavy opposition from MPs over its handling of arms sales to Saudi Arabia during Yemen's civil war
UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt defended Britain's arms sales to Saudi Arabia saying it was "right" to do so (House of Commons)

British MPs clashed with UK government officials on Tuesday in parliament over its handling of the Yemen war as pressure mounts for Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

The argument took place during an emergency debate called by opposition MPs to discuss the situation in Yemen.

The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition in the country's civil war in March 2015, and more than 85,000 people have been displaced this year alone in what has become the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.

In this three-hour debate, 18 children will have died. Imagine them lined up in front of this green bench. How many more?

-  Alison Thewliss, SNP MP 

During the debate, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt defended Britain’s stance on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and said that “there was no simple answer to the war in Yemen”.

“There is no reason to not support an ally (Saudi Arabia) under fire from missiles,” Burt told the House of Commons.

“We have done all we can to express the concern raised by the house.”

The Foreign Office minister also responded by saying that the British government believes that Saudi Arabia has not breached international law during the conflict, stressing the need for MPs to acknowledge the threat posed by Houthi rebels.

Scottish Nationalist Party MP Alison Thewliss gave an impassioned speech in which she lambasted the British government for not doing enough to help Yemeni children.

“Important to first note that the people paying the price for this conflict are the people least responsible for it, and it is the children of Yemen,” Thewliss told the house as she condemned Saudi and Emirati actions in Yemen.

“In this three-hour debate, 18 children will have died. Imagine them lined up in front of this green bench. How many more?

“The children dying in Yemen could sadly fill this chamber in no time at all.”

Labour’s shadow foreign minister Emily Thornberry questioned whether the British government could determine if UK arms had been used to kill civilians in Yemen.

Burt admitted that “he could not answer” Thornberry’s question and claimed “there was no feasible way of determining if British ordinance was used by Saudi Arabia.”

Spain ends Saudi Arm sales

Earlier this month, Spain cancelled weapons sales to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, over its role in the Yemen war.

The Spanish Defence Ministry said it cancelled the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia over concerns they could be used to target civilians in the Yemeni war.

Spain’s decision follows similar moves by Sweden, Germany, Finland, Norway and Belgium to suspend the sale of arms that could be used in the Yemeni war.

The freeze “shows a trend of waning European patience regarding the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen,” said Kristina Kausch, a senior resident fellow at the Brussels-based German Marshall Fund of the United States.

UK government figures show that since the start of the bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, the UK has licensed more than $6.2bn in arms, including aircraft, helicopters, drones, bombs and missiles.

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.