MS Risk Blog

The Implications of UK Weapons Sales and Military Hardware to Saudi Arabia in Yemen

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The death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has brought about renewed questions over Western involvement with Riyadh and as a result, the implications of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.  Using data compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade and the European Commission, the Middle East Eye reported that EU countries have approved the sale of more than $86.7bn in arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2015. This has amounted to more than 55 times the donations made to the UN’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has also revealed that the UK was the second biggest supplier of Saudi Arabia’s major weapons export between 2013-2017.

Yemen is at the forefront of a humanitarian crisis. Although peace talks are currently underway in Sweden between representatives of the Yemeni government and Houthi delegates, fighting in Yemen still continues. Throughout November, conflict in the rebel-held city of Hodeidah has intensified with the port now being targeted by air strikes. The Saudi-led coalition have repeatedly bombed Hodeidah since 2015 in an attempt to gain control over the city and its port. The majority of Yemen’s aid, medicine and food imports enter the country through Hodeidah port, so it being attacked has meant that importing has been severely impacted. Earlier in November, Yemeni and international NGOs warned that approximately 14 million people, half of the country’s population, are now on the brink of famine. On 1 December, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock declared that Yemen was on the verge of a major catastrophe and that conditions had hugely deteriorated since his last visit in October 2017. Lowcock emphasised the UN’s aim in ensuring that the port remains open in order to allow civilians to have access to fundamental imports.

There is strong presence of British weaponry in Yemen as a result of arms deals with Saudi Arabia. In June 2017, the High Court of Justice in England ruled that it was legal for the UK to continue their arms exports to Saudi Arabia. According to the summary of the High Court, the UK also provided logistical and technical support to the Saudi military, in addition to engaging in weapons deals. This included providing advice to the Saudi military on equipment usage, as well as UK liaison officers having insight into Saudi targeting procedures and access to post-strike mission reporting. The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent Bethan McKernan has been reporting on the Yemen conflict since 2015 and spoke in a Guardian podcast uploaded 6 November about Britain’s possible role in the war. Speaking of the ‘cottage industry’ in major cities in Yemen where civilians collect and resell scrap material and debris from bombing raids, she spoke of people finding serial numbers when rummaging through shells. Then, through using the internet, many have traced the numbers back to UK and US companies. The Guardian further reported that there are British personnel stationed in bombing control rooms in Riyadh and technicians overseeing and refuelling planes. Therefore, Britain selling weapons to Saudi Arabia will result in their usage in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.

The continued Saudi use of Western weapons is highly likely to trigger a response from Iran either by smuggling armoury into Houthi-held areas or by further blocking aid. An Iranian response is very probable seeing as there is a strong relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis which is thought to date back since 2013. The Saudi-led coalition conducting air strikes on Houthi-controlled areas such as Hodeidah could result in the Houthis retaliating, most likely by firing missiles at the Saudi-led coalition and further restricting and siphoning off aid in an effort to reassert their position. The Houthi’s need for weaponry would therefore increase, meaning that Iran is more likely to smuggle pieces of weaponry into the country which the Houthis will then weld together and use to improvise missiles. The pieces are smuggled through the Red Sea to the port of Hodeidah, thus the stationing of the rebels puts them in a prime position to receiving these shipments. Bombarding the Houthis therefore is only likely to make them attack further which will increase fighting between the parties. They are less likely to back down as they are supported by a powerful dominant country which is able to supply them with weaponry.

A consequence of increasing Iranian involvement in the conflict is the possibility of Iran’s already dire relationship with the US and Saudi Arabia growing worse. November has highlighted the mounting tensions between Iran and the US, played out directly through the implementation of US sanctions and also highlighted through the fighting in Yemen and Syria. Arguably, the Yemen conflict can be seen as a proxy war between the US and Iran. On 5 November, the newly reinstated US sanctions on Iran came into full force, with the Trump administration revealing the full extent of the restrictions on Iran’s shipping, energy and financial sectors. Iran has reacted with hostility to these sanctions with President Hassan Rouhani urging Muslims across the world to unite against the US. The continuity of Iranian involvement is likely to further strain US and Saudi relations with Iran, possibly leading to the US imposing even stricter sanctions on the region and deliberately making it harder for the country to trade. This may result in repercussions such as the removal or limitation of temporary waivers given to China, India, Japan and South Korea, allowing them to continue trade with Iran. This would ultimately impact negatively on Iran’s global status.

Consequently, the increased Iranian rearming and attacks of the warring parties would lead to increased conflict, thus further extending the war. The consequences of an even more lengthy war is an aggravated humanitarian crisis which would place further significant economic challenges and pressure on humanitarian charities, organisations and governments across the world. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has come about through a number of means. The Houthis blocking and siphoning off aid has meant that people cannot access food or medical supplies. The constant Saudi bombardment of towns and cities has led to deaths, injuries and destruction of infrastructure. These problems are even more compounded through the lack of medical care and treatment in the region. Additionally, thousands of people have been displaced and have lost their homes, with children unable to attend school and fulfil their educational requirements. The war has had huge repercussions on the future generation’s education and job prospects, which in turn will greatly affect Yemen’s economy in the future.

According to data compiled by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project, more than 18,000 air raids have been carried out in Yemen since 2015, with almost one-third of all bombing missions striking non-military sites. Schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals and water and electricity plants have been hit, resulting in thousands being killed and injured. Save the Children have stated that around 85,000 young children may have already died of starvation. It is likely that these figures are set to increase if the war is exacerbated further. On 3 December, Reuters reported that authorities have been sterilising water supplies in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa in order to help combat a cholera outbreak. Water supplies at wells, distribution networks and houses have been sterilised. Since the worst outbreak in Yemen’s history began in April 2017, 1.2 million cholera cases have been reported and over 2,500 people have died of the infection. In October this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of a new escalation, stating that there had been an increase in the number of cholera cases in the country. Problems such as a cholera epidemic are more likely and carry heightened danger due to the destruction of water plants and lack of medical care in the country.

The implications of British weapon sales to Saudi Arabia may be difficult to reverse if Britain does change its mind about selling arms to Riyadh. We may find that these weapons are still used in the future even if legislation is passed in the country banning the creation and usage of such arms. Cluster munitions are still used in Yemen today despite being banned in the UK in 2010. On 3 December,a military official stated that the Saudi-led coalition is continuing to use banned munitions in Yemen. The spokesman for Yemeni Armed Forces, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, spoke at a press conference in Sanaa on Sunday. He stated that in its air strikes on residential neighbourhoods, the Saudi-led alliance continues to use internationally banned weapons such as cluster bombs.

In conclusion, the implications of British weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are that of increasing the likelihood of exacerbating the war through a response from the Houthis and Iran, further straining the relationship between US and Iran. Additionally, a worsening of the war is likely to lead to an increased humanitarian crisis and a greater impact on citizens.

N.B. The Yemen conflict is an ongoing developing situation, so circumstances may drastically change from the time which this report was written (9 December 2018)