Britain says it will resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia

By Stephen Castle

One day after sanctioning 20 Saudis for human rights violations, Britain on Tuesday sent a very different signal to the government in Riyadh, ending a moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its involvement in the bloody conflict in Yemen.

A court ruling last year forced the British government to suspend sales of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia because of the risk they would be used in violation of international humanitarian law.

But after a review, Liz Truss, Britain’s international trade secretary, said Tuesday that procedures had been revised to comply with the court’s concerns and that the suspension of licenses for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia was at an end.

Her decision prompted anger from opposition politicians and campaigners, protests that were sharpened by the timing of the announcement. On Monday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, imposed sanctions on 47 people, including 25 Russians accused of aiding and abetting in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died after brutal treatment in detention in 2009.

The British list also included two people from Myanmar and 20 Saudis accused in the assassination of dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death caused outrage around the world.

Raab argued that, as it charts its new course on the international stage outside the European Union — which Britain formally quit in January — the British government was “absolutely committed to the United Kingdom being an even stronger force for good in the world.”

The Saudis named in the British sanctions list included Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service, and Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Both men will stand trial in absentia for directing the 15-man hit squad that flew to Turkey from Saudi Arabia to carry out the killing.

While the murder of Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen are very different issues, critics said that imposing sanctions while also ending a moratorium on arms sales sent contradictory signals over the balance between human rights and realpolitik in Britain’s evolving foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia is a big market for British arms manufacturers. Between April 2015 and March 2018, Britain’s government licensed the sale of at least 4.7 billion pounds (around $5.89 billion) of military equipment to the Saudis, and a further 860 million pounds to its coalition partners.

Emily Thornberry, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on international trade, described the resumption of arms licenses to Saudi Arabia as “morally indefensible.” The timing, she added, suggests “at the very least a case of mixed messages, undermining the government’s claim to be human rights defenders.”

Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, described the government’s move as a “disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision” and said that further legal steps would be explored to challenge it.

Under British law, the government should not grant an export license if there is a clear risk that weapons or equipment might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. In a written statement to Parliament, Truss acknowledged that there had been some “credible incidents of concern” related to Saudi forces’ conduct but said that there was no systematic pattern.

“The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of International Humanitarian Law occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons,” she wrote. “The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents.”

The British government said in a statement that all existing and new applications for arms exports to Saudi Arabia “will be assessed against the revised methodology which considers whether there is a clear risk the equipment might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law.”

“The Government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licenses in accordance with strict licensing criteria,” the statement said. “We will not issue any export licenses where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”

Britain is not alone in wanting to push ahead with arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Despite opposition in Congress, the U.S. State Department informally notified lawmakers in January that it intended to proceed with the sale of precision-guided missiles worth $478 million to the country.

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