Our Friend and Ally
The steady supply of high technology weapons to Saudi Arabia is a remarkably stable feature of British foreign policy. Britain helped establish the embryonic Saudi Air Force in the 1920s. Since the 1960s, Britain and the US have kept the Saudi monarchy well stocked with modern jet fighters. Today Saudi Arabia has one of the larger air forces in the world, with hundreds of American and European fighters (mostly F-15s, Typhoons and Tornados).
The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, travelled to Riyadh this week to meet the Saudi defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, the brother of Muhammad bin Salman and an experienced fighter pilot who took part in the brutal air war over Yemen. Wallace went to Riyadh to get a signed declaration of Saudi Arabia’s interest in the BAE Systems Tempest, a fighter Britain hopes to build with help from Japan and Italy but which for now exists only in mock-up and concept art form. It’s supposed to be the next generation of fighter, but for Saudi Arabia it’s also the latest instalment in a century long tradition.
In June 2019, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade successfully argued at the Court of Appeal that in light of the horrors in Yemen, British arms transfers to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. Arms sales were stopped, but only temporarily. In July 2020, the government took it on itself to transcend legal scrutiny and restart the flow of weapons for use in Yemen. More than £2.2 billion of arms have been shipped to Saudi Arabia since the resumption.
CAAT has managed to resuscitate its legal challenge. The case was brought back to the High Court at the end of January and a decision is expected within three months. The defence advanced by the British government for its actions is paper thin. The arguments, if they can be called that, amount to an assertion that reports on Yemen by UN panels of experts can be ignored, and hundreds of allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law aren’t enough to qualify as ‘many’.
Besides, the government says, Saudi operations in Yemen are similar to those carried out by the US and UK in Iraq and Syria. Since the US and UK are reflexively defenders of international human rights, even when savagely violating them, it wouldn’t do to start applying such standards elsewhere. The government has been allowed to state some of its case in closed evidence sessions, so perhaps its secret arguments are stronger than its public ones, though the need for them to be expressed away from public scrutiny makes that doubtful.
The facts of the joint Anglo-Saudi assault on Yemen are beyond question. There are now years worth of well documented atrocities. More than ten thousand civilians have been killed or wounded by the air war and the country has suffered one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Britain has supplied at least £19 billion worth of weapons since the start of the war, from guided bombs to Brimstone missiles, which the government has admitted have been used in Yemen. Beyond the supply of arms, Britain’s involvement extends to diplomatic support, military training and technical assistance without which the war could not continue. There was a temporary truce between July and September 2022, but Britain restocked Saudi Arabia’s supply of missiles ready for the resumption in hostilities.
There is a tendency to view the UK-Saudi relationship in purely commercial terms, as though arms industry profits were the main point. Orders from Saudi Arabia are some of the most significant for British weapons manufacturers. But they do not account for the vehemence of the British commitment to the war in Yemen. The enthusiastic support British politicians have for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies suggests more than an amoral exercise in profit-seeking.
The Royal Air Force is not integrated with its Qatari counterpart for reasons of corporate greed alone. In the first week of February, the chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, hosted the sixth meeting of the ‘Dragon Group’ (their first meeting was held on the destroyer HMS Dragon in 2018) in London. The meeting is a twice annual gathering of military brass from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other Arab Gulf countries. It is also an attempt by the UK to keep itself central in these circles.
According to British defence intelligentsia thinking, these relationships may be distasteful but they are also shrewd. They represent a sophisticated use of residual imperial leverage to project British influence. There is also a belief that the policy can never have deleterious effects. If Britain helps maintain a series of hereditary dictatorships in the broader interests of American power, that is legitimate at its core. It can have no other costs to reputation. It can never inspire rancour. It need not imply other disastrous entanglements, past or future. And to say otherwise is heretical.
British involvement in the war in Yemen is one of the most significant, not to say fateful, foreign policy decisions taken by the UK since the Iraq war. Yet the matter remains marginal in the national consciousness. An early day motion tabled on 18 January called for an end to all UK support for the war in Yemen, including arms sales to Saudi Arabia and ‘logistical support to Saudi forces’. It gained 69 supporters in parliament, none from the Conservative party. On 30 January, Wallace was asked in parliament about RAF personnel training the Saudi Air Force. He answered that he had ‘absolutely no problem with supporting our friend and ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. We have done it for decades, and will continue to do so.’
On 13 February, the UK presented weapons to the UN that had been seized by the British frigate HMS Montrose in the Gulf. They were almost certainly intended to be smuggled by Iranian intelligence to Yemen. The government said this exposed Iran’s ‘reckless proliferation of weapons’ which ‘undermined UN-led peace efforts’. If only the obvious force of this argument could be felt closer to home.