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27 March 2019

Jeremy Hunt is wrong on Saudi Arabia

Armida van Rij and Dr Benedict Wilkinson

ARMIDA VAN RIJ and BENEDICT WILKINSON: The Foreign Secretary failed to rebut criticism of the UK's approach

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia

Jeremy Hunt yesterday wrote an article effectively telling his staunchest critics to back off. The Foreign Secretary sought to address criticism over his government’s policy towards Saudi Arabia. In particular, UK arms exports to the country, as well as its ongoing war in Yemen – which has claimed thousands of lives, left countless people starving and resulted in millions fleeing their homes to avoid violence.

In doing so, he repeated two familiar arguments: first, that the UK has “some of the strictest arms control export guidelines in the world”; and second, that the UK government’s relationship with Saudi Arabia allows it to exert influence over Saudi leaders and decision-makers.

The first is hard to defend given countries including the Netherlands and Germany have stopped or heavily restricted exporting arms to Saudi over the conflict in Yemen, in line with obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty (of which the UK is a founding country) and the EU Common Position on the control of exports of military technology and equipment. But that aside, images of bombed weddings and school buses should give the UK government pause for thought when considering whether controls on arms exports are sufficiently robust, or indeed whether they are being applied correctly.

The second argument is equally contentious. There is little to no evidence that the UK is able to influence Saudi leaders, as we found in research we carried out last year. In fact, we concluded that Saudi Arabia tends to exert more political influence and have more leverage over the UK than the other way around.

For instance, the UK government has over several decades bowed to Saudi pressure by not pursuing inquiries into allegations of corruption, and has so far withheld a report into possible terrorist financing by the Kingdom, among other examples.

Meanwhile, the war in Yemen rages on. It began as a UN-mandated response to hostilities by a group of rebels, the Houthis, but has now increased in geopolitical significance due to the players involved. A coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and backed by the United States, the UK and France through military advisors, intelligence and military hardware – is fighting the insurgency, which the Saudi and Yemeni governments believe is being backed by Iran, a country long seen as a regional threat. Indeed, Saudi involvement in the conflict is mainly driven by its belief that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.

Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen suggests it is happy to flout international laws, norms and values, and that the country cannot be relied upon by the international community. Last year, a UN panel reviewed several Saudi airstrikes and concluded: “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives … it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected”.

So where does this leave the UK? Despite the devastation in Yemen, there are more legitimate arguments that the Foreign Secretary could have drawn on to justify the UK government’s continued links with Saudi Arabia: What if the Saudi-led Coalition pulled out of Yemen immediately, and the Houthis overran the rest of the country within weeks? What would the cost to the security of the region be? Might this embolden Iran further?

While these concerns still do not justify unconditional British support for Saudi Arabia, they are valid and worthy of consideration.

In his article, the Foreign Secretary hails the EU as having a “powerful voice”, which it must use. One of the EU institutions has certainly made its voice heard, loud and clear: the European Parliament issued a non-binding resolution to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet the UK government ignored it, and is instead trying to pressure other European countries to reverse the export ban.

Mr Hunt seems to suggest UK-Saudi relations must be all or nothing: either the UK fully engages with and supports the Gulf state, or it cuts all ties, ceases all arms sales and severs diplomatic relations completely.

A more nuanced approach, as described in our study, would be to take the middle road and simply be more selective in how the UK engages with Saudi Arabia. Crucially, this engagement should not be driven by economic considerations alone, but by a careful understanding of proportionality and the threat to human life, as well as the risk to the UK’s reputation on the world stage.

Armida van Rij is a Research Associate, and Dr Benedict Wilkinson is Associate Director, both at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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