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UK arms sale to Saudi Arabia three times higher than previously thought 

July 16, 2021 at 12:50 pm

Protesters demonstrate against the UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in London, UK on 7 March 2018 [TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images]

Britain’s role in fuelling the Saudi-led war in Yemen is much greater than earlier thought, according to a new report by the UK-based organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). More than three times as much weaponry and military equipment was sold to Riyadh over the past six years when one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War was unfolding in the Arabian republic following a Saudi aggression.

In 2015 Yemen slid into civil war after the Saudi backed President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iranian backed Houthis. Riyadh led a coalition of nine countries from West Asia and North Africa in a campaign against the Houthis triggering a major humanitarian crisis. The Saudi war efforts were aided by the US and UK through the sale of arms, a deal that has been the subject of grave controversy.

CAAT’s latest report has found that the majority of sales to Riyadh have taken place using the opaque Open Licence system that obscures true value. It’s estimated that more than £20 billion ($27 billion) worth of military equipment and services have been sold to the Saudis since 2015. This is said to be almost three times higher than the £6.7 billion ($9.25 billion) worth of arms sales published by the Department of International Trade in the same time period.

Unlike Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs), on which figures quoted for the value of export licences are usually based, Open Licences allow an unlimited quantity of arms to be exported over a pre-set period, or even indefinitely, without the total volume of exports or value of sales having to be reported. Many of the bombs and missiles exported to Saudi Arabia since 2015, and most of the ongoing components and services for fighter aircraft, were sold using these licences.

CAAT researchers have analysed annual reports from the UK’s biggest arms company BAE Systems, which show that since 2015 it alone has sold £17.5 billion ($24.1 billion) worth of equipment and services to the Saudi Arabian military. When added to the published value of bombs and missiles licenced using standard individual export licences, the estimated total value of arms sales since the beginning of the war in Yemen on 26 March 2015 is £20.6 billion ($28.4 billion).

Read: EU bloc urges Saudi arms embargo

Katie Fallon of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The use of Open Licences covers up the real extent of the UK arms trade and makes it impossible to know what quantities of weapons are being sold around the world.”

“UK-made fighter jets, bombs and missiles have had a devastating impact in the ongoing bombardment of Yemen. The fact that the real total of these sales could be so much higher than previously reported emphasises the central role that the UK government and UK-based companies have played in the war. There must be full transparency about what arms have gone over and in what quantity.”

“So much of the arms industry takes place in secret, and that’s how the arms dealers like it. As long as the widespread use of Open Licences continues, the true nature and volume of the UK arms trade will remain hidden from scrutiny, and therefore from meaningful control.”

In 2019 the British government was told by the Court of Appeal to stop the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, after a judge said ministers had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so.”