Turning the other cheek? Arms sales to Saudi Arabia

It is a fact universally acknowledged - if not universally welcomed - that Great Britain manufactures and sells arms to Saudi Arabia. Demands to cease the sale of such weapons have become a staple complaint from some corners of the political spectrum. The objection  is not always a moral aversion to manufacturing and selling objects which can only be used for violence, but that we shouldn’t sell them to countries that have poor human rights records.

Jeremy Corbyn, consistent with his long-standing ideological position , takes an absolutist approach. Minutes after his emphatic re-election as Labour leader, he took to the stage at his Party Conference to declare that, were he elected Prime Minister, “when there are credible reports of human rights abuses or war crimes being committed, British arms sales will be suspended, starting with Saudi Arabia.”

Theresa May takes a different view. When challenged in parliament on the issue, she argued , appropriately for a former Home Secretary, that  “What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

The merits of both cases - that Great Britain should not sell guns to regimes that abuse human rights, and that such sales may be a fair price to pay in exchange for British safety - encapsulate what the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, called the “complex matrix of diplomatic considerations” that guide government foreign policy. A further relevant consideration is the problem of trying to influence a country’s human rights agenda after having withdrawn from trading from them. Writing in a collection of essays published by Bright Blue on Conservatism and Human Rights, Mr Blunt gave an example of the ethical dilemma:

“The cancellation of the contract for the Ministry of Justice to provide training of prison staff in Saudi Arabia means we can assure ourselves we have no part to play in a justice system which executes for offences that may not even be crimes in the UK, but did we not give up an opportunity to improve standards and conditions in Saudi prisons? What are the right levels of engagement and pragmatism?

The specifics

Instead of considering  the ethical arguments  in abstract, it is helpful to try and quantify what we do actually sell to Saudi Arabia, and what human rights abuses the country has been accused of.

The United Kingdom, according to estimates from the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, is the world’s second-largest arms exporter, behind the United States. The Middle East is the world’s largest defence importer, both in total and from the UK, and Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the world for imports . In December last year, the Royal Saudi Air Force agreed a multi-million pound order for 22 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers from British aerospace company BAE Systems.  ADS, the trade association for, among others, the UK’s defence and aerospace industries, published figures indicating that these sectors are worth more than £30bn and sustain one quarter of a million jobs. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also stated that the export market to Middle Eastern countries accounted for two thirds of our total defence exports in 2014

Our trade agreements in weapons and munitions to Saudi Arabia have been in place for more than 50 years. In 1985, the government agreed to the al-Yamamah arms deal, under which  more than 70 planes, munitions and missiles were sold to Saudi Arabia in exchange for hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day. Ever since 1966, British companies  have been selling guns and planes to Saudi Arabia.

The benefits cited  in defence of this trade are often more than merely financial. As with the new Prime Minister’s statement on the subject, arguments of security and the wider national interest are often used. Commenting on the Al-Yamamah arms trade before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Dr Robert Dover and Professor Mark Phythian of the University of Leicester called it “a strategically important liaison relationship that provides hard and soft intelligence to the UK, and in providing the UK with the retention of some influence and so diplomatic advantage in the Middle East.”

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s recent report on British arms used in the conflict in Yemen noted that “a strong and durable relationship with Saudi Arabia has enhanced the United Kingdom’s work in advancing many of our shared and vital strategic interests. These include military action against ISIL, combating manifestations of violent extremism and radicalisation… and providing immediate relief for Syrian refugees.”

In regard to human rights, it is also indisputable that Saudi Arabia commits serious abuses. The country’s penal system includes executions, flogging and amputations, whilst the state denies basic voting, driving and legal rights to women, enforces blasphemy laws and other forms of censorship, and criminalises homosexuality, apostasy and adultery.  Beyond these domestic abuses,there are a number of additional international complaints against the Saudi government.

Most recently, the United Nations concluded that more than 500 deaths and 600 injuries of children were “attributed to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition” and their activity in Yemen. In addition, the UN’s Panel of Experts on Yemen wrote in a letter to the Security Council that the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law.   These targets included camps for internally displaced persons and refugees, medical facilities and schools.

Influence or isolation?

It is clear the UK has a substantial economic interest in maintaining a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, and that there are some additional benefits in the field of security and diplomacy.  The debate that is usually conducted on the issue has tended simply to weigh these benefits against the issue of complicity in the abuses committed by the regime. Less often discussed is the question of whether engagement allows us to advance our international humanitarian agenda more effectively. Not just in Saudi Arabia, but also in the severely destabilised region in which it sits.

While there is no arguing that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is far from ideal, a number of important steps have been made. The state acceded to the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1997, and ratified (albeit with reservations) the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2001.

A report filed by the Saudi government in 2001 as part of its obligations under the Convention against Torture and after formal incorporation of the Convention into Saudi law by Royal Decree, recognised formally the requirement placed upon the Saudi government to protect human rights.

This contained phrases such as: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent human rights-related covenants, conventions, instruments and protocols constitute one of the fruits of human civilization” and “acts constituting torture… are all designated criminal offences in the Islamic sharia”.  The report does not include a formal admission of torture by the Saudi government, but is notable for its acceptance that torture is an ethically heinous crime.

Furthermore, the second report of the Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia by the United Nations in 2013 commended new measures taken by Saudi Arabia to “ensure women’s participation as candidates in elections”, a “commitment to combating human trafficking and terrorism”, and “the establishment of the National Human Rights commission”.

So it appears there is some limited evidence of progress in Saudi Arabia on human rights. It has been slow and frustrating, but present nonetheless. The government has argued that such progress has been strengthened by the West maintaining friendly relations, and that arms sales should be seen in that context.  Cutting ourselves off from this important trading partner would simply force them to turn to another, less ethical supplier for their weapons, reduce our capacity to influence the Saudi government, and weaken our ability to help ease the humanitarian crises in the region.

Zachary Spiro is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue