From the beginning of the war the arms industry has been directly complicit in a humanitarian disaster.

Shabbir Lakha


Despite a global pandemic and the biggest hit to the world economy since the dawn of capitalism, the arms industry seems to have remained largely undisturbed. BAE Systems has boasted that apart from disruption in the second quarter of 2020, it has been able to maintain its cashflow and operate with 90 percent of its employees working.

In 2019, the arms industry was on the rise, with the world’s 25 biggest arms companies’ sales totalling $361 billion, up 8.5 percent from 2018. Britain has maintained its status as the second biggest arms dealer in the world, with around 60 percent of arms exports heading for the Middle East. With oil prices back to pre-Covid levels, we can safely assume that the Gulf monarchies have been able to keep up their demand for weapons.

As part of Parliament’s ongoing Arms Export Controls Review, the Committee will today hear evidence in relation to the Department for International Trade and the Export Control Joint Unit’s work on halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Among those giving evidence is Professor Anna Stavrianakis, who has been vocal on Britain’s role in facilitating Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.

Destroying Yemen

Since Saudi Arabia began its war on Yemen in 2015, Britain has licensed £5.4 billion worth of weapons to the Saudi military – and thanks to opaque Open Licenses, BAE Systems alone has generated a far higher £15 billion in revenues from arms and services to Saudi Arabia in the same amount of time. That doesn’t include arms sales to other countries like the UAE, who are part of the Saudi-led coalition.

In 2019, following a judicial review launched by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government had not taken sufficient steps to ensure that its arms exports to Saudi Arabia were not being used to violate International Humanitarian Law in Yemen, and ordered the arms sales to stop.

Despite this, it was later revealed that the government had allowed the existing export licenses that were supposed to be put under review to continue being fulfilled. Though the trade secretary Liz Truss apologised for ‘inadvertent’ arms sales that breached the court order in September 2019, Oxfam found that BAE Systems was still sending cargo to Saudi Arabia in April 2020.

In July 2020, Liz Truss announced that the review had found that any violations of humanitarian law were ‘isolated incidents’, and that all arms sales to Saudi and coalition partners would therefore resume.

As Anna Stavrianakis has pointed out, there is ‘ample evidence’ of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes and blockade of Yemen violating humanitarian law. The British government has deliberately blurred the lines on what a ‘possible breach’ may be, and has likely ignored the majority of the Ministry of Defence’s own acknowledgements of alleged breaches.

Yemen has for several years running faced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the blame lies principally with Saudi Arabia’s war on the country. An estimated 250,000 people have died as a result of the war – the vast majority civilians, and at least two thirds killed by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes and blockade.

The land, sea, and air blockade has already caused the worst famine the world has seen in over a century: in 2018, it had already claimed the lives of 85,000 children under the age of five. Starvation now threatens up to 24 million Yemenis.

According to the Yemen Data Project, a third of the coalition’s airstrikes on Yemen have targeted civilians, with women and children making up 70 percent of civilian casualties. UN investigators have found British-made bomb parts (including those owned by US companies like Raytheon, but produced in factories in Scotland) in the wreckages of airstrikes, which have hit funerals and markets. These have been deemed to violate international law.

Britain’s War and the Special Relationship

There are no ‘isolated incidents’ in Yemen. There is a very clear, evidenced pattern of civilians being targeted. The logic of the British government in deliberately turning a blind eye is clear from Boris Johnson’s own comments as foreign secretary in 2016: he claimed that if Britain stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia, it would be ‘vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other Western countries who would happily supply arms.’

But to admit that Saudi Arabia is violating international law would be to expose Britain’s role in helping to facilitate war crimes. Far from ‘influencing’ Saudi Arabia as Johnson and others have claimed, Britain has loyally supported the Gulf monarchy in its war. British troops have been present in the coalition’s joint operation centre to help with logistics and targeting; Saudi pilots have been trained in RAF bases in Wales; the British government continues to provide diplomatic cover.

Part of the reason for Britain’s ardent support for Saudi’s butchery in Yemen can be explained by the financialisation of the economy over 40 years of neoliberalism which, as David Wearing argues, has created a necessity for capital inflows from petrodollars to finance the current account deficit. London’s property market, for one, is propped up to a large extent by the Gulf royal families.

More importantly, Britain’s role in the Middle East also stems from its ‘special relationship’ with the US. British foreign policy has long been dictated by Washington’s strategic interests. Under the Trump administration, the US massively hiked arms sales to Saudi Arabia, conducting one of the biggest single arms deals in history worth $110 billion.

Trump’s decisions to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, broker a ‘Deal of the Century’ for Israel and move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and normalise relations between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel all pointed to an effort to boost Saudi Arabia as a regional power and stoke the threat of military confrontation with Iran. His unwavering support for the war on Yemen was also part of this proxy war with Iran.

However, as a result of pressure from below, the incoming Biden administration has frozen arms sales to Saudi while a review takes place, and the new secretary of state Tim Blinken has said that Biden ‘has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen,’ adding that the new administration ‘will work on that in very short order.’

How far this policy shift from the US goes in practice remains to be seen, but Boris Johnson will face new pressure to end Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining the Arms Economy

Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only country to which Britain sells arms. In the last five years, Britain has sold weapons to 80 percent of the countries under arms embargoes, trade sanctions, or other restrictions by the Department for International Trade, many of them on Britain’s own ‘human rights priority’ list. This includes £26 million worth of arms export licenses to Sisi’s Egypt, the dictatorship in Bahrain, and the Nigerian police who were spotlighted for their massacres of civilians last year.

Far from being necessary for national cash flow, the arms industry is one of the most highly government subsidised areas of the economy. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government has pumped hundreds of millions into the arms industry – more than it has spent on ventilators.

While the government was unable to provide PPE for healthcare staff, and has announced a public sector wage freeze for the very key workers that have kept society functioning over the last year, it has approved a further £16.5 billion for defence spending. The repurposing of Rolls Royce’s operations into ventilator production early on in the pandemic showed just how easily Britain could redirect the skills, investment, and technology used for producing instruments of death into green and renewable technology industries, and that not doing so is simply a political choice.

04 Feb 2021

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