Saudi Arabia: Country overview
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, located in the Arabian Peninsula, has a population of 32 million and enjoys a powerful political position both regionally and internationally. This is mainly due to its role as one of the world’s biggest oil exporting countries. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been the country’s leader since 2015. The legal system in Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia Law. As of 2018, Saudi is yet to ratify and sign the Arms Trade Treaty.
How many licences for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
The number of approved UK arms licences to Saudi Arabia has been relatively significant all through the respective ten-year period, with an average of 454 per year. The number of licences spiked in 2010 and 2012 with 710 and 678 approved licences. However, the biggest spike was in 2017 where no less than 855 licences were approved. This is arguably explained by the fact that Saudi Arabia has been leading an international coalition against the Houthis in Yemen since 2015.
In total, from 2008 to 2017, 4,541 licences were granted by the UK government for the Saudi regime.
What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
Saudi Arabia is the UK’s most lucrative market for its weapons and in the years from 2008 to 2017 more than 10 billion pounds worth of weapons was purchased by the Saudi regime.
The value of the arms export followed a steady pattern between 2008-2014 with an average of £806m. per year. There was however a crested in 2015 when the almost £3bn worth of arms was sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia. In total, from 2008 to 2017, £10.3bn worth of arms export licences were sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia.
What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Saudi Arabia?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below.
Besides providing Saudi Arabia with chemical equipment typical for an oil producing country, the UK has mainly sold surveillance equipment and aircraft supplies. Advanced cyber surveillance technology can be used by a state to spy on its citizens, which is concerning in a country like Saudi Arabia, where political activists among others often face detentions for their political work. Moreover, UK’s sales of components for combat aircraft came at the same time that Saudi Arabia was waging aerial warfare against the Houthis in Yemen – an intervention that has been subject to widespread criticism.
Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
Despite recent improvements in various areas concerning human rights, such as allowing women to drive, or combating the endemic corruption that exists within the regime, Saudi Arabia persists as an authoritarian regime, one that violates the most basic human rights.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences. Court proceedings also generally fail to meet international standards for fair trial, and the death penalty has been often applied to punish crimes that do not include murder.
Amnesty International, for instance, states that the Saudi Arabian security forces use torture and other ill-treatment with impunity to extract confessions. They commonly use methods including sleep deprivation, punching, beating with sticks, suspension from the ceiling and electric shocks.
The security forces will often violate the fundamental human rights of the citizens, and outspoken opponents of the Saudi regime are an exposed group. Often, they will be held in incommunicado, sometimes in solitary confinement, and frequently with no access to lawyers or fair trials.
This crackdown on human rights activists is part of a larger campaign by the authorities to silence all forms of criticism that have revealed, either directly or indirectly, egregious human rights violations committed by the authorities.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has, since March 2015, spearheaded the nine-nation coalition against Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has since been accused of committing numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The total number of civilian casualties from this conflict, since March 2015, stands at 14,168, including 5,295 people killed and 8,873 injured (November 2017 figures). These numbers are based on the casualties individually verified by the UNHCR’s Yemen Office. The actual numbers are likely to be higher. The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for indiscriminately targeting civilians, and numerous reports show how weddings, schools and hospitals deliberately have been targeted.
Among the arms provided to Saudi, the UK has reportedly been selling Storm Shadow, Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Paveway IV bombs under the so-called Open Individual Export Licences (OIELs), which according to the government is used for the export of “less sensitive goods”. This is a cause of concern as OIELs (unlike specific licences) allow an unlimited number of deliveries over a fixed period.
The intensity of the strikes and the repeated damages they inflict on civilian properties suggest that the coalition is deliberately seeking to harm Yemeni infrastructure and production capabilities. In at least 16 cases, the coalition has deployed banned cluster munitions in densely populated areas, consequently killing and wounding high numbers of civilians. Several human rights groups claim that UK-made bombs, including the internationally banned cluster munitions, have been used in airstrikes by the coalition.
The UK should halt its arms sale to Saudi Arabia, as the arms sale risk maintaining or even enabling human rights violations against Saudi as well as Yemeni civilians. In this sense, the sales represent a major concern under both UK laws and the global Arms Trade Treaty, as both require that arms sales should be avoided to a country if there is a risk of human rights violations with them there.
In comparison, several European countries, including Spain and Norway, have in response to the serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, halted their arms sales to coalition members, including Saudi Arabia. Following the internationally-condemned murder on Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey late 2018, several European countries, with Germany in front, have halted their arms sales to Saudi Arabia, encouraging the rest of the EU countries to follow suit. This is an example the UK government is highly encouraged to follow, at least until Saudi’s human rights record, domestically and internationally, sees serious improvements.
What has the British government said about these concerns?
The UK government has on several occasions commented on its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In February 2017, assured that it uses its “considerable insight” into the actions of the Saudi Arabian military to make a “considered analysis”, from which it will decide whether to continue arms exports to the kingdom.
According to information released by the British government to AOAV from the UK Gulf Team Desk in 2016, the FCO in Riyadh had “Serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia” and listed death penalty, limited access to justice, women’s rights and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, religion and belief as matters of serious concern.
Despite the fact that in 2015, £3bn worth of arms were sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia, the FCO internal documents listed the increased use of the death penalty and that “any change in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia will be a long-term endeavour”.
The government has defended Saudi strikes targeting schools, arguing they could serve as “arms dumps” or be considered legitimate “dual-use” targets. The decisive question for the UK government is to assess whether there is a clear risk that the licenced items have been used in strikes that violate International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The UK government continues to insist that it is one the most robust arms export control regimes in the world, where all export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. Despite this, Saudi Arabia admitted in 2016 that it had used UK-produced cluster munitions against the Houthis, but that it would cease such use. Britain’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, welcomed Saudi’s assurances and stressed yet again that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be kept under review.
Theresa May has remained close ties with the royal Saudi family, embracing the Kingdom’s efforts to improve its human rights record, envisioned in the so-called “Saudi Vision 2030”. In 2017 she went to Riyadh and, during a BBC’s interview, she refused to criticise the Saudi government’s bombardments in Yemen despite the high civilian toll. In early 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the British parliament, where the bilateral relationship was confirmed through assurances on future investments and trade, including arms.
What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Saudi government have committed since 2010?
Events in 2010
Of the most crucial human rights issues in this period were reportedly: the absence of the right to demonstrate peacefully; the presence of torture in state institutions; poor prison and detention centre conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of fair and public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet); severe restrictions assembly, association, movement, and religious freedom; and corruption and lack of government transparency. These themes continue throughout much of the year.
Events in 2011
The House of Saud responded to the Arab Spring with increased repression to Saudi citizens who demanded greater democracy, and despite the announcement of economic benefits to the Saudis, the regime detained several civilians for their peaceful protests. Moreover, ethnic, religious or gender minority continued to face systematic suppression by the regime, facing unfair trials or arbitrary detention.
Events in 2012
In 2012, the Saudi Arabian regime expanded the scope of its repression of peaceful activists. It imposed more travel bans for unspecified reasons, it disbanded at least one civil society organization and took steps towards banning social media applications whether they could not be fully monitored and controlled. As the Saudi Arabian authorities imposed these additional restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, they continued to violate their international human right obligations as well as, in some instances, national law.
Events in 2013
Arrests, trials, convictions of peaceful dissidents, and the forcible clearance of peaceful demonstrations by citizens, all reportedly increased in this period. Seven people who had publicly demanded political or human rights reforms were sentenced by a court in 2013. For instance, human rights activists Dr Mohammed al-Qahtani and Dr Abdullah al-Hamid were respectively sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison, along with lengthy travel bans, based on charges including “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” and “setting up an unlicensed organization.”
Events in 2014
The Kingdom continued to convict and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely based on their peaceful activities. Moreover, the systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. A new anti-terrorism law took effect in February 2014, extending the authorities’ already sweeping powers to combat “acts of terror”. The new law defines terrorist acts in vague and overly broad terms, that can and are currently used to crackdown on peaceful dissent, including human rights defenders. The new law would enable prosecutions of non-violent protesters if they, for instance, are found guilty of “harming the reputation of the state or its position”. They could face up to ten years in prison for criticizing the royal family. Finally, authorities are given the right to detain suspects without charge or trials.
Events in 2015
Besides Saudi’s own poor domestic human rights records, the Kingdom also became involved in the Yemen conflict and there was reported to have killed civilians in an unlawful, indiscriminate manner, as the leader of the nine-nation coalition that began military operations against Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia was reportedly guilty of grave breaches of International Humanitarian Law.
Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch documented 87 apparently unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, some potentially amounting to war crimes. These strikes killed nearly 1.000 civilians and targeting homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. In the same study, Human Rights Watch also laid out evidence that the coalition forces had launched at least 18 attacks that had employed internationally banned cluster munitions, causing widespread death and injury among the civilians. Saudi Arabia is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Events in 2016
Saudi Arabia continued into 2016 to face international condemnation for its conduct of the conflict against the Houthis in Yemen, an approach that continued to kill thousands of civilians. The UN and NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, all said that some of the Saudi-led airstrikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate and failed to sufficiently protect civilians. Meantime, Houthi-Saleh militias also conducted cross-border raids into Saudi territory, firing missiles and artillery into southern Saudi Arabia throughout the year, killing few Saudi civilians, but giving Saudi Arabia the justification to claim it was lawfully acting in self-defence.
In response to various accusations, the coalition established a unit to investigate coalition airstrikes that reportedly caused disproportionate civilian harm. Recommendations were published, although no prosecutions were carried out.
Amnesty International said that the Kingdom had “committed gross and systematic violations of human rights”, “abroad and at home”. Amnesty called for a suspension of Saudi Arabia from the UN Human Rights Council, which it has been a member of since 2014. Critics claimed that Saudi used its position in the Council to effectively obstruct justice for possible war crimes.
Events in 2017
The Saudi-led coalition continued its military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. The conflict, in which all parties are accused of violating international law, had led to what the UN described as the world biggest humanitarian crisis since 1945. The UN said that the coalition’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians “may amount to war crimes,” urging the coalition’s allies, including the UK, to respect their international commitments.
Mounting evidence continued to point to the Saudi-coalition’s use of internationally banned cluster munitions – some of them claimed to be UK-produced. The coalition’s spokesperson at the time, Ahmad al-Asiri, argued that the cluster bombs had been used only against “legitimate military targets” to protect civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia.
At home, Saudi authorities continued to carry out arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful protestors. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists reportedly continued to serve long prison sentences for using their freedom of speech to advocate for political and rights reforms. The regime continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities. However, the regime announced that women would be allowed to drive as per mid-2018.
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