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Profits, but at what price? UK’s job protection claims in Saudi BAE arms deal face scrutiny amid Yemen conflict concerns

The UK government is lobbying Germany to authorise a £5 billion sale of 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia, British newspapers report today. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been said to be championing the deal as an employment bulwark, with under-examined claims it will retain 5,000 jobs and channel significant funds into BAE Systems’ Lancashire base. Such a claim of job preservation is a standard framing in British international arms sales, without much in the way of contemplating of the potential harm such weapons might cause.

Such a narrative, foregrounding economic gains above human rights harm, is under scrutiny. It not only ostensibly downplays arms deals’ humanitarian risks, but reinforces a narrative that such deals are inherently good for global peace and prosperity. Viewing such sales to Saudi of BAE fighter jets solely through the prism of job protection conveniently omits potential repercussions in Yemen, where the jets could well be deployed by Saudi Arabia, exacerbating the protracted conflict there.

To date, the war in Yemen has reportedly killed an estimated 377,000 people through direct and indirect causes. Over 150,000, including tens of thousands of civilians, have been directly killed in fighting, including the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Many more have died of hunger and disease in the reverberating humanitarian crisis caused by the war.

Action on Armed Violence, an armed violence research charity that runs an explosive violence monitor which records civilian casualties reported in English-language media sources, has recorded 18,896 civilian casualties from explosive weapons in Yemen since 2010, including at least 1,459 children. 57% (10,754) of those civilians were killed or injured in air strikes.

95% (10,248) of civilians harmed by air strikes in Yemen since 2010 were killed or injured by Saudi Arabia or the Saudi-led coalition. Of note, the majority, 64% (386), of Saudi air strikes in Yemen were reported in populated areas, where they caused 8,787 civilian casualties.

This reality has been heard in Germany, unlike the UK. Particular internal opposition in Germany comes from the Green Party, which expresses concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. However, British papers report that Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears to lean towards approval of the deal.

Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, today criticises the UK government’s focus on employment above human rights. He states, “the pursuit of this deal, under the guise of job protection, overlooks its ethical implications and the potential tragedy in Yemen. Economic gains shouldn’t blind us to our moral responsibilities.”

The deal itself, involving a 1980s consortium of UK, German, Italian, and Spanish companies, requires unanimous approval for exports. Thus, the situation extends beyond a UK-Germany issue, involving multiple stakeholders with varied interests.

The UK’s emphasis on economic revival through job protection in arms deals raises eyebrows, as it seemingly dismisses moral imperatives in arms sales, overshadowing the responsibility to prevent conflict and humanitarian crises, with the Yemen war as a stark reminder of the potential fallout.

As negotiations continue, the decision reached will significantly influence not just the involved nations but also set a precedent for the ethics of international defence sales amid geopolitical instability.