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UK arms export to Saudi Arabia (2012-2022)

Country overview

Saudi Arabia is the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula. The country has a population of 34 million, with the majority being Muslim. Saudi Arabia is known for its oil reserves, which are the largest in the world. The oil industry has been the main driver of the country’s economy for decades, although the government has been working to diversify the economy in recent years through initiatives such as Vision 2030. The Saud dynasty (Āl Saʿūd) rules Saudi Arabia as a monarchy. Sharīʿah, Islamic law, governs. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has ruled since 2015. The country promotes a strict interpretation of Islam and has strict laws governing behaviour and dress, particularly for women. 

Human rights in Saudi Arabia are a topic of concern and controversy. The Saudi government has been accused of and denounced by various international organizations and governments for violating human rights.

Saudi Arabia signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on June 3rd 2013 and ratified it on April 29th 2014. However, the country has faced criticism for its role in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The United Nations has accused Saudi Arabia of violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, and some have called for the country’s membership in the ATT to be revoked.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

Over the past decade, UK arms licenses to Saudi Arabia 879 limited-value “standard” licenses and 210 unlimited value “open” licenses. 

How much GBP are those exports worth?

Saudi Arabia bought £10 billion of UK armaments from 2012 to 2022. Arms exports fluctuated between 2012 and 2022. In March 2015, the UK sold over £2,9bn in armaments to Saudi Arabia, coinciding with the Saudi attack. Even 2018 which constitutes the lowest export value year amounts to over £60 million. In 2022, CAAT estimated that the real value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the coalition began bombing Yemen in March 2015 is over £23 billion, while the value of sales to the Coalition as a whole (including UAE and others) is nearly £25 billion because the published values cover only Single Individual. Due to the UK government’s lack of transparency, precise UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unknown.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

What are the top 10 types of arms export licenses Britain is selling to Saudi Arabia? 

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Saudi Arabia between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
Components for combat aircraft116
Militray helmets99
Components for military training aircraft92
Military aircraft ground equipment86
Body armour86
Weapon sights74
General military aircraft components68
Components for military aero-engines68
Weapon night sights65
Components for military support aircraft61
Top 3 military export items from the UK to Saudi Arabia between 2012-2022 by valueValue in GBP
ML4 ‒ Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures£5.0bn
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£4.4bn
ML6 ‒ Armoured vehicles, tanks£93m

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Notably, the UK’s main export good were combat aircraft components which i.a. were used when Saudi Arabia was bombing the Houthis in Yemen. UK-made Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, Paveway bombs, Brimstone, and Stormshadow missiles were employed in the battle.

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

Saudi Arabia has been involved in the ongoing conflict in Yemen since March 2015, leading a coalition of Arab states that intervened in the country’s civil war to support the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, after he was  ousted by Houthi rebels in 2014.

The Saudi-led coalition’s Yemen attacks rely on UK-made jets, bombs, and missiles. Saudi Arabia supplies the UAE, another coalition member bombing Yemen, with arms. Despite significant evidence of coalition violations of international humanitarian law, the UK has continued to back Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners’ airstrikes with arms and maintenance. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led the nine-nation Yemeni Houthi-Saleh coalition. Saudi Arabia has been accused of several humanitarian law violations. Under Open Individual Export Licences (OIELs), the UK has sold Storm Shadow, Brimstone air-to-surface missiles, and Paveway IV bombs to Saudi Arabia. OIELs, unlike particular permits, allow unlimited deliveries over a specified period, which is concerning. 

The coalition appears to be targeting Yemeni infrastructure and manufacturing capacities with its intense strikes and frequent damage to civilian property. The coalition has used banned cluster munitions in densely populated areas 16 times, killing and wounding many civilians. Human rights organizations allege that coalition airstrikes utilized UK-made bombs, including cluster munitions. By selling arms to Saudi Arabia, the UK  risks supporting human rights abuses against Saudi and Yemeni civilians. The sales are a big concern under UK legislation and the global Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits arms sales to countries with a risk of human rights breaches. Spain and Norway have banned military supplies to coalition nations, including Saudi Arabia, due to severe claims of violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

What has the British government said about these concerns?

Despite the UK selling £3bn worth of armaments to Saudi Arabia in 2015, FCO internal documents noted the rising use of the death penalty and that “any reform in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia will be a long-term endeavor”. The UK government must decide if there is a possibility that licensed materials were used in strikes that breach International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The UK government maintains that its arms export control mechanism is one of the most robust in the world, assessing all export license applications against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the British parliament in early 2018, confirming the bilateral ties with promises of future investments and commerce, including armaments. UK military assistance for Saudi Arabia makes it complicit in its crimes.

In 2017, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) brought the UK government to court in an attempt to secure a Judicial Review of its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, the High Court dismissed their claim the same year.

Nonetheless, in June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s process for granting export licenses was “irrational” and thus “unlawful.” In response, the government stated that it would review all existing licenses and refrain from issuing new ones for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that could be used in the Yemen conflict while it evaluated the judgment’s implications. The government was granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on July 9, 2019, and subsequently did so.

In September 2019, the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, apologized for the government’s breach of its promise to the Court of Appeal after discovering that new export licenses had been issued to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners.
Yet, in July 2020,  Trust announced that the UK government would resume export arms to Saudi Arabia, as “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”. 

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Saudi government has committed since 2012? 

After the Arab Spring movement, Saudi Arabia responded with ’unflinching repression’ to it’s citizens demands. New laws introduced the previous year, criminalizde the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly. These laws resulted in various arrests such as for human rights activists. Dr. Mohammed al-Qahtani and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison and lengthy travel restrictions for “breaking loyalty with the monarch” and “setting up an unlicensed organization,” respectively.

A new anti-terrorism law introduced in 2014,  expanded the governments’ “acts of terror” authority. The new law was utilized to crack down on nonviolent protest, especially among human rights advocates. Under the new law, non-violent protesters could be prosecuted for “harming the reputation of the state or its position2. It set a ten-year prison sentence for royal family criticism and allowed police to hold suspects without charges.

As the leader of the nine-nation coalition that initiated military operations against Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia was accused of unlawfully killing civilians. Saudi Arabia committed severe violations of International Humanitarian Law on March 26, 2015. Human Rights Watch has recorded 87 unlawful Saudi-led coalition assaults since March 2015, some of which may be war crimes. Home, market, hospital, school, and mosque strikes killed almost 1,000 victims. Human Rights Watch also found at least 18 coalition assaults that used internationally illegal cluster munitions, killing and injuring people. Saudi Arabia does not sign the Cluster Munitions Convention.

Human rights violations by Saudi Arabia continued in 2016 for its war against the Houthis in Yemen, which killed thousands of civilians. The UN and NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International alleged some Saudi-led airstrikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate and failed to safeguard civilians. Houthi-Saleh militias also staged cross-border assaults into Saudi territory, firing missiles and artillery into southern Saudi Arabia throughout the year, killing a few Saudi civilians, supporting Saudi Arabia’s claim of self-defense. The coalition created a section to assess allegations of disproportionate civilian casualties from coalition attacks. No prosecutions followed recommendations.

In 2017, the UN called the conflict, in which both parties violated international law, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UN called the coalition’s indiscriminate civilian targeting “may amount to war crimes” and urged its allies, including the UK, to uphold international law. The Saudi coalition’s use of globally illegal cluster munitions—some of them UK-made—grew. Ahmad al-Asiri, the coalition’s spokesperson, said that cluster bombs were exclusively used against “legitimate military objectives” to prevent civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia.

The prominent critic of the Saudi Government Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The murder of the US based journalist went viral and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was widely criticized. 

In 2019, the Saudi-led coalition bombed Yemen’s Houthi rebels, killing and maiming thousands. Conflict exacerbated humanitarian tragedy. 37 Saudis were killed countrywide on April 23, 2019. 33 Shias were wrongfully convicted of protesting, spying, and terrorism. Similar abuses continued in the following year, when the Saudi-led coalition resumed its military operations against the Houthi rebel organization in Yemen in 2020, including scores of unlawful airstrikes that killed and maimed thousands of people.

The Un panel on experts in Yemen said the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s committed abuses that most likely amount to war crimes and other significant international law violations. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 7,825 civilians had been killed in the violence since 2015, including 2,138 children, and 12,416 wounded. Coalition airstrikes caused most of these deaths. The Armed Conflict and Event Data Project estimates 112,000 deaths from the fighting, including 12,000 civilians.
Similar abuses continued in the following year, with HRW reporting about multiple attacks being carried out in Yemen by the coalition in January 2022, in apparent violation of the laws of war that resulted in at least 80 apparently civilian deaths. Simultaneously, dozens of human rights activists continued to serve long prison sentences for advocating for political and rights reforms or criticizing the royal family, such as activist Raif Badawi.  

Despite this catalog of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Saudi Arabia.  Human rights abuses continue.