Saudi Arabia, which is fighting a brutal war in Yemen, is having to fight on a second, diplomatic front to maintain access to British and American-made arms.
Foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir was in London in early September, giving media interviews, speeches and trying to charm MPs away from supporting an arms embargo on the country. His visit coincided with news that a parliamentary committee was preparing to issue a report which called for arms sales to Riyadh to be halted.
A draft version of the report seen by the BBC concluded that it was “inevitable” that British-made weapons had been used to violate international humanitarian and human rights laws in Yemen and that arms exports to Saudi Arabia should be suspended.
In the U.S., there has also been considerable opposition to a $1.15bn deal to sell tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, led by Republican Senator Rand Paul.
The relationship is big business for defence companies in the U.S. and Britain. The two countries are by far the largest suppliers of arms to Riyadh, accounting for $2.6bn of the $3.2bn spent by Saudi Arabia on weapons last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Since 2010, the U.S. has sold $4.9bn worth of arms, while Britain has sold $3.5bn.
There is plenty for Riyadh’s Western allies to fret about. A report issued by the UN in April noted that the Saudi-led coalition killed 510 children and injured a further 667 in Yemen last year (opposition Houthi forces were responsible for 142 deaths and 247 injuries). Of 101 attacks on schools and hospitals in 2015, 48% were attributed to the coalition, 29% to the Houthis and 20% to unidentified perpetrators.
Al Jubeir insists that his country is blameless. “I think a lot of it is vastly exaggerated,” he told an audience at the Chatham House think-tank in London on September 7. “The Houthi-Saleh have turned schools and hospitals and mosques into command and control centres. they have turned them into weapons depots and in a way they are no longer civilian targets. They may have been a school a year ago, they were not a school when they were bombed.”
Others say that at least some of the bombed civilian facilities were still being used for their advertised purpose. Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says its clinics have been hit four times, the latest being the bombing of Abs hospital in Hajjah governorate on August 15. Since then, the charity has pulled its staff out of northern Yemen, saying that it is “neither satisfied nor reassured by the Saudi-led coalition’s statement that this attack [on Abs hospital] was a mistake.”