Embroiled in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is leading a regional bloc of Sunni countries vying for dominance in the wake of Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.
The increasing humanitarian toll from these conflicts, coupled with a poor human rights record both at home and on the battlefield, has led to increased scrutiny on Western arms sales to Riyadh, with various groups calling for an end to the practice.
The matter reached a crescendo in the UK last week, when the High Court denied a petition by The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to halt weapons sales to the Kingdom. CAAT, which immediately vowed to appeal the decision, argued that such trade is in contravention of UK and EU law, which prevents granting export licenses in cases where there is a “clear risk” that the arms could be used in “serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
In the case of Yemen, specifically, the horrors of war have caused utter devastation. More than 10,000 people have been killed since March 2015, when Houthi rebels completed their takeover of the capital Sanaa, forcing the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. Foreign intervention immediately followed, transforming the battle into a broader proxy conflict, pitting a Saudi-led coalition aiming to reinstall Hadi (he and members of his cabinet have since returned to the southern city Aden) against Iranian-backed forces, who are also supported by former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Both sides have been accused of war crimes, with constant aerial bombardments and intense urban fighting having forced millions from their homes and pushed much of Yemen’s population – already the poorest in the region before the war’s outbreak – to the brink of starvation.
Iolanda Jaquemet, Middle East spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), described to The Media Line the situation’s direness: “The armed conflict has left the health infrastructure and the public services sector on the verge of collapse. Yemen is the perfect storm,” she stated.
Without clean drinking water, basic sanitation and access to adequate medical services (the ICRC estimates that only 1/3 of medicines earmarked for Yemen are actually entering the country due to “severe restriction” on imports), sickness has become a way of life for Yemenis; the latest plague an outbreak of cholera, with over 313,000 cases in just the last 10 weeks resulting in over 1,700 fatalities.
Jaquemet warns that there can be no sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis until there is an end the fighting.
It is within this context that CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith called the UK court’s decision “a green light” for London to continue supporting human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, and said it exposed the UK’s “toxic relationship” with Riyadh.
It is a relationship not immune to criticism, which, ironically, usually targets one of Saudi Arabia’s own controversial exports; namely, Wahhabism, a potentially virulent strain of Islam whose principles form the ideological foundation of the very terrorist groups Western countries—and, ostensibly, Saudi Arabia itself—are struggling to combat.
And while the UK is estimated to have provided Riyadh with some $4.25 billion worth of arms since the military intervention in Yemen in 2015, the figure pales in comparison to that supplied by the United States.
During his visit to the Kingdom in March, US President Donald Trump raised eyebrows by announcing an arms deal with the Saudis totaling some $110 billion. Saudi Arabia has long depended on American weaponry, and troops, for its defense, but the staggering number makes conspicuous the country’s conscientious—and contentious—military buildup.
In fact, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one of the leading trackers of global defense spending, Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer between 2012 and 2016—an increase of 212 per cent compared with 2007-11—with more than 50% of these weapons coming from the US (approximately 85% came from Western countries overall).
Dr. Aude Fleurant, Director of the Arms and Military Expenditure Program at the SIPRI, told the Media Line that it is very difficult—if not impossible— to determine how, and where, all of the weaponry is being used: “Saudi Arabia is not a very transparent country in terms of military expenditures, with virtually no explanation in its annual report of what is—or what’s not—incorporated, including information on purchases.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Fleurant continues, “We believe that a large amount of the ammunition supplied by the US to Saudi Arabia, which includes artillery and missiles, is being used in Yemen.”
This reality has likewise caused American lawmakers to rethink Washington’s longstanding position. Last month, an unprecedented bill to block a $500 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh was narrowly defeated in the Senate.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the legislation, said the effort nonetheless sent a “strong message” to Saudi Arabia.
To date, analysts and policymakers have tended to tip-toe along the fine line between the West’s reinforcement of its own political and economic interests in the Middle East—achieved in large part through bilateral military cooperation (i.e. arms sales, training, etc…)—and the facilitation of humanitarian disasters.
Often invoked as justification is the age-old adage of “choosing the lesser of two evils” (arming Saudi Arabia in its fight against the Islamic State or Iranian terror proxies, for example, is preferable to allowing murderous entities create a “Wild Wild East,” or the West becoming deeply entangled in another Middle East conflict, so the reasoning goes). Even so, caught in the crosshairs are thousands of innocents, whose lives are stamped out by explosions caused by weaponry “Made in the US” or “Made in Britain.”
A delicate balancing act, indeed.