How The US And UK Empowered The Saudis To Kill Civilians

New government figures show that British companies sold $1.5 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia in just three months

Jan 23, 2016 at 4:00 PM ET

Saudi Arabia’s crushing military campaign in Yemen, which has claimed thousands of innocent lives, has been made possible by billions of dollars worth of bombs supplied by the United Kingdom and the United States.

British arms sales to Saudi Arabia surged more than a hundredfold over the summer as the Gulf kingdom ramped up its punishing air war against its southern neighbor, the Arab world’s poorest country. U.K. defense companies sold more than $1.5 billion in bombs and missiles to the Saudis between July and September 2015, according to a tally by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

That figure, buried in a 357-page document published this week, is an 11,000 percent increase from the previous three-month period, when the British sold $12.7 million worth of bombs to Saudi Arabia. The recent sales also comprise more than eight-tenths of the $1.8 billion in British bombs peddled to the kingdom since 2008, data compiled by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, a U.K.-based non-governmental organization that seeks to curb the proliferation of weapons around the world, shows.

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In November, the U.S. approved its own $1.29 billion deal to replenish Saudi Arabia’s dwindling arsenal with a haul that included more than 5,000 laser-guided bombs and 1,500 BLU-109 “bunker busters” as well as an assortment of 12,000 other bombs and explosive devices.

Beginning in March, the Saudis spearheaded an Arab military coalition campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who the kingdom and its allies accuse of being proxies for regional rival Iran. The Houthis, who toppled Yemen’s Saudi-backed government last year, deny this, as does Iran. More than 2,800 civilians have now been killed during the fighting, the vast majority by Arab coalition airstrikes, according to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The fighter jets and weapons, including cluster bombs, that Saudi Arabia and its allies have been employing in the Yemen campaign, have largely come from the U.S. and the U.K. Both London and Washington have also provided enhanced intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi’s punishing airstrikes, U.S. and British officials say.

Revelations of the spike in British bomb sales come as Prime Minister David Cameron faces mounting allegations that he’s quietly led the UK into a chaotic Middle East conflict. This week the debate over Yemen came to a boil when opposition leaders in Parliament clashed with Cameron during his weekly question-and-answer session in the House of Commons.

“Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force and they’ve done that using British-built planes, with pilots who are trained by British instructors, dropping British-made bombs, who are coordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisors,” charged Angus Robertson of the Scottish National Party. “Isn’t it time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilians lives and he has not sought parliamentary approval to do this?” 

“It’s in our interest to back the legitimate government of Yemen,” Cameron responded. “We have some of the most stringent arms control procedures of any country in the world.”


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Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused Saudi Arabia of committing war crimes in Yemen.

On the whole, British defense companies have sold nearly $8 billion in arms, fighter jets and other military equipment to Riyadh since Cameron took office in 2010, Campaign Against the Arms Trade reports. The U.S. State Department approved more than twice that amount in arms sales to the Saudis in the last ten months, when the kingdom’s war in Yemen began, according to figures compiled by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

To date, there’s been no debate about U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in Congress.