You are here: UNA-UK statement on UK-Saudi relations

9 January 2019

Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen since 2015 has done little to dent UK-Saudi bilateral relations. UNA-UK feels a review of the UK’s own relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is long overdue.

UN-led consultations held in Sweden from 6 to 13 December between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group mean that timing such a pivot will have to be carefully considered, but we believe that an overhaul of the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is necessary and that the Government should begin recalibrating this relationship on an urgent basis.

“The world’s worst humanitarian crisis”

UNA-UK welcomes recent political progress between the warring parties in Yemen. If it can be sustained, the ceasefire in Hodeidah and the UN-supported administration of the port will do much to alleviate suffering. We hope that the new momentum behind a political process which has the United Nations at its heart, will bring further progress towards lasting peace.

However, the war continues to perpetuate the world's worst humanitarian crisis, a crisis that the ceasefire in Hodeidah will only partly address. 15.9 million people – 53 percent of the population – face severe acute food insecurity. 65,000 are currently experiencing "catastrophic famine" - in other words they are starving at this moment. Were it not for humanitarian assistance, this number would rise to a quarter of a million. UN experts have repeatedly reported that war crimes may have been committed by all parties, including Saudi Arabia.

We therefore believe it is important for the UK to draw lessons from previous failures to make progress, including to ensure it guards against potential complicity in situations of mass atrocity.

UK-Saudi relations

UNA-UK believes in the power of diplomacy, engagement and multilateral institutions. However, that engagement must be based on a clearsighted understanding of the situation and a thorough analysis of the power dynamics in the relationship. The Government's current relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia fails to demonstrate those qualities, as has been clear in relation to the UK’s arms export policy, and to its approach – to Yemen and other issues – at the Security Council and other UN forums.

UK arms export control

The UK has a longstanding arms export relationship with Saudi Arabia spanning many decades and Governments. Since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015, the UK has licenced the export of arms exports worth over £4.5bn to the Saudis, including for combat aircraft, bombs and missiles.

During this period, a number of UN reports have pointed to credible evidence that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for war crimes in Yemen – from using the starvation as “an instrument of war” to the indiscriminate bombing of funerals, weddings and health facilities. The coalition itself admitted that it was responsible for bombing a school bus killing 40 children. In August 2018, a UN report called on the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict. Despite this, UK support continues – in the form of exports, military training and political backing.

In 2016, the UK Government rejected the advice of two cross-party UK parliamentary committees to suspend exports to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Denmark, Finland and Norway have announced that they will not grant new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia, while Germany, Saudi Arabia’s fourth largest exporter (behind the US, the UK and France), has said it will suspend existing licences and not grant future licences. Greece and Switzerland have also halted or cancelled certain arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Even in the United States, a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia, the Senate voted to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. While this bipartisan initiative eventually stalled in the House of Representatives, it was a highly significant and rare rebuke of US military involvement overseas, and mounting pressure for the US to recalibrate its relationship with the Kingdom.

Given the UK’s championing of the Arms Trade Treaty, which requires states parties to refuse exports when there is significant risk that they may be used to commit war crimes, UNA-UK believes that the UK should be ahead, not behind, the curve on this issue.

UK Security council policy

Within the UN Security Council, too, questions have been raised about the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The UK is the nominal lead or ‘penholder’ on Yemen at the Council and has attracted criticism over the past three years for the lack of substantive Council statements and resolutions on the crisis. A former UK ambassador to the UN suggested that “the pen was paralysed in the UK’s hand”. Those statements that were agreed were perceived as being biased towards Saudi Arabia.

In December, the Council finally passed a resolution endorsing the outcomes of the Swedish peace talks. While it fell short of the hopes of parts of civil society, the resolution is a useful step in cementing the progress made thus far. However, the process followed once again highlighted the impact of the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Negotiations on the text were drawn out due to the position of the United States and of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who reportedly “threw a fit” in relation to a previous effort to draft a resolution after being consulted by the British Foreign Secretary Hunt during a visit to the Middle East. The UK appeared reluctant to take a firm stance with its allies in the face of vacillating policies which too often put geopolitical powerplays ahead of the prevention of suffering. It also appeared to give Saudi Arabia too much sway over Security Council outputs, as exemplified by the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Riyadh.

The UN Security Council has unique coercive powers within the international system. These powers must be used to bring atrocities to a halt and their perpetrators to justice. This will not be achieved if alleged perpetrators are given effective approval of a resolution's text.

Perceptions of preferential treatment to Saudi Arabia serve to undermine the UK's ability to act as an honest broker at the Security Council, and generate questions over the propriety of the UK continuing as "penholder". 

Wider UK foreign policy

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, has embarked upon a foreign policy strategy which is wholly incompatible with a rules-based global system. While this is not the place for a detailed analysis of UK-Saudi relations, further examples of unsupportable behaviour include:

  • Launching a blockade on the nation of Qatar, blackmailing the nation with a list of demands including the closure of Al Jazeera
  • Kidnapping the Prime Minister of Lebanon and coercing him into (briefly) resigning
  • Suspending trade to Canada after they tweeted criticism of the nation's record on women’s rights
  • Seemingly ordering the murder of a journalist within the grounds of Saudi Arabia's Turkish Embassy

The UK may feel that the financial benefits of the Saudi relationship – to the UK arms industry and as a consequence of the sovereign wealth that is invested in the UK – outweigh the cost to the UK's diplomatic credibility and global authority. However, UNA-UK believes that the cost in terms of UK credibility – not to mention Yemeni lives – is far too great, and that a course correction is sorely needed.

Global rules and global systems

The situation also exposes the need for structural changes to the way in which the Security Council operates. First, the penholder system, a mechanism of convenience by which the Council’s permanent members – particularly France, the US and UK – have accrued responsibility for certain issues, is clearly no longer convenient or appropriate. UNA-UK believes it should be replaced or reformed.

Second, more needs to be done to address the Council’s inability to act when a veto-wielding permanent member prevents it from taking effective action, as Russia has done in the case of Syria and the US and UK did for many months in the case of Yemen. The UN has a process for such circumstances: UN General Assembly Resolution 377 (known as "Uniting for Peace") which allows the Assembly to consider matters where a “failure of unanimity” prevents the Security Council from acting.

UNA-UK has previously called for the Uniting for Peace mechanism to be used in the case of Syria to move discussion to the General Assembly and circumvent Russian intransigence. While the Security Council gridlock appears to have momentarily subsided in the case of Yemen, any future failings should lead much more rapidly to negotiation shifting to the General Assembly.

Photo: London Demonstration against the Crown Prince, March 2018. Credit: CC by Alisdare Hickson - https://www.flickr.com/photos/alisdare/25818921647/, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link