Decision to suspend sales of precision-guided munitions over high civilian death toll leaves UK diplomatically exposed
A Yemeni boy inspects the damage at a sports hall partially destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sana’a. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images
The US is preparing to halt planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the high death toll among civilians in the kingdom’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
Obama administration officials were quoted on Reuters, who broke the story, saying that the “systematic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting drove the US decision to halt a future weapons sale involving precision-guided munitions”.
“We’ve decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs (precision-guided munitions),” a US official said.
“That’s obviously a direct reflection of the concerns that we have about Saudi strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties.”
A second official confirmed the decision to suspend the sale of certain weaponry.
The US move would leave the UK exposed diplomatically and faced with an awkward dilemma because of the scale of its arms sales to the kingdom and the presence of UK military personnel at the Saudi headquarters from where the bombing campaign is being conducted.
Andrew Smith of the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said: “Like the US, the UK has licensed billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi forces. Like their US counterparts, UK arms companies have fuelled and profited from the destruction taking place. If even the US is questioning its support for Saudi Arabia, then why is the UK government pulling out all stops to support them? Why are human rights regarded as less important than arms company profits?”
Brendan O’Hara, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said the party had been urging the UK government to suspend arms sales to Saudi. “It is something the government has resisted and it must be embarrassing that the US takes the lead in suspending arms sales. How bad does a regime have to be for the UK government to act?” he asked.
The UK has staff at Saudi headquarters who are involved in giving advice on targeting. The UK Ministry of Defence has repeatedly said that its advice is limited to whether the targets comply with international law and that it does not help choose the targets.
But the US criticism of the Saudi targeting will raise even more questions about the UK presence. The US is to offer Saudi Arabia training in targeting.
Human rights organisations have protested about the scale of the bombing in the almost two-year-long Saudi action against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. Yemen has become caught between Saudi and Iran, one of the proxy wars that the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, complained about in criticism of the Gulf kingdom that earned him a rebuke by Downing Street.
Reuters reported that a specific arms sale already put on hold appeared to involve the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of guidance systems manufactured by Raytheon Co that convert dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions that can more accurately hit their targets.
The UK has licensed over £3.3bn worth of arms to Saudi forces since the bombing of Yemen began and is engaged in negotiations to sell a new generation of fighter jets to the Saudi military.
UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are currently subject to a judicial review, following an application by CAAT. A three-day review will take place in front of two judges in February.