A look into the long-running UK-Saudi military cooperation
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is currently in London on a three-day visit that experts believe is aimed at boosting military ties between the two sides. His arrival was marked by a wave of protests against Riyadh’s human rights violations and its deadly war on Yemen, for which the UK has been a sponsor.
In April 2013, when the United Nations voted to adopt the so-called Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), then UK Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to welcome the move, saying the multilateral agreement will help “save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world.” The ATT entered force a year later.
The world has come a long way since then. In 2015, Saudi Arabia, using weapons provided by the UK and a host of other countries, launched a ruthless air campaign against its impoverished southern neighbor, Yemen.
Around three years on and over 13,600 civilian deaths later, London is widely viewed as an accomplice in the Saudi atrocities in Yemen and one of the main violators of the ATT, the very treaty that Cameron said London was “proud” to be a part of.
According to Amnesty International, the UK issued a total of 152 licenses for exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, topping £2.94 billion for a long list of weapons, including bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles.
The UK’s total earnings from the war, according to reports from last September, soared to a hefty £6 billion.
The numbers only include the officially announced deals and there is a growing fear that London and Riyadh have been making more deals in secret in order to avoid public pressure.
The extensive arms deals between Saudi Arabia and the UK and its relationship to the deadly Saudi air campaign on Yemen can be traced back to 1986, when the UK signed a £5 billion contract to provide the Saudi regime with 72 Tornado fighter jets, 30 Hawk advanced trainer aircraft and 30 Swiss licensed Pilatus PC-9 trainer planes.
Dubbed the al-Yamamah, or the Dove, the contract saw an eager Britain halt Tornado purchases by its own Royal Air Force (RAF) to meet its contract obligations with Saudi Arabia.
The deal prompted Jordan, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition today, to strike a £270 million arms deal with London.
The 2nd Dove
Only two years later, the UK and Saudi Arabia signed the al-Yamamah II, which was described then by some experts as “the biggest [UK] sale ever of anything, to anyone.”
Britain never disclosed the real value of the deal, but unofficial data estimated it to be around £10 billion. However, much higher numbers of up to £50 billion were also predicted for the deal in the long-run.
The agreement is said to have included 40-50 more Tornados, up to 60 Hawks, one or two airbases, along with a number of smaller airplanes for communication purposes and up to 80 helicopters, including several Black Hawks built under US license.
The UK even considered giving Saudis a £2 billion bank loan to keep the deals alive.
Despite the sheer size of the contracts, cash shortages on Riyadh’s part as well as its new-found interest in more advanced French and American technologies caused delays in the completion of the deals. But by late 1990s, almost all of the weapons had been delivered.
Following up on their long history of military cooperation, London and Riyadh signed an “Understanding Document” in December 2005 which involved the reported sale of at least 72 UK-made Euro fighter Typhoon aircraft to replace Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Tornados and other fighter jets.
Although no details were released, reports suggested the deal cost Riyadh some £4.43 billion while the full weapons system was expected to push the costs all the way up to approximately £10 billion.
Follow-up reports in 2006 stated that the final Typhoon order might reach 100 and the al-Salam agreement could be expanded to include an upgrade of the aging Tornado aircraft operated by the RSAF.
There was also talk of adequate training for transition of Saudi pilots to the advanced Typhoons as well as a new trainer jet that would replace the RSAF’s Hawk 65 family.
In 2012, The UK agreed to provide 22 more Hawks to Saudi Arabia’s air force.
Today, British-made military aircraft form a large part of the RSAF, the main division of the Saudi military involved in the war against Yemen.
Besides 88 Tornado fighter jets, the RSAF operates around 70 Hawk trainer jets and some 72 Typhoons. All three models are built by British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems.
In late February, BAE said it was looking forward to a possible deal with Saudi Arabia for as many as 48 more Typhoons.
In addition to soaring aircraft sales, Britain’s export of bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia has increased by nearly 500 percent since March 2015, when the Yemen war started.
The UK government had approved £33 million worth of licenses covering the sale of bombs, missiles and countermeasures to the Riyadh regime, according to the UK-based NGO Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).
In the two years since the beginning of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, the figure rose to £1.9 billion, up by 457 percent.
The UK has also admitted to selling banned weapons, including 500 cluster bombs, to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. There is mounting evidence that Saudi pilots have dropped some of these weapons on Yemeni civilian targets.
The Brexit factor
Faced with grim economic projections for the next few years, after the completion of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, London has been frantically searching for new weapons buyers as part of a broader strategy to secure as many trade deals as possible.
The push for more arms sales has on several occasions led to the government’s breach of its own rules about avoiding business with repressive regimes that violate their citizens’ rights.
Before resigning from his post over a sexual scandal last year, former UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon asked British lawmakers to stop criticizing the country’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying such criticism “is not helpful.”
In February 2017, London proposed a UN Security Council praise of Riyadh and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates, for pledging funds to ease a humanitarian crisis of their own making in Yemen. Perhaps now we know why.