Saudi Arabia's standing is damaged despite ruling on arms exports
The that the UK acted lawfully in granting export licences to UK firms selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen conflict may be a relief to the government, but does little to clean up Britain’s relationship with Riyadh, let alone bring an end to the desperate civil war in Yemen.
The judgment is a reflection on the way in which the government came to its decision rather than its wisdom. The ruling said the Saudi bombing campaign probably breached international humanitarian law, but that was for the UK government and not the court to assess.
The ruling is also likely to lead to political pressure for the law on arms sales to be tightened so the threshold for barring sales is lowered.
Labour has already said it would ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In the US, similar pressure for an arms ban is mounting. Saudi Arabia is suffering damage to its reputation. A poll by YouGov published in the last few days showed 66% of the UK population have an unfavourable view of Saudi Arabia. In France and Germany the figure is closer to 75%. Even in the US, the balance of opinion is turning against the Saudis, one of Washington’s closest allies. Patience with Riyadh is ebbing further in European capitals now that it has .
It hardly helps the Saudi’s standing that the Foreign Office won the case brought by the largely due to evidence provided by the UK security services in closed court. The UK-Saudi relationship is shrouded in too much secrecy – a government report into the overseas funding of extremism in the UK, in which Saudi charities are certain to feature prominently, remains unpublished.
Similarly a Foreign Office report on a new Gulf strategy has been written, but marked for “ministerial eyes only”. Post-Brexit the UK government regards the Gulf as critical to future economic performance, but little is said in public about how this relationship is to develop.
A more open relationship would require the Saudis to make a big cultural shift, including explaining openly how they intend to conduct and win the war in .
The new UK Middle East minister, Alistair Burt, a returnee to the Foreign Office, has a chance to turn a new page with the Saudis and demand they improve the conduct of their air campaign in Yemen. The previous minister, Tobias Ellwood, now at the Ministry of Defence, became locked into a defensive posture demanding the Saudis be more open, but then rarely upbraided them in public when they failed to publish prompt and clear assessments of why specific raids had gone wrong.
No military likes advertising their failures, but the Saudis have been neuralgic. There has also been concern that the Saudis were not straightforward with the UK government over the use of British-supplied cluster munitions.
Similarly the UK has often been evasive about whether it is training Saudi pilots in the war in Yemen, or just helping the pilots with post-air strike assessments.
A plethora of select committees in both the Lords and Commons have argued for a tougher line on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Ministers, armed with this court judgment, can doubtless dismiss the complaints of Labour, but two Conservatives, Lord Howell, the chairman of the Lords international relations committee, and Lady Helic, the former special adviser to Lord Hague as foreign secretary, only last week called for suspension of offensive weapons to . The issue is not just one of legal niceties about international humanitarian law played out in private, but moral issues about how civilian lives are protected in war.
Above all the high court ruling brings no one any closer to an end to the conflict in Yemen between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, and the UN- and Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Saudis in launching the war believed the Houthis could be rapidly defeated by superior air firepower. It has not worked out like that. The war has entered its third year and as many as 13,000 civilians have been killed or injured. The country with more than 300,000 suspected cases in the last two months. On Monday the International Committee of the Red Cross said the cholera epidemic “continues to spiral out of control” since it erupted in April. More than 21 million people are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, and at least 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes since March 2015.
If the conflict continues indefinitely, the danger is that Islamic State will thrive. In that context, the legal arguments in the Royal Courts of Justice matter, but are dwarfed by the scale of the regional conflict.