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Why Britain assists the crimes of Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia continues to wage a brutal, yet profitable war in Yemen. Nick Clark explains the role of western imperialism
Issue 2742
Protesting against Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salmans visit to London in 2018
Protesting against Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to London in 2018 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Even the US has said it will stop arming Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. But Britain insists it will keep the bombs coming.

US president Joe Biden announced earlier this month that the US no longer supported the war, and would end “relevant” arms sales.

This has little to do with concern for ordinary people. Biden is trying to cut a deal with Iran, whose allies Saudi Arabia are fighting in Yemen.

Still, Labour politicians—and even some Tories—expected the British government to follow suit.

Again this was more about not being “out of step with our allies”, as Labour’s Lisa Nandy put it than it was about the lives of Yemenis. But the government refused.

Martin Butcher of charity Oxfam said the arms sales show, “UK politicians have put profit before Yemeni lives.”


There are huge sums of money involved. Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest customer of Britain’s weapons industry.

Britain has sold at least £16 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the war began in 2015.

But there’s more to Britain’s murky relationship with Saudi Arabia than weapons deals.

Whenever politicians are made to defend them, they usually talk about the importance of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

But sometimes they hint at the real point.

In a debate in parliament in 2019, two Tory MPs argued that if Britain cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, then Russia or China would take its place.

It would “anchor that country in the orbit of Russia or China, as the Iranian regime already is,” said MP Julian Lewis.

For western politicians, selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is about much more than the profits of the arms dealers.

It’s also about shoring up a relationship that keeps Saudi Arabia on its side.

British politicians are desperate to make sure they’re the ones that do it.

Saudi Arabia was always important to Britain.

The British Empire backed the regime’s founders as part of the carve-up of the Middle East after the First World War.

The state developed with close political and economic ties to Britain.

Gulf oil profits flowed through the City of London, even as the US replaced Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East.

Even as Saudi Arabia looks for ways to break away from the oil industry, Britain wants to make sure it’s involved.

The shadow Gulf Strategy Fund is a £20 million a year pot of money that Britain sets aside solely for spending on Saudi Arabia and its neighbours.

Some of this is invested in new infrastructure and industry as the Saudi regime is trying to develop.

Military ties are part of this too.

The Tories won’t reveal much of what it’s spent on as at least some of it involves the security services.

But £2.4 million of the fund has gone on Saudi Arabia’s army.


Arms deals, trade and politics go hand in hand.

Tory defence secretary, Michael Heseltine put the relationship like this in 1989. “Saudis should have a continuing relationship with this country.

“They want the kit and they are going to get it from somewhere. So why shouldn’t we sell it?”

Boris Johnson made the same argument as foreign secretary in 2016.

Ditching Saudi Arabia, he said, would mean “vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other Western countries.”

So the US can end some of its own arms sales to Saudi Arabia, knowing that Britain will take up the slack.

In return, Britain clings on to some kind of influence—all at the cost of Yemeni lives.

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