Department for International Trade statistics prompt accusations of ‘shameful profiteering’ from conflict in Yemen
British sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia topped £1.1bn in the first half of this year, with government data showing a spike in sales since the spring.
The statistics from the Department for International Trade (DIT) show the UK sold £836m of arms and military hardware to Saudi Arabia between April and June, up from £280m between January and March.
Saudi Arabia – which was visited by the UK prime minister, Theresa May, as one of her first trips after triggering the formal Brexit process in March – has purchased arms including air-to-air missiles, aircraft components and sniper rifles. The sales also include anti-riot gear, ballistic shields and body armour.
The latest export licence figures are released amid continued concern over the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. DIT is facing criticism after it was revealed that UK soldiers were carrying out demonstrations for weapons manufacturers. The department refused to say which countries had attended.
DIT said identifying the delegations would “prejudice the relationship between the UK and other states”. A freedom of information request by the Observershowed British forces were involved in demonstrating the Firestorm targeting systems, used by Gulf coalition forces involved in airstrikes in Yemen.
The department added that the increase in the value of licences issued this quarter was due to a single licence for approximately £830m, originally granted in 2015 which expired without being completed.
A government spokesperson said the licence was “not for use in any ground campaign” and the majority of the export licences issued by the UK were for non-military goods, though their value is far lower. The goods include intelligence equipment, such as telecommunications jamming and security software.
The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, said the huge sums were “shameful profiteering by the arms companies from a conflict which has killed thousands of civilians and subjected millions to famine and disease”.
Swinson said the government should immediately suspend arms sales to Saudi, regardless of the cost. “There is no justification for the UK to continue selling billions of pounds worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue their operation in Yemen,” she added.
“We must suspend arms sales to Saudi immediately. Britain is better than this – we should stand firm for our values, not sell them to the highest bidder.”
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said in her party conference speech last month that a Labour government would overhaul the process of approving export licences, which she said currently took place “behind closed doors, and shrouded in secrecy”.
Thornberry said Labour would commit to “wholesale reform of the legal and regulatory framework fully implementing the International Arms Trade Treaty”, and introduce a new, more transparent system.
A government spokesman said: “The UK government takes its export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.
We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, and have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes.”
A legal action forcing the government to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia failed in the high court in July. Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought the case, is appealing against the decision.