Citing the “disastrous humanitarian situation” caused by Saudi Arabian military action in Yemen, the European Parliament approved a measure to block E.U. member states from selling arms to Gulf state.
While the arms embargo isn’t a binding measure, it is sends a strong message to E.U. countries to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf state launched an air campaign in Yemen last March, after Houthi rebels seized the country’s capital. Saudi Arabia and its allies see the Houthi militants, who are backed by Iran, as an effort of Shia groups to establish a foothold on the predominately Sunni-led Arabian peninsula.
Across the Atlantic, there has not been a similar recalibration of ties with Saudi Arabia. In November, the State Department approved the sale of $1.29 billion worth of smart bombs to Saudi Arabia.
That’s despite the fact that more than than 2,500 civilians have been killed since the conflict began, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights’ organization has attributed most of those deaths to airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. The group documented numerous instances in which Saudi-led forces “unlawfully failed to discriminate between civilians and combatants.”
The United Nations has also faulted Saudi Arabia with indiscriminately killing civilians.
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“I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high a concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – in particular hospitals and schools – by all parties to the conflict, although a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by [Saudi] Coalition forces,” the U.N.’s human rights’ chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in December.
The United Kingdom, in particular, has been closely intertwined in the conflict, having sold up to £3 billion (about $4 billion) to Saudi Arabia and deployed military personal to oversee its operations.
The call to cut economic ties with the Gulf state has mirrored its surge in executions in recent years. Saudi Arabian authorities executed 158 people to death last year, and opened 2016 with a mass execution of 47 men. Rights’ groups have also raised alarm for harsh sentences like flogging for non-criminal offences such as blogging or participating in protests.
More than 700,000 people have signed on to a petition by Avaaz to urge the countries that supply it with arms to cut off its deals.
Saudi Arabia has been the second largest arms importer in the world since 2011.
While the E.U. decision will put pressure on European countries to cut off military contracts with the country, there may well be pushback from British authorities, including Prime Minister David Cameron who has called the Gulf state “important for our security.”
That’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by the Saudi Ambassador to the U.K.
Amid the heightened scrutiny for his country, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz wrote in an op-ed that the two countries enjoy a “mutually beneficial strategic partnership.”
“If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk,” he continued. “We want this relationship to continue but we will not be lectured to by anyone.”