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UK spent £2.4m to help Saudi Arabia 'comply with international law'

Kalila Sangster
·3 min read
 Anti-arms trade activist holds a placard during a protest outside the annual black-tie dinner of the Aerospace, Defence and Security Group at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London. The ADS Group, a London-headquartered non-profit trade organisation, represents and supports more than 1,000 British businesses involved in the aerospace, defence and security and space sectors. The protest was called by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Stop The Arms Fair pressure groups, citing in particular sales of UK-made weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia, which continues to strike Houthi rebels in Yemen in a five-year war that has killed over 100,000 people and left millions more suffering. (Photo by David Cliff / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Anti-arms trade activist holds a placard during a protest in London, January 2020. Photo: David Cliff/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

The UK has spent £2.4m ($3.3m) to help Saudi Arabia’s military comply with international humanitarian law over the past four years.

The figures were discovered through parliamentary questions — a formal way for members of parliament to seek information by obliging ministers to explain and defend the work, policy decisions and actions of their departments.

This marks the first time the UK has revealed the amount spent on secretive funds to the sent to Saudi Arabia.

Campaign group the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) said this means British taxpayers’ money has been used to back the Gulf state’s military.

James Cleverly, a Foreign Office minister, said in October that the UK funded British troops to help Saudi Arabia “protect its national security” and to “support the Saudi military’s compliance with international humanitarian law.”

In December, in response to a further question from Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Martyn Day, the defence minister, James Heappey, said in a letter that the amount came to £2.4m since 2016, including £550,000 between 2019 and 2020.

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Saudi Arabia has been accused of bombing and killing civilians in Yemen where thousands of civilians have been killed since the civil war began in March 2015, mainly from indiscriminate bombing by a Saudi-led coalition, supplied by western arms makers, according to Bird.

The funds sent from the UK involved Britain in “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Bird said.

The money comes mainly from the secretive Integrated Activity Fund, now renamed the Gulf Strategy Fund, a pool for money which the UK spends on the six Gulf states. Its budget was £20m a year until it was forced down to £8.4m due to COVID-19.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of Bird, said: “It is deeply disturbing that the UK government is spending taxpayers’ money bolstering the Saudi’s military capacity.”

Saudi Arabia has been accused of causing many of the estimated 8,750 civilian deaths in airstrikes and, despite the raids decreasing during 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the attacks have continued, according to the Yemen Data Project.

UK ministers have signed off sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, including now-prime minister Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary. Johnson approved the sale of Paveway guided missiles to the country in August 2016, a few days after an airstrike on a potato factory had killed 14 civilians.

The government had until recently refused to say how the Gulf Strategy Fund’s cash was spent, citing national security exemptions, amid accusations that it may be linked to serious human rights abuses.

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However, there were signs of more transparency in 2020. In October, Cleverly told a Westminster Hall debate that the UK was confident “that we are having a significant positive impact on human rights in the region” because of the activity of the Gulf Strategy Fund. He said the governance of the fund had been increased and that a summary of its work would be published.

The UK and Saudi Arabia have long had a close military and strategic relationship, with the UK providing arms through BAE Systems (BA.L), generating £2.5bn to £3bn a year for the British defence, security, and aerospace company, according to the Guardian.

The UK also saids the Gulf kingdom by providing direct military services, including 17 service personnel currently working within Saudi Arabia's military, including three in its air operations centre.

Day, the SNP MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, said the UK was “not content with merely profiting from arming Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen.”

He said: “I am shocked to find that the UK government has also covertly funnelled millions of pounds through secretive funds to train the Saudi armed forces.”

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