The UK Must Change its Policy Approach to Saudi Arabia

James Firebrace, a retired British diplomat, and Sherine El-Taraboulsi, of the Overseas Development Institute, wrote an op-ed outlining recommendations for the UK government regarding its engagement with Saudi Arabia. The UK has the potential to exert influence over peace processes in the Middle East, but its current support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen undermines its moral standing and dedication to humanitarian principles. In order to maintain credibility as a mediator, Firebrace and El-Taraboulsi recommend that the UK reduce its unconditional military support for Saudi Arabia, pressure Saudi Arabia to allow humanitarian imports, and call for more accountability in human rights violations.

As the Yemeni crisis deteriorates from bad to worse and the country faces the worst cholera outbreak in history, it is time for the UK to rethink its foreign policy approach with Saudi Arabia. Failure to do so runs counter to the UK’s interests and could potentially compromise its long-term security and commercial gains, as well as its ability to influence the peace process within the Middle East. The UK is able to play an important role as mediator by pushing for peace in the region and this requires a rethink of UK engagement with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has conducted a devastating bombing campaign of Yemen, killing over 10,000 people and destroying vital civilian infrastructure. UK arms sales have already implicated the UK military and companies in Saudi operations. The UK must suspend sales of offensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia to avoid contributing to the humanitarian crisis. Continuing arms sales contradicts the UK’s commitment to humanitarian principles and compromises its efforts to alleviate the Yemeni crisis. Furthermore, the coalition’s military operations have created a security vacuum that has allowed militant groups such as AQAP and ISIS to flourish, and this militancy weakens the UK’s security interests.

Saudi Arabia also restricts imports into Yemen, including medical and food imports, in an attempt to cut off the flow of weapons from Iran to the Houthis. However, this blockade exacerbates the humanitarian crisis and is pushing Yemen to the brink of famine. The UK must pressure Saudi Arabia to allow imports into the country while attempting to improve the surveillance technology at ports to reduce arms smuggling. Additionally, the UK must try to establish an independent investigation of the violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. This is required in order to institute accountability and further the UK’s standing as a mediator in the conflict. The UK recognizes that “there is no military solution in Yemen”; if the UK desires influence over peace negotiations, it must implement these steps to preserve its credibility so that it can push for an end to the devastating conflict.