The conflict in Yemen has drawn attention to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during its military operations in Yemen.

The UK is not a member of the Saudi-led Coalition but Saudi armed forces are using UK built and licenced arms in Yemen, including Typhoon aircraft, missiles and bombs.

Campaign groups actively lobby MPs to make this point, but the Government has resisted pressure from opposition parties and backbench MPs to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

One group, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) took the UK government to court to obtain a Judicial Review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The High Court rejected their claim in 2017. However, in June 2019 the Court of Appeal concluded the Government’s decision-making process for granting export licences was “irrational” and therefore “unlawful”.

The Government responded by announcing it would review all licences and not grant any new licences for export to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that might be used in the conflict in Yemen while it considered the implications of the judgement. The Government sought and was granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on 9 July 2019.

In September 2019, the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, apologised after finding the Government had granted new export licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, therefore breaching the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal.

Liz Truss announced on 7 July 2020 that the Government will resume granting licences for export to Saudi Arabia. She said that, having applied a revised methodology to its decision-making process, the Government assesses “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”. The Government will also withdraw its appeal.

Opposition MPs condemned the decision, with the shadow international trade secretary calling the decision “morally indefensible”. She and other MPs also pointed to the mixed messages given by the Government, who had announced the previous day it was sanctioning “20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi” (see Library Insight UK’s first post-Brexit sanctions).

In October 2020 Campaign Against the Arms Trade filed a judicial review application into the legality of the UK government’s decision to renew arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

In January 2021, the new US administration announced that it was suspending some licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, adding to the pressure on the UK Government.

The Library regularly publishes material on the situation in Yemen, most recently the situation in Yemen’ (CDP-2020-0069, 20 March 2020), ‘Yemen’s fragile peace process’ (CBP8536, 7 March 2019) and ‘Yemen update: Autumn 2018’ (CBP8433, 2 November 2018). 

This paper was first published in 2018, updated on 10 July 2019, 10 July 2020 and 29 January 2021.

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