The use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen Contents

3UK interests in the Gulf

46.As the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR) outlines, “strong alliances and partnerships worldwide are more important than ever. In almost every aspect of our national security and prosperity, we must work with others, not because we cannot work alone, but because the threats and opportunities are global.”63 The Defence Secretary set out the UK’s interests in the Middle East in evidence to the Defence Committee:

The Middle East, and North Africa to some extent, are fundamental to this country’s security, stability and prosperity. We rely on a series of partnerships in the region to help us manage threats from the region—crime, terrorism and now the challenge of migration—but we also need to ensure that the energy supplies that we rely on are secure and that our trade routes are secure, and that is why we maintain a credible and persistent defence presence in the region. This is a region that is extremely important to both our security and our economy.64

47. The then Minister for Defence Procurement, Philip Dunne MP, detailed further the importance of the region from a defence perspective:

In relation to Ministry of Defence support for military activities, we have some of our closest relationships with Gulf nations, in terms of training, exercising and now operations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, specifically, is an important member of the coalition against Daesh in which we have been participating over Iraq and, more recently, over Syria. It is very important to us that the stability of the region is maintained by encouraging military stability there.65

Instability in the Gulf

48.We heard that the region is going through a period of instability. As Sir Simon Mayall wrote in his evidence to our inquiry:

After the chaos of Iraq, the continuing reverberations of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Syrian civil war, the rise of Da’esh, and the related terror and refugee crises in Europe, I remain amazed that there are still people that believe that pursuing policies and actions that unsettle and undermine the confidence and stability of our Gulf allies is a sound course of action.66

49.Sir Simon described the Gulf as “a region that, more than ever, needs help to combat internal threats, and to deter external challenges.” He argued that the UK, while not being a simply “uncritical onlooker”, had to present itself as a “reliable and understanding friend” to allies concerned about their own security.67 Michael Stephens, Research Fellow at RUSI, reiterated the point that the UK should reassure and support Gulf allies, in which military assistance and arms sales have a part to play:

The Gulf states as a bloc require a certain amount of reassurance, in the form of security guarantees and continued high-level access from members of the British Government, to feel that they are valued partners in a geostrategic relationship in which they have some severe security concerns that they feel have not been addressed sufficiently by either the United States or the United Kingdom. […]. At times when the Gulf states feel more secure, especially because of our reassurances to them, there is a financial response. It can come in the form of defence sales, increased guarantees of investment in the United Kingdom and preferential viewing of our industry and our expatriate community above that of some of our competitors.68

50.In order to mitigate the risks of arms sales to territories viewed as unstable, criterion 5 of the consolidated EU and UK arms licensing criteria states explicitly that the defence and strategic interests of the UK or its allies “cannot affect consideration of the criteria on respect for human rights and on regional peace, security and stability.”69

51.The Gulf is a region where the UK’s security and prosperity agendas overlap. It is in the UK’s strategic interests to support a secure, prosperous and politically stable Gulf and we recognise that military support and arms sales play a key role in that. However, there is a perception that our relationships in the region, particularly in terms of arms sales can counterpose our interests—understood as security, stability, jobs, and prosperity—against our values of respect for international law. There are also pragmatic judgements to be made about how to advance our values in a region where revolutionary or imposed changes of government have usually had catastrophic practical consequences and seriously reversed progress towards our values.

52.The influence afforded to the UK from our close relationship with Gulf states was set out by Sir Simon Mayall, who told us:

When you commit to the security and reassurance of these countries, it pays back not simply in defence sales but in your capacity to influence them diplomatically on a whole range of things on which we want to engage. We are a values-based society. They are a values-based society. It is a different set of values, but they are increasingly globalised. Our capacity to influence is much better than that of Russia, China, Turkey or whoever else filled the vacuum that would be left by the British if we failed to demonstrate a degree of understanding and confidence in their long-term stability.70

53.Saudi Arabia is a long-standing ally of the United Kingdom and has often proved a valuable partner in geostrategic events; for example, it was a key partner in the coalition assembled to oppose the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Government has long made the argument, at least as far back as the beginning of the al-Yamamah arrangement in September 1985, that defence exports to Saudi Arabia underpin our close strategic alliance. Dr Robert Dover and Professor Mark Phythian from the University of Leicester suggested that the complexities in the relationship result in a lower bar being set for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. They describe:

A strategically important liaison relationship that provides hard and soft intelligence to the UK, and in providing the UK with the retention of some influence and so diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. These are important factors to the UK government because of the dangers it sees to the region and the oil markets of a political vacuum in Saudi Arabia. The special factors present with the Saudi case mean that the UK government facilitates a trade in military equipment that it would be unlikely to repeat for other governments with the same human rights or political risk profile.71

54.The then Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, the Rt Hon Anna Soubry MP, told us:

For what it is worth, I think that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is extremely complex. If only it were as simple as people sometimes wish it were, but it is complex and there are some very difficult balances to be struck. You might expect me to say this, but I think at the moment we have definitely got the balance right.72

55.A strong and durable relationship with Saudi Arabia has enhanced the United Kingdom’s work in advancing many of our shared and vital strategic interests. These include military action against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, combating manifestations of violent extremism and radicalisation, countering terrorist financing, confronting Iranian subversions of the existing state systems across the region, and providing immediate relief and long-term solutions for Syrian refugees. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is a crucial and indispensable partner of the United Kingdom in our shared objective of reaching a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, which was precipitated by the armed Houthi aggression. Our common security and economic interests run deep. Saudi Arabia’s willingness to bear a greater share of the regional security burden, notably leading the coalition acting under the authority of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216 to restore legal authority in Yemen is a particularly welcome development.

Defence industry

56.The defence industry has been a success story for the UK, in terms of exports the UK is competing in the top three globally with the US and France. As the then BIS Minister, the Rt Hon Anna Soubry, told us:

The industry is a huge and various part of what we do in Britain. We do it very well. It has considerable benefit to our nation—to all the people who work in defence, in any event—and plays a huge part in what we do in the world. It is incredibly important for our exports and an important feature of them. There is huge potential for future growth—rightly so. Like most exports, defence exports are good for Britain and good for the people of Britain, as well as those nations that receive them.73

57.In their evidence to this inquiry, Dr Robert Dover and Professor Mark Phythian from the University of Leicester described the UK’s defence industrial base as “a valuable source of employment and technology driven enterprise for both the military and civilian sectors. The economic footprint of the defence industrial base runs across many industries, including forming an important part of the research and enterprise lives of the UK Higher Education sector.”74 ADS, the trade association for the UK’s aerospace, defence, security and space industries, confirmed that, in 2014, the UK’s defence and security industries generated a turnover of over £30 billion and secured an export business worth £12 billion. The industries sustain around 230,000 jobs including 6,500 apprenticeships and trainees.75 We heard from Paul Everitt, Chief Executive of ADS, that the importance of defence exports went beyond their economic value; they also underpin international relationships and allow interoperability with key allies. In addition, strong exports sustain domestic capability, reducing cost to the UK taxpayer. He maintained that the licensing regime was implemented and uniformly applied.76

58.The UK’s defence industries are in a vulnerable position as defence budgets have contracted, placing a greater emphasis on export trade. ADS explained that “even as domestic budgets have been cut over the past decade, UK defence and security companies have achieved growth in exports. Exports also help reduce the cost of UK programmes by increasing production runs, and reducing unit costs through economies of scale. They help the industry by levelling out peaks and troughs of domestic demand. Crucially, they sustain key industrial capabilities that might otherwise be lost.”77

59.As Sir Simon Mayall told us, defence sales are part of a wider strategy of engagement and essential for building long-term alliances in the Gulf:

The thing on which I have always supported British defence sales is that if you buy a platform—Typhoon and, before that, Tornado—you initiate a 25-year relationship. People do not change platforms. When you have a relationship for 25 years, through Eurofighter [Typhoon], Tornado or a ship, the training aspect of that comes with it. People come to Sandhurst and Dartmouth. I happen to believe that British military training is some of the finest—if not the finest—in the world. I like to think that, by bringing people to this country, you imbue them with some of the values that we hold dear, which they take back with them, and that, to an extent, they take into their own armed forces the ethos that they pick up in the British armed forces.78

60.The Gulf, and in particular Saudi Arabia, is a vital market for the British defence export industry. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that Middle East countries accounted for 66 per cent of the UK’s total defence exports in 2014.79 It is estimated that Saudi Arabia will become the world’s fifth-largest military spender by 2020, as it seeks to increase its defence budget by 27 per cent over the next five years. This is a regional trend which has seen states in the Gulf Cooperation Council increase their arms imports by 71 per cent in the last decade (2004–2014).80

61.This is not a new trend for Saudi Arabia, which has been described as the “mainstay of the UK’s arms trade”81 since the initiation of the Al Yamamah deals. The Government provides a great deal of support to maintain the arms export trade with Saudi Arabia. This is done through government-to-government contracts, in which the Ministry of Defence sign agreements for major defence sales with the Saudi Arabian Government, then places contracts with UK prime contractors (such as BAE Systems) to fulfil the UK’s obligations. There are two main bodies at the Ministry of Defence who oversee the main contracts: the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Project (MODSAP) and Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications Project (SANGCOM). These bodies monitor the progress and performance of the contracts and provide training and assistance to Saudi Arabia. In addition, the UK Government dedicates significant resources to promoting the defence trade in the Gulf. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has designated Saudi Arabia as a priority market for UK arms exports through UKTI DSO which aims to help UK defence and security companies to build and maintain relationships with overseas customers and to export their products.82

62.The importance of arms exports for our security and prosperity has been recognised in the SDSR, in terms of directly sustaining tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, generating economies of scale that reduce the cost of defence equipment to the Government and the taxpayer, and for underpinning long-term relationships with our international partners and helping us deliver wider foreign policy objectives.83 The SDSR also identifies support for defence and security exports as a new core task for the MoD, with responsibility for managing all strategic defence export campaigns.84 Paul Everitt from ADS detailed the wider remit of the MoD as being “greater willingness to engage with potential customers to provide insight, experience and guidance on the use UK military forces put that equipment to, how it is managed, how it is supported in theatre and what kind of procurement processes they go through.”85

63.The SDSR also proposes strengthening our defence relationships in the Gulf. Describing the region as a “significant source of both threat and opportunity”,86 the Review refers to a new Gulf Strategy which would include the building a permanent and more substantial UK military presence and establishing a new British Defence Staff in the Middle East.87

64.The UK defence industry is hugely successful and an important part of our export portfolio. Globally, the UK is one of the top three exporters of defence equipment with the US and France. While domestic budgets have faced reductions, exports have been essential in sustaining the industry in the UK, its manufacturing expertise and maintaining economies of scale to ensure value for money for our own armed forces and the taxpayer. It is an industry which has a value beyond the purely economic: defence exports build international relationships and ensure interoperability of equipment with our allies, and they underpin long-term alliances which help deliver our wider foreign policy objectives. They are vital both for our security and our prosperity.

65.The Gulf is a crucial market for defence exports, in particular Saudi Arabia to which over 30 per cent of all UK arms export licences in 2015 were approved.88 As we move towards expanding our military presence and relationships in the Gulf, we would expect defence exports to that region to have a key role to play. However, this cannot be without conditions or without regard for the UK’s international obligations.

UK support for Saudi Arabia and the coalition in Yemen

66.Yemen’s geographical position gives its strategic importance, sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia to the north and with the vital shipping route of the Gulf of Aden to the South. The country is also home to al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown in strength and territory over the course of the conflict.89 Sir Simon Mayall wrote to us about the strategic importance of the Yemen conflict both to Saudi Arabia and the UK:

In my mind, the motives for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen are quite clear. The operations themselves are critical to halting Houthi aggression, thereby setting the conditions for a political settlement, for restricting the operation of AQAP, for limiting the rise of IS-affiliated groups in Yemen and the wider region, and for hampering Iranian ambition close to the vital Bab al Mandab Straits. Saudi Arabia is defending its territory and interests in the same way any nation under similar threat would and, given the range of threats facing them, it is in the UK’s strategic interests to support them.90 

67.At the start of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, the then Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, confirmed that the Saudis were flying UK-manufactured aircraft in Yemen and set out the extent of UK support for Saudi Arabia:

We have a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force generally and if we are requested to provide them with enhanced support—spare parts, maintenance, technical advice, resupply—we will seek to do so. We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.91

This support was detailed to us by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which told us that the Saudi Government had requested additional UK support after the escalation of the conflict in Yemen in March 2015. It explained that, as a result of this request, the Government, bearing in mind the UK’s domestic and legal obligations, had accelerated the delivery of Paveway laser-guided bombs; increased training in targeting and weapon use; provided liaison officers in Saudi headquarters in order to observe the processes, increase the UK’s insight into the air campaign and help to improve maritime access to Yemeni ports by identifying vessels that may be breaching the arms embargo; and assessed and fulfilled Saudi training needs to help strengthen defences at the Saudi southern border which has suffered repeated cross border raids.92

Recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia

68.Department for Business, Innovation and Skills documents reported over £3.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the first twelve months of the conflict in Yemen, from April 2015 to March 2016—a thirty-fold increase on the preceding twelve-month period.93 This included £1 billion of category ML4 weapons, which comprise bombs, rockets and missiles, for the 3-month period from July to September last year, up from £9 million for the preceding 3-month period for the same category of arms. In its evidence to the inquiry, the UK Working Group on Arms wrote that:

According to official UK reports, between 1 April and 31 September 2015, the UK issued Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs) authorising £1.8 billion of combat aircraft and their spare parts and more than £1 billion of bombs and missiles for use by the Saudi Air Force. To put this latter figure in context, the value of munitions licensed for export to Saudi Arabia under UKML4 (bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, other explosive devices and charges and related equipment and accessories, specially designed for military use, and specially designed components thereof) in the three month period from July to September 2015 is equivalent to the total that was licensed for export to the whole world (including Saudi Arabia) in the four-and-a-half years from January 2011 to June 2015 inclusive.94

69.In its evidence to this inquiry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set out the number and value of Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs) granted in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with the following caveats95:


Military Items

Dual-Use Items

No. of SIELs

Value (£)

No. of SIELs

Value (£)



1.6 billion


22 million



80 million


55 million



2.7 billion


103 million

70.Despite the intensity of the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the body of evidence and allegations of violations of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition, no export licence application to Saudi Arabia has been refused due to non-compliance with the UK’s arms export licensing criterion 2 since March 2015.96 We were told by Dr Robert Dover and Professor Mark Phythian from the University of Leicester that it was difficult to assess whether the UK Government was “agnostic” about the real end-use of defence equipment exported to Saudi Arabia. They argued that it seemed that strategic relations with the Kingdom had led to “pragmatic interpretations of arms transfer licensing […] What we can note is that there is a growing tension between an increasing accepted moral and ethical framework and some of these arms sales, and their end uses.”97

71.We also heard concerns that if the UK were to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom could buy their weapons from other exporters and as such there would be little if any impact on the coalition’s aerial campaign in Yemen. Sir Simon Mayall, Former Defence Senior Adviser for the Middle East at the Ministry of Defence, told us that it is better for all involved that the coalition use UK-manufactured weapons:

From a practical point of view, given the level of Saudi commitment to this operation, I would rather see them use UK-manufactured, precision-guided missiles, and the latest targeting techniques (trained and advised by UK and US military), than to be using less accurate munitions and less restrictive rules of engagement.98

Defence engagement

72.A report for VICE news in the US found that US and UK military advisers have helped the Saudi-led coalition to plan its airstrikes by participating in a Joint Combined Planning Cell command centre (JCPC). The report explained that the JCPC had been established at the beginning of the conflict in an effort to ensure that the conduct of the coalition campaign in Yemen met international standards. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told journalists that UK and US personnel in the JCPC knew the Saudi targeting lists and what the coalition was and was not doing.99

73.However, not all airstrikes are conducted by the JCPC. VICE researchers reported that there are two types of airstrikes; the first are pre-planned, based on satellite imagery, reconnaissance from drones and aircraft and human intelligence on the grounds. These take into account whether the target was militarily important and what collateral damage is likely. The second sort of strike is contingent or “dynamic”, based on real-time intelligence. The decision to launch such strikes is taken within minutes rather than hours or days and the intelligence basis can be much thinner. The JCPC is focused entirely on pre-planned strikes, while dynamic strikes make up the vast majority—around 80 per cent—of coalition airstrikes.

74.The suggestion that UK personnel are assisting in the planning of 20 per cent of Saudi airstrikes was raised with us by Professor Philippe Sands QC, who put the following question:

Let us assume that 20% of the targeting activities are pre-planned and that the UK is involved in them and ensuring that they meet all international obligations; but if that 20% is effectively allowing the other 80% to take place, are you, by engaging in the 20%, facilitating the wrongdoing of the rest? That is a complex question morally and philosophically, but also legally.100

75.Mr Ellwood wrote to us to explain that the JCPC is a US body that works with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support. In terms of the involvement of UK liaison officers in the JCPC, Mr Ellwood wrote:

Some JCPC liaison officers work in a regional HQ that helps to improve maritime access to Yemeni ports, by identifying vessels that may be breaching the arms embargo. Others work in the main JCPC HQ, helping to monitor the current situation in Yemen and facilitate communication with the GCC. Additionally, we have other liaison officers who sit within the Saudi Air Operations Centre, to improve our understanding of the air campaign. These are not part of the JCPC.101

76.The then Defence Procurement Minister, Philip Dunne MP, insisted that “we do not have personnel in the joint combined planning cell in relation to air operations.”102 Explaining further that no UK personnel are involved in targeting decisions, Mr Dunne told us that UK liaison officers in the air operations centre were not involved in targeting decisions, but instead conducted training on doctrine for using UK-supplied weapons systems and provided advice on targeting processes.

77.Mr Dunne contended that the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia placed us in a “privileged position” in terms of the advice we give to the Saudi Arabian armed forces and access we have to information from within Saudi operations allowing us to conduct post-incident analysis of strikes.103 We heard from Dr Anna Stavrianakis that the UK Government seems to want it both ways, questioning the level of the UK’s involvement and knowledge of the Saudi processes and strikes. She said that the Government claimed to have knowledge and oversight of Saudi operations and had satisfied themselves that the conduct of these conformed to IHR. At the same time, she argued, the Government claimed not to be directly involved.104

78.The UK’s support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen has been extensive while remaining short of engaging in the actual combat. Professor Sands QC argued that the UK is in effect involved in the conflict; as “we characterise the nature, extent or depth of that involvement, it is impossible, on the basis of the evidence that is before us, to claim plausibly that the United Kingdom is not involved”.105 Our involvement extends from providing the planes and bombs for airstrikes to UK personnel in the Joint Combined Planning Cell and Saudi Air Operations Centre. This level of involvement without being a party to a conflict is unprecedented106 and is a result of the “privileged” relationship the UK has with Saudi Arabia and its armed forces. There is again a difficult balance to be struck. We are not convinced that the Government has enough oversight of coalition procedures and operations to be assured that our arms exports are compliant with UK licensing criteria, particularly criterion 2c, while at the same time being sufficiently detached so as not to be implicated in coalition targeting decisions or in the conduct of the air campaign.

79.We are concerned about the involvement of UK personnel with the Saudi-led coalition and the contradictions we have heard regarding their roles. We were told that UK personnel are not part of the intelligence planning cells107, but that they are in the Joint Combined Planning Cell HQ108. We also heard that UK personnel are in Saudi Arabia to train, educate and teach best practice, which includes understanding international humanitarian law109 and training air crews and planners how to go about assessing targets for the future110, but that our liaison officers “do not provide training, they do not provide advice on IHL compliance, and they have no role in the Saudi targeting chain.”111 This is an area in which there is much confusion and greater clarity is needed.

80.We recommend that the UK Government provide more detail with regards to the role of UK personnel in Saudi Arabia, in particular answering the following questions:

63 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, cm 9161, para 5.18

64 Defence Committee oral evidence, UK military operations in Syria and Iraq, HC 106, Thursday 26 May 2016, Q382 [Michael Fallon]

65 Q153

66 Lieutenant General (Retd) Sir Simon Mayall KBE CB (UKY 0015) para 8

67 Lieutenant General (Retd) Sir Simon Mayall KBE CB (UKY 0015) paras 1 and 6

68 Q131

69 Consolidated EU and UK arms export licensing criteria, criterion 5

70 Q142

71 University of Leicester (UKY 0001) Executive Summary

72 Q228

73 Q155

74 University of Leicester (UKY 0001) para 2

75 ADS (UKY 0016) para 7

76 Q104

77 ADS (UKY 0016) paras 11 and 12

78 Q142

79 FCO submission para 17

80 Transparency International (UKY 0004) para 2.10


82 Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013–14, The UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, HC 88, paras 64–5

83 SDSR para 6.61

84 SDSR para 6.62

85 Q115

86 SDSR, para 5.55

87 SDSR, para 5.57

88 See the values of military, dual-use and open licences in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Strategic Export Controls: licensing statistics 1st January 2015 to 31st December 2015

90 Sir Simon Mayall submission, para 13

92 FCO submission, para 29

94 The UK Working Group on Arms (UKY 0012) para11

95 FCO submission, para 34

96 PQ Arms Trade: Saudi Arabia 33665, 18 April 2016

97 University of Leicester (UKY 00XX), para 8

98 Sir Simon Mayall submission, para 11

100 Q95

101 Letter from Tobias Ellwood, dated 18 May 2016

102 Q157

103 Q228

104 Q136

105 Q81

106 Q228 [Philip Dunne]

107 Q162 [Tobias Ellwood]

108 Letter from Tobias Ellwood dated 18 May 2016

109 Q162 [Tobias Ellwood]

110 Q158 [Philip Dunne]

111 Letter from Tobias Ellwood dated 18 May 2016

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15 September 2016