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UK ‘brushing Saudi abuses under carpet’, say campaigners as arms sales hit £13bn since 2018

The UK has been accused of “brushing under the carpet” Saudi Arabia’s track record of human rights abuses as figures reveal £12.9bn worth of arms were sold to Riyadh since the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Figures provided by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to i show that since 3 October 2018, the day after Khashoggi was dismembered, the UK has licenced £3bn worth of ML4-category arms, which include bombs, missiles, and associated components and counter measures to Saudi Arabia.

The majority of weapons, however, were sold through “open” licences, which are estimated to have earned defence contractor BAE Systems £9.9bn in revenue from the Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation between 2019 and 2022.

According to a US intelligence report, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), approved the killing of 59-year-old Khashoggi, which took place in the Saudi consulate in Turkey’s city of Istanbul. Riyadh rejected the assessment.

The CAAT figures, obtained via records at the Department for Business and Trade as well as annual reports of BAE Systems, come a day after Riyadh found itself hit by fresh accusations of human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch on Monday published a damning report accusing Saudi Arabian forces of killing hundreds of migrants, many of whom were Ethiopian, seeking to cross the Saudi-Yemen border.

According to the testimonies shared in the report, some of the migrants were forced to rape girls in their group, with one who refused allegedly being killed. The girls survived because they didn’t show any resistance, witness accounts say.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has come under fire for inviting MBS to the UK later this year.

FILE - Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain on Dec. 15, 2014. A suspect in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was arrested Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 in France, according to a French judicial official. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi triggered a drop in foreign investment in Saudi Arabia (Photo: AP)

CAAT accused the UK of “ignoring” evidence of rights abuses by Saudi Arabia, a country that has “wreaked untold death and starvation on Yemen, much of it with UK arms”, as it has been fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels since 2015.

“The latest horrifying report by Human Rights Watch of the mass murder of Ethiopian migrants by Saudi forces represents a new depth of brutality even for this regime,” Sam Perlo-Freeman, research coordinator at CAAT, told i.

He criticised the UK’s “weak” response to the regime, saying the “consequence-free response to the Khashoggi murder, the continuing arms sales, and the brushing of all the regime’s abuses under the carpet in inviting MBS to visit the UK, are all part of a consistent, long-term policy.”

Britain and other European countries are looking to diversify their sources of energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and would like to capitalise on Saudi Arabia’s plan to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to diversify its economy away from oil.

Britain is also one of Riyadh’s main arms suppliers, and Saudi Arabia has made several high-profile investments in Britain, most notably the country’s sovereign wealth fund’s purchase of Premier League soccer club Newcastle United.

Speaking of the invitation to MBS to visit Britain, Mr Perlo-Freeman said: “CAAT is concerned that this visit will be used as an opportunity to sell yet more arms to the Saudi regime, of which at least £13 billion have been sold since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for which MBS has still faced no consequences.

“MBS should be treated as an international pariah, not an honoured guest of the British state and prized customer for UK arms.”

i has contacted the UK Government for comment.

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