British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt rehearses a tired defense of continued U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a means of preserving influence:
We could, of course, decide to condemn them instead. We could halt our military exports and sever the ties that British governments of all parties have carefully preserved for decades, as critics are urging.
But in doing so we would also surrender our influence and make ourselves irrelevant to the course of events in Yemen. Our policy would be simply to leave the parties to fight it out, while denouncing them impotently from the sidelines.
There are three major flaws with Hunt’s defense of arms exports. First, there is no evidence at all that continued arms exports to Saudi coalition governments has enabled the U.K. or any other arms supplier to influence Saudi coalition conduct for the better. On the contrary, the Saudis and Emiratis assume that they can ignore protests from the countries that supply them with weapons without suffering any consequences because the arms suppliers will never cut them off no matter what they do. Arms suppliers claim that they need to keep providing war criminals with weapons to retain influence with them, but then refuse to use that influence to rein in the war criminals. If a government doesn’t use the influence it has, it might as well not have any. Second, the arms suppliers obviously aren’t helping to bring an end to the war on Yemen when they continue to fuel it. The Saudis and Emiratis believe they can wage their war however they like with impunity, and so far the U.S. and U.K. have encouraged them to think this by refusing to impose any penalties for their numerous war crimes. Halting arms may not be enough by itself to cause the Saudis and Emiratis to change their behavior, but at the very least it means that the arms exporter won’t be further implicated in any future crimes that they commit. Finally, fear of losing influence is not a good enough reason to continue enabling a war waged without regard for civilian life.
Arms suppliers for the Saudi coalition help make their war on Yemen possible. Continuing to supply them with weapons tells the Saudi and Emirati governments that they don’t have to worry that the war is damaging their relations with the suppliers, because the Trump administration and the May government have made clear that they prioritize current and future arms deals over any other considerations. As long as they can count on U.S. and U.K. backing, the Saudis and Emiratis have little incentive to stop what they’re doing, and that means that the war and the horrific humanitarian crisis drag on with no end in sight.