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Europe pushes ban on weapons to repressive Gulf regimes, why can't the US?

Time to acknowledge that a deal with Israel for 'normalization' won't get the UAE, Bahrain, and others off the hook.

Analysis | Middle East

The European Parliament has adopted a motion on EU arms exports control demanding to put an end to the sales of European arms, as well as surveillance technology and any other equipment that could facilitate internal repression, to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt.

The resolution, approved September 17, reminds us that, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the EU-28 was collectively the second largest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia and UAE for the period 2015-2019, and that both countries, among other parties, are perpetrating international crimes in Yemen. MEPs also urged all EU members to follow the example of Germany, Finland and Denmark which adopted restrictions on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the brutal murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago.

The European Parliament’s move coincided with a renewed focus on the arms sales to Persian Gulf monarchies on the other side of the Atlantic. In the last several years, efforts to halt them in the U.S. Congress came to naught due to the Trump administration’s virtually unconditional support for Saudi Arabia. An article in The New York Times in mid-September, however, re-ignited the debate by highlighting the possibility that State Department and Pentagon officials who authorized the bombs sales to Saudi Arabia, and in this way, aided strikes against the civilians in Yemen, could be prosecuted for war crimes.  

Meanwhile, in Canada, a coalition of human rights and arms control NGOs urged Prime-Minister Justin Trudeau to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia after a UN panel for the first time implicated Canada in fueling the war in Yemen, alongside other countries. 

Strengthening the case for a review of the current policy in the U.S., Canada, and the EU itself is not the only reason why the timing of the European Parliament’s vote is relevant. Another is the fact that it took place literally the within 24 hours of the White House ceremony, celebrating, with a great pomp, the so-called Abraham Accords, or Israel’s “normalization deals” with the UAE and Bahrain.  

The reaction of Washington’s European allies was far more subdued. The EU High representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell welcomed the deals in a rather lukewarm statement in which he reminded Israel of the need to abandon, not merely suspend, any plans for annexation of Palestinian territories on the West Bank. It was also telling that the only EU member state invited to the occasion was Hungary, whose authoritarian leader Viktor Orban has spent the past decade dismantling Hungarian democracy and clashing with Brussels. Orban is also known to be an ardent supporter of both Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. 

The vote in the European Parliament, meanwhile, tells us that deals with Israel cannot shield the UAE and Bahrain from criticisms of their repressive policies and, in the case of UAE, war crimes in Yemen. 

That is not to say that they have no allies in the assembly. The strategy Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have pursued over the last few years, often through lobby groups in Brussels, was to forge alliances with the right-of center political groups.  Last week’s vote in the European Parliament, however, suggested that this strategy is not yielding the desired results.  The right-wing groups sought to delete all critical references to the Gulf trio and Egypt, but failed. The main center-right faction, European People’s Party (EPP), however, abstained on the final vote on the resolution.  Some moderate conservatives from Netherlands, Belgium, Finland and Austria dissented from the EPP line and joined the liberal and center-left groups in backing the motion; it seems that the weight of public opinion, particularly on Saudi Arabia, is no longer possible to ignore.  

At the same time, the extreme right rejected the resolution altogether, proving to be, yet again, the most faithful European friends of the regimes in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Cairo. This alliance with Islamophobes, in addition to a perceived indifference to the Palestinian cause, is likely to further tarnish the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini reputation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. 

The vote in the European Parliament has added momentum for a reinvigorated transatlantic push for a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Some influential EU member states like Germany already implement it for exports to Saudi Arabia. Others must follow. The policy of unbridled arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE is morally, legally and politically indefensible as it strengthens their highly repressive regimes, fuels regional conflicts and makes Western democracies complicit in war crimes in Yemen.  It is time to stop this aberration, and for that, a transatlantic mobilization of pro-peace and pro-restraint forces is essential. The vote in the European Parliament is a step in the right direction. 

 This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Washington DC, USA - September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House. (noamgalai/shutterstock)
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