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Europeans come down like a hammer on Saudi-UAE arms sales

Emboldened, the EU parliament passed measures that go way farther than even the Biden administration has gone.

Analysis | Middle East

Momentum is building towards ending the unconditional Western support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. President Joe Biden froze the arms sales to Saudi Arabia that can be used for “offensive” operations in Yemen and revoked his predecessor’s terrorist designation of the Houthi movement. The European Parliament, meanwhile, adopted its own tough and wide-ranging resolution on Yemen on February 11.

The motion, initiated by the Belgian Socialist MEP Marc Tarabella, who serves as the vice-chair of the delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula, was endorsed by more than 90 percent of the MEPs, covering the entire political spectrum, with the exception of only a handful of extreme right-wing members. It calls on the EU member states to halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, without distinction between the “offensive” and “defensive” arms, and for the body to refer the human rights violations in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. 

MEPs also urged the EU governments to use the newly adopted EU Global Human Rights Sanctions mechanism to target, through asset freezes and travel bans, Saudi and Emirati officials, among others, involved in war crimes in Yemen. They also call for a suspension of Saudi Arabia and UAE membership in UNESCO due to their role in the destruction of Yemen’s cultural and architectural heritage. 

Similar calls were issued by the European Parliament on a regular basis since 2016. There are, however, some elements that make this resolution stronger than previous efforts.

First, the role of the EU governments is being scrutinized to a greater degree than before. For one, the continued arms sales by a number of countries, including France, Spain, and Belgium, are deemed incompatible with the legally binding EU “common position” on arms trade, which prohibits selling arms that can be used to stoke regional conflicts and cause severe violations of international humanitarian law. Linked to a call for an ICC referral, such a determination could actually lead to potential individual liabilities for European officials who keep authorizing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE. 

Also, the EU states are called out for the assistance they provide to U.S. “lethal operations,” such as drone attacks, which have in the past led to extra-judicial killings in Yemen. Although justified in terms of hunting down Al-Qaeda terrorists, such operations run the risk of “collateral damage,” i.e. killing civilians, and are on shaky legal ground. Therefore the EP called for the adoption of long-overdue EU rules on the use of armed drones which would hold member states that assist the U.S. complicit in these unlawful acts. 

Second, while the UAE’s role in Yemen is often obscured by a focus on Saudi Arabia, this time it was highlighted in a detailed and pretty damning way. Not only did the MEPs put the Emirati role in the war on the same level as the Saudis, but they also singled out Abu-Dhabi for running a notorious network of prisons in Yemen where inmates were tortured, raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence. MEPs also strongly endorsed the concept of the territorial integrity of Yemen, in a clear rebuke to the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council. An ill-judged attempt by the far-right Identity and Democracy faction to remove that language only succeeded in highlighting, once again, the Emirates’ ties to some of the most hard right actors in European politics today, such as the parties of France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy's Matteo Salvini, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

Even the chair of the informal “Friends of UAE” caucus was embarrassed into abstaining on a vote on the arms embargo against Saudi Arabia and UAE rather than voting against it. For a country like UAE, which placed a high strategic premium on cultivating a modern, enlightened image in the West, the resolution was clearly a blow to its reputation. Importantly, it comes on the heels of a detailed report by the Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based transparency watchdog, on Abu-Dhabi’s lobbying tentacles in the EU, and embarrassing new revelations of persistently undiplomatic behavior by some of its top officials, like the its ambassador in Washington, Youssef al-Otaiba. The Emirati overstretch is finally meeting some pushback in the West.

Third, the specific clauses in the resolution calling for the arms embargo garnered more support than on previous occasions. The hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group asked for a separate vote on a relevant measure — a procedural tactic used to dilute its language. That move backfired: 407 MEPs out of 694 voted in favor of keeping the reference to the embargo. That’s 57 votes more than the last time such a vote took place in January, within the framework of a more general report on EU foreign and security policy

Meanwhile, 112 fewer MEPs voted to reject the embargo than in January. The main shift occurred within the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest grouping in the EP. Interestingly, the EPP’s party line was a “free vote” on that measure, and not the usual rejection. When given the freedom to choose, it turned out that the vote of the centre-right MEPs was split almost evenly between those who favored the embargo and those who abstained, with only a tiny minority objecting to it. These numbers call into question the assumption that the conservative MEPs are bound to always favor Saudi and Emirati interests.

One explanation of such a shift could lie in the fact that the Houthis’ abuses and their connection to Iran were adequately reflected in the text, which helped to make it more balanced. Still, the narrative pushed by the Saudis and Emiratis blaming Iran as the primary cause of the conflict failed to convince the MEPs. The proof of that was the rejection of a last-minute amendment tabled by the ECR that accused Iran of sending mercenaries from the “Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah” to fight in Yemen. The resolution that passed is clear in stating that the majority of the civilian deaths in Yemen have been caused by the Saudi-led airstrikes.

These resolutions are not binding to national governments. Some of these countries, like France, are likely to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Yet the Parliament’s censure, as the only directly elected EU institution representing 500 million European citizens, carries a politically significant message. It is part of a growing international effort to end the political and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and hold those responsible for it accountable. Yemen can’t wait indeed. 

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

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