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To be a ‘force for good,’ the UK must end support for the Saudi war in Yemen

Boris Johnson should follow Joe Biden’s lead on Yemen if he wants his ‘Global Britain’ agenda to have any credibility.

In an address to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a claim we have heard before: the U.K. should be a “force for good” in the world. Johnson, alongside Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, sees this as a key component of the “Global Britain” agenda post-Brexit, and the phrase has been a frequent refrain in their speeches over the past two years.

In practice, however, the government is not living up to this ideal. Just three days after the speech, the director of policy for the major U.K. non-profit Oxfam, Sam Nadel, accused the government of prolonging the war in Yemen through its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In particular, sales of air-to-air refueling equipment, which allows Saudi planes to fly for longer and conduct so-called “dynamic” strikes on newly acquired targets, have led to an escalation of the destruction, and the war has now displaced 3.6 million people.

Put simply, the U.K. government’s refusal this month to cease sales of offensive weapons is incompatible with its goal to be a force for good. Unless Johnson wants to continue to aid and abet the perpetrators of what many call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, he must end U.K. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

The refusal highlights a tension at the heart of the Global Britain project. On the one hand, the government has demonstrated that a robust international defense of human rights is a core element of its desire to be a force for good. In his Munich speech, Johnson highlighted actions to combat Chinese repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang to ensure British businesses are not implicated, and to provide a refuge in Britain for Hong Kongers fleeing political repression.

Moreover, last summer’s announcement of a U.K. Magnitsky-style sanctions regime against human rights abusers brought the Saudi royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman into the government’s crosshairs, specifically over the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The release of a U.S. intelligence report into the Crown Prince’s role in the murder will confirm publicly what most suspected, and also represents a potential shift in Washington toward a tougher approach on Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the U.K. is the world’s second biggest arms exporter after the United States, with over £11 billion ($15.5 billion) in sales in 2019. Johnson has used a fig leaf of legality to justify ongoing exports to Saudi Arabia. Lifting a previous ban on exporting technologies like air-to-air refueling last July has enabled the government to export £1.36 billion ($1.9 billion) in arms to Saudi Arabia since then.

Taken together, this incoherent set of policies shines the spotlight on a country still figuring out what its global role should be outside the European Union. The current piecemeal approach makes Britain a less credible partner on human rights issues, and opposition Members of Parliament have rightly criticized the government for its recent actions. A new Chatham House report highlights the problem the U.K. now faces in finding a credible path forward to work with Saudi Arabia on the regional challenge posed by Iran, but while working with allies to rein in the Crown Prince’s excesses. 

As the Khashoggi intelligence report only further demonstrates, London is increasingly an outlier on this issue among its allies. In the United States, the Biden administration announced an end to support for Saudi offensive operations — including arms sales — soon after taking office, although its overall approach on the details of the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains unclear. Moreover, the European Parliament passed a “wide-ranging” resolution on February 11 calling on member states to end arms sales too. Even with the supposed flexibility that leaving the European Union provides for the U.K.’s international strategy, this is the wrong time (and the wrong issue) for Johnson to pursue his own agenda and diverge from the U.K.’s most important partners.

Johnson should take three steps to change course and develop a coherent, humane policy. After hearing at the U.N. Security Council last week that the war has pushed 5 million Yemenis to the brink of famine, the United Kingdom should step up as the current president of the Security Council and end its support for air-to-air refueling.

Second, the government must use its role as penholder on Yemen at the Security Council to coordinate members to provide aid to the northern Yemeni city of Marib, where there are now an estimated 850,000 displaced persons. Finally, over the longer term, Johnson should seek reform to the country’s legal process on arms sales to ensure that future governments fully comply with all aspects of international humanitarian law.

Exactly a decade since the people of Yemen rose up in a cry for self-governance, they must now experience — and not just hear — the United Kingdom’s efforts to be a force for good in the world.