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EU calls for Saudi arms embargo to halt Yemen war

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 24, 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 24, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court

Europe is mulling an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia to punish it for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The EU parliament on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution to this effect. Austria says such action could help end "the terrible war in Yemen."


"We think it’s a very good initiative," says Cécile Coudriou, president of Amnesty International France.

"This continuous sale of arms has fueled the conflict," she told RFI.

More than 10,000 people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the start of the Yemen conflict in 2015. It was sparked when Houthi fighters, allied to supporters off ormer President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized the Sanaa capital.

Saudi Arabia intervened against the Houthis who are backed by its regional rival, Iran.

"It saw itself losing in Syria, in Iraq, so it could not afford to lose again in Yemen," explains Yemeni researcher Baraa Shiban.

"So eventually like any country it decided to back up a government that they view as friendly towards them," he told RFI.

The government in question was that of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

However, Saudi Arabia's military campaign to crush Houthis allied to Iran has not been without criticism.

"The bombs are absolutely terrible for civilian populations. Schools, markets and hospitals have been bombed repeatedly," comments Amnesty's Coudriou.

"Even during a war, there are still rules, and Saudi Arabia but not just them--the United Arab Emirates--don't respect these rules. And in a way, countries that sell weapons to Saudi Arabia become an accomplice of these terrible violations," she said.

France and Britain--which will leave the EU in March--are major arms suppliers to Riyadh.

Realpolitik over principles

French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday the sale of weapons "has nothing to do with Khashoggi" and that "one shouldn't mix everything up."

In 2017, Paris sold 1.7 billion dollars worth of weapons to Riyadh, ignoring protests overs arms sales it deems vital to jobs.

Elsewhere Britain--which is about to leave the EU--exported arms and equipment worth at least 1.4 billion dollars.

"A country like France, but also the UK, very often claim that human rights is on the agenda, that they are sensitive to these issues but when it's about economic interests, it's often in contradiction with their principles," reckons Amnesty's Coudriou.

"Cutting sales would not necessarily decrease Saudi Arabia’s capabilities in Yemen," reckons for his part Nan Tian, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

"Most of the weapons going to Saudi Arabia are from the US, so naturally the larger impact would have been if the US had halted its arms sales to Saudi Arabia," he told RFI.

There are currently bipartisan bills in both Houses of Congress to cut off US participation in the war.

"Of course the EU having an initiative like this would potentially put pressure on the US to also think about halting weapons," he says.

Austria has already stopped selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and Germany has said it will stop approving weapons exports to Riyadh until Khashoggi's death is cleared up.

Even before Khashoggi's murder, Saudi Arabia was facing international outcry over civilian casualties caused by its military campaign in Yemen.

No alternative to Saudi campaign

In August, at least 29 children were killed in a US-backed Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a bus in Yemen’s Houthi rebel-held north.

"Civilians do periodically get caught in the crossfires," acknowledges Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"It's a terrible tragedy whenever a civilian dies, but to point the finger on one side and say that you are responsible is a terrible simplification," he told RFI, urging leaders to see the conflict in Yemen as "multi-dimensional."

"The assumption is that if Saudi Arabia is not involved there, Yemen’s going to be at peace. Yemen wasn’t at peace before Saudi Arabia’s intervention," he comments, insisting that Riyadh has done more than anyone to alleviate Yemen's humanitarian crisis, donating 11 billion dollars last year to its relief fund.

"Nobody else is doing that. Not the EU, not the UN, not the Americans."

The United Nations warned this week that some 14 million people could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid for survival.

"If you took the Saudis out of the equation, Yemen would be in a worse state," argues Belfer.

The problem in the discussion on halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia is that it lacks an alternative, reckons for his part Yemeni researcher Baraa Shiban.

"You cannot just suggest ending this international support to the internationally recognized government without an alternative," he says of Saudi Arabia's support of the UN-backed government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

"We cannot afford to have a vacuum when no one is ruling the country."

Yet for Amnesty president Cécile Coudriou, "it's about time the intenational community started to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but also on countries that keep selling arms in violation of the arms trade treaty."

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