by Eldar Mamedov
Last week the European Parliament (EP) adopted a non-binding resolution calling for an introduction of an EU-wide embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The resolution, focused on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, condemned the violent and unlawful actions of the Houthi rebels, such as the overthrow of the internationally recognized government of the president, Mansour Hadi, that triggered the Saudi intervention. But it also made a point that the actions of the Saudi-led coalition were in violation of international humanitarian law and therefore the arms sales from the EU countries to Saudi Arabia were in breach of the EU Common position on arms exports. This position explicitly rules out EU arms sales when there is a risk of their being used to violate international humanitarian law.
The final decision on the embargo rests with the Council of the EU, which represents the governments of the member states. It is unlikely that it will heed the EP call. Some EU countries have close diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saud and are also among the top suppliers of weapons to Riyadh: UK alone has licensed arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth £6.7 billion since 2010, when David Cameron took office.
Still, the EP call for an embargo ratchets up the pressure on the Council to reconsider these dealings in light of the disastrous humanitarian and strategic consequences of the Saudi campaign in Yemen.An unprecedented mobilisation of the European civil society preceded the vote: close to 750,000 citizens signed an online petition calling for MPs to adopt the motion.
Perhaps the best evidence of the impact of this resolution lies in the intensity of the Saudi efforts to derail it. Although Saudi diplomats usually opt for low-profile, behind-the-scenes lobbying, this time they were forced to engage in a high-stakes public diplomacy to save the Kingdom from a major embarrassment.
To this end, Saudi diplomacy used a number of key points to convince MPs not to vote for an arms embargo:
- The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was a necessary step to prevent “devastating geopolitical consequences for the Kingdom, Europe and the broader West,” and, one year on, it has “nearly succeeded in bringing stability to the country.”
This is strongly contradicted by the facts on the ground. One year after the Saudi intervention, there is no end in sight to the war. The Hadi government controls less than 20% of the territory of the country, and is not able to fully assert its power even in Aden, the capital. Extremist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) are running rampant in the country´s south, while the Houthis and their allies – fighters loyal to the deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh—are increasing cross-borders attacks into Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, both the Saudi coalition and Houthi/Saleh block are exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe in the country, with at least 6,000 people killed, the majority by the Saudi-led airstrikes. None of the sides seems seriously committed to the UN-sponsored peace talks, because both of them believe they can win militarily.
- Saudi Arabia has “answered the call from the West to take a greater role in combatting terrorism, and as a result of the coalition´s military engagement, the Kingdom no longer regards the Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a major threat.”
This is an extraordinary claim. The Saudi campaign has succeeded in empowering precisely the kind of extremists Riyadh purports to fight. As an International Crisis Group´s (ICG) report notes, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by the US the most dangerous al-Qaeda branch, and IS are arguably the war´s principal beneficiaries. AQAP has managed to fill the void in vast areas of the country´s south created by both the failure to reinstall the Hadi government and the expulsion of the Houthis. As the ICG report observes, AQAP offers money and purpose to the frustrated youth and a modicum of governance and services. Likewise, IS has made substantial political and territorial gains and has left its mark by killing over 140 people in March 2015 in an attack against a Zaydi mosque (the branch of Shiism to which Houthis adhere).
Thus, the Saudi claims that AQAP and IS have not managed to gain any territorial strongholds during the war simply do not hold true. As to the assertion that the Kingdom no longer sees AQAP as a major threat, most Europeans would beg to differ: it was AQAP who claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015. But then, perhaps, such an attitude should not come as a surprise. AQAP has reportedly joined the Saudi-led coalition in a battle for the city of Taiz, the third largest in Yemen.
- The conflict in Yemen is a result of Iran´s destabilizing influence on the Arabian Peninsula by proxy.
There is a consensus between the EU diplomats on the ground and reputable think tanks that the Saudis have overstated the Iranian connection to the Houthi. Although both Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah have provided a degree of political and military training support to the Houthis, it does not seem to play a decisive role in latter’s ability to fight or their political strategy. Advice from Tehran is as often disregarded as it is accepted. Iranian officials, for example, are adamant that they warned Houthis against the takeover of Sana´a in September 2014. In fact, statements by some Iranian hardliners boasting about the control of Sana´a, in addition to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, are seen as provocative not only by the Gulf Arabs, but also by the Houthis who are eager to assert their independence.
The truth is that what happens in Yemen is not a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but a domestic conflict with roots in a failed political transition after the overthrow of the president Saleh in 2011. The Hadi government´s corruption and inability to engage in a serious, inclusive, and fair power-sharing effort have fuelled the conflict to a much greater degree than any imagined Iranian interference.
In the end, in spite of the heavy lobbying campaign, MPs voted for the resolution. This should not be seen, however, as a hostile move against Saudi Arabia. Like any other country in the region, Saudi Arabia has legitimate security concerns. But the highly militarized, nationalistic, and sectarian way it has chosen to address them only makes the security situation in the region worse for all, including Riyadh. The least the EU can do is to refuse to contribute to this unfolding disaster with its own weapons. The call for an arms embargo by the EP is an important step in the right direction. Now the battle should be taken to the Council of the EU, which has the power to make it happen—unless Saudi Arabia heeds the warning and stops its war in Yemen.
Photo of European parliament courtesy of Salim Shadid via Flickr.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.