European Parliament Opposes Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia

by Eldar Mamedov

The European Parliament adopted today in Strasbourg a report on the implementation of the EU Common Position on Arms Export adopted in 2008. The motion, drafted by Bodil Valero, a Swedish member of the Green block, scrutinizes the level of compliance by EU member states with their own binding commitments governing the exports of military equipment and technology.

The Common Position establishes a set of clear rules in this respect. EU member states have agreed, among other criteria, not to issue licenses for arms sales if there is a clear risk “that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression,” that the “intended recipient would use the military technology or equipment aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim,” and “that the preservation of regional peace, security and stability” may be at risk.

The document also establishes that member states should take into account “the record of the buyer country with regard to: (a) its support for or encouragement of terrorism and international organised crime; (b) its compliance with its international commitments, in particular, on the non-use of force, and with international humanitarian law.” The member states should also assess “the existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions,” a clear reference to terrorist and other non-state entities.

Given these criteria, the report concludes that

some arms transfers from EU Member States to unstable and crisis-prone regions and countries were used in armed conflicts or for internal repression; some of these transfers were reportedly diverted into the hands of terrorist groups, for example in Syria and Iraq; in some cases, the arms exported to certain countries, for example Saudi Arabia, have been used in conflicts such as that in Yemen; such exports clearly violate the Common Position and thus highlight the necessity for better scrutiny and transparency.

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia merit special attention from the European MPs. Since this is the most far-reaching and ground-breaking report the EP has adopted on the issue so far, it deserves to be quoted at some length.

In its descriptive part, the report highlights that the European Parliament resolution of February 25, 2016 on the humanitarian situation in Yemen “called on the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR) to launch an initiative to impose an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.” It further notes that “the situation in Yemen has since further deteriorated also due to military action carried out by the Saudi-led coalition” and that “some Member States have stopped providing arms to Saudi Arabia because of its actions in Yemen while others have continued supplying military technology” contrary to the criteria of the Common Position.

Based on this picture, the EP rules that exports to Saudi Arabia do not comply with the criterion “regarding the country’s involvement in grave breaches of humanitarian law as established by competent UN authorities.” Further, the EP repeats its 2016 appeal “on the urgent need to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.” In a clear reference to the allegations that some arms from the EU reach jihadist groups, the EP

is concerned about possible diversions of exports to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to armed non-states actors in Syria who commit serious violations of human rights law and humanitarian law, and calls on COARM (European Council’s Working Party on Conventional Arms Export, which represents the member states) to address the matter with urgency; acknowledges that most of the arms in the hands of insurgents and terrorist groups have come from non-European sources.

The report was adopted by 386 votes comprising the “progressive block” of social democrats, socialists, liberals, and Greens against 107 votes of the conservatives. Although the progressives voted in a consolidated fashion, the conservatives were divided: the official position of the mainstream right-of-center group of Christian Democrats (European People’s Party or EPP) was to abstain on the final vote, while the European Conservatives and Reformists, a more right-wing outfit led by the British conservatives, voted, predictably, against. The shift in the position of the EPP is worth noting. On previous occasions, it opposed any moves in the EP to call for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. Now it merely abstained, which ensured the motion’s comfortable passage. That suggests that bottom-up pressure from voters is slowly leading to a change in position of the largest political bloc in the EU.

Now that the European Parliament has spoken, once again, the ball is in the European Council’s court. It’s time that the member states lived up to their own commitments regarding arms exports. Increasing scrutiny and awareness of the problem by the citizens, particularly the link between European arms fueling conflicts in the Middle East and terrorist attacks on European soil, possibly will lead more countries to follow the examples of Sweden and Netherlands, which decided to halt their arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The decision of the EP is similar in its spirit to the narrowly defeated effort in the US Senate to block President Trump’s $500 million arms deal to Saudi Arabia. These moves in the US and EU should be the beginning of a truly transatlantic effort to de-weaponize the conflicts in the Middle East as an indispensable prerequisite for a broader regional settlement. It’s a long road, but today’s vote in Strasbourg was an important milestone.

Photo: Bodil Valero. This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Bravo Europe! The first and the biggest state sponsor of Salafi and Wahabbie terror groups around the globe ought to be denied of receiving any weapons! In fact denying SK of any weapons saves its government by denying the Salafies and wahabbies of having access to more sophisticated weapons!

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