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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

UK court hearings quieten anti-Saudi voices

The judgment served as a vindication of Saudi Arabia's approach to the conflict in Yemen

The Royal Courts of Justice in London. AP
The Royal Courts of Justice in London. AP

The decision by Britain’s high court to allow the UK government to continue exporting arms to Saudi Arabia will be seen as a significant victory for the kingdom in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Ever since the Saudi-led coalition launched its intervention in Yemen two years ago, the Saudis have faced a barrage of politically-motivated criticism in Britain from left-wing activists, NGOs and anti-war campaigners over their handling of the conflict.

NGO groups, in particular, have been responsible for issuing a stream of allegations that the Saudis have been responsible for committing war crimes, while making scant mention of the role Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have played in creating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The tactics used by the Houthis, for example, have included using human shields against coalition air strikes, and disrupting aid supplies to exacerbate further the suffering of Yemen’s beleaguered civilian population.

It was in the context of the vociferous anti-Saudi campaign mounted by activists in Britain, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), a left-wing pressure group, demanded that the high court undertake a judicial review of Britain’s arms export policy to Saudi Arabia.

The legal action brought by CAAT alleged that the British government’s arms exports to Saudi meant it was complicit in committing crimes against humanity in Yemen, where NGOs such at the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontiers and Amnesty International claim coalition forces have deliberately targeted schools, hospitals and other key infrastructure in the bombing campaign.

But after hearing three days of evidence in London in February, including material produced by the British government which was heard in a closed session because of its sensitive nature, the high court this week dismissed CAAT’s case.

In its judgment, the court ruled that Liam Fox, the UK’s secretary of state for international trade, acted lawfully in granting weapons-export licences to Saudi Arabia. And it took issue with CAAT’s claim that the coalition had “committed serious breaches in international law”, concluding that the evidence compiled by CAAT “is only part of the picture”.

The ruling further concluded that, thanks to the close military cooperation and diplomatic ties the UK government enjoys with Riyadh, Britain had “considerable insight into the military systems, processes and procedures of Saudi Arabia adopted in Yemen.”

I have personal experience of the close working relationship between the British military and the Saudi-led coalition after visiting the kingdom’s command and control centre at King Salman air base in Riyadh earlier this year.

There I found a number of British and American officers working alongside their Saudi military counterparts to ensure every reasonable precaution was being taken to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.

The court ruling serves as a vindication both of the Saudi’s approach to the conflict in Yemen, where the court acknowledged the kingdom’s “growing efforts” to thoroughly investigate allegations of civilian casualties, as well as Britain’s continuing support for Saudi Arabia in the form of arms sales and military support.

The vital importance of the ruling to the Saudis and their long-standing alliance with the UK, especially with regard to intelligence-sharing in the war against Islamist-inspired terrorism, was reflected in a brief statement issued by the Saudi embassy in London.

“Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom work together in many different areas and none is more important than our joint fight against terrorism and the desire to restore peace and stability in Yemen and beyond,” it stated. “The two countries are able to have frank and open dialogue that is conducted in an atmosphere of candour and mutual respect.”

But while the Saudis and their coalition partners can breathe a sigh of relief that the crucial UK-Saudi relationship will not be derailed by left-wing agitators, that is not to say the efforts of these vociferous and well-organised anti-Saudi campaigners will end there.

On the contrary, activists show no sign of letting up on their vitriolic propaganda campaign, which appears to enjoy the backing of all the leaders of Britain’s main opposition parties.

The most recent example of their attempts to use any and every means available to pillory the Saudis came with last week’s publication of a report published by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society in London into the funding of Islamist extremism.

The report claimed that a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Qatar, were responsible for funding extremist groups. But in their coverage of the report, media outlets such as the BBC only highlighted claims relating to Saudi funding of extremist groups. This led the leaders of all the main opposition parties in Britain to criticise Theresa May for not raising the issue with the Saudis as last weekend’s G20 summit in Hamburg.

Mrs May had arrived at the summit warning that the priority for G20 member states should be to disrupt efforts by extremists to access finance. Instead she was accused of double standards by the likes of Mr Corbyn and the outgoing Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who claimed nations like Saudi Arabia were “key exporters of extremist ideology around the world and yet we look the other way in exchange for massive arms deals.”

All of which suggests that, while the court ruling may have given the Saudis a brief respite, left-wing British activists have no intention of giving up on their politically-motivated campaign to vilify the kingdom, and undermine its valuable relationship with the UK.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor