The European Parliament has voted in favour of an EU-wide embargo on selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
A resolution calling for a ban on all weapons sales to the country was passed by 359 votes to 212, with 31 MEPs abstaining.
The non-binding motion calls on member states to stop selling weapons to the country, which is currently conducting a widely-criticised military operation in neighbouring Yemen marked by high civilian casualties.
Saudi Arabia is intervening in Yemen to fight Houthi rebels, who control the country’s capital but are not internationally recognised as its government.
Criticism of the country’s military operation have however included the bombing of multiple hospitals run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières and the deaths of thousands of civilians, including 130 at a single wedding.
While international observers have recognised abuses on all sides, in late December UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said that a “disproportionate” number of attacks of civilians in Yemen had come from the Saudi-led invasion force.
“I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high a concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – in particular hospitals and schools – by all parties to the conflict, although a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition forces,” Mr Zeid said.
The UN has also said Saudi Arabia is contributing to a “humanitarian disaster” in Yemen.
Figures reported by the Independent in January showed British arms firms cashing in on the conflict, with sales of bombs and missiles to the autocratic regime surging from £9 million to £1 billion in just three months last year.
The Government must approve all arms exports by UK companies abroad. Overall UK licences granted to military equipment to the country are £6.7 billion since David Cameron took office in 2010 and £2.8 billion since the bombing of Yemen began.
Recent opinion polling by Opinium found that 62 per cent of UK adults oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with only 16 per cent supporting them.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said the sale of European weapons to the region was fuelling the war in the region and that EU member states should listen to the European Parliament.
“The European Parliament has sent a clear, strong and much needed message to governments like the UK, that have been complicit in the destruction of Yemen,” he said.
“The toxic combination of arms sales and political support has helped to fuel, facilitate and legitimise the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place.”
Alyn Smith, a Scottish National Party MEP involved in the tabling the motion, said Europe had a duty to the civilians of Yemen being killed by Saudi Arabian weaponry.
“I have a close association with Saudi Arabia. I grew up there and I am sensitive to the realities of the Saudis and appreciate that the Saudis have concerns in their neighbourhood,” Mr Smith said.
“But our duty is to the civilians in Yemen, and given widespread and very valid concerns over the conduct of the war by Saudi forces, our call for an EU-wide arms embargo is proportionate and necessary.”
Mr Smith, who is a lawyer by profession and who sits on the EP’s foreign affairs committee, said he believed EU-made weapons being exported to Saudi Arabia were breaching international law.
Earlier this year lawyers from the Leigh Day firm, representing Campaign Against the Arms Trade, took steps towards a legal challenge of the British Government’s arms sales.
Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP who is the Socialist group's foreign affairs spokesperson, said Europe had a legal duty to work towards the end of the crisis in Yemen.
"This is a clear humanitarian appeal to end the bloodshed in Yemen, and call on Saudi Arabia to pursue a political rather than a military solution to the conflict," he said.
"Europe and the world must not ignore the unacceptable death toll in Yemen, and the European Parliament voted today that the allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen are now so serious that continuing arms sales would constitute a breach of the EU's own legally-agreed Code of Conduct."
Parliament’s International Development Committee earlier this month said the UK should suspend all arms sales to Saudi.
David Cameron has defended British support to the operation, arguing that the UK’s relationship with the petro-state was “important for our security”.
Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said in November that he wanted to sell even more munitions to Saudi Arabia.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
“We’d always like to do more business, more British exports, more British jobs and in this case very high end engineering jobs protected and created by our diplomacy abroad,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight programme when asked about the issue.
He admitted that the weapons were being used in Yemen but said that Saudis “deny there have been any breaches of international humanitarian law”.
A Government spokesperson said of arms exports to Saudi Arabia: “We operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world with each licence application assessed on a case by case basis, taking account of all relevant information, to ensure compliance with our legal obligations. No licence is issued if it does not meet these requirements.
“We regularly raise with Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Houthis, the need to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen. We monitor the situation carefully and have offered the Saudi authorities advice and training in this area.”