Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said Saudi Arabia is simply “defending itself” by bombing Yemen in a campaign of air strikes that has been widely condemned by international observers.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Sir Michael said the Middle Eastern kingdom was “fully entitled” to defend itself from Houthi rebels who, he said, had spilled over the border.
He refused to criticise the country, saying it was an “enormously important trading partner” to the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is understood to be in favour of banning arms sales to repressive regimes.
Asked whether the Conservatives would consider stopping arms exports to the country, he said: ”Saudi Arabia is being attacked by Houthi rebels across its Southern border with Yemen. It's had its towns and villages shelled by the Houthis.
“Saudi Arabia is fully entitled to defend itself and it's fully entitled to call on its friends in so doing."
When quizzed about the fact the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson himself said the country was “puppeteering and playing Proxy wars”, Sir Michael argued that Britain "gains" from the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"Saudi Arabia is a key partner of ours — an enormously important trading partner, a commercial partner, but also a defence partner," he said.
"We share intelligence with Saudi Arabia about terrorism. We gain from that relationship. Every arms export application is very carefully looked at and judged by our criteria — some of the toughest in the world. But Saudi Arabia, equally, is entitled to defend itself."
Last month, Sir Michael told The Independent an arms company that sold missiles to the Gaddafi regime in Libya was a “role model” for the sort of business Britain will be seeking after Brexit.
In December, Sir Michael confirmed that British-made cluster bombs, manufactured before the UN's Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in 2008, have been used by Saudi Arabian forces in the current Yemen conflict.
Most developed countries, including the UK but with the key exception of the US, have banned cluster bombs on the basis that they present a disproportionate threat to civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, cluster bombs “pose a threat post-conflict by leaving remnants, including submunitions that fail to explode upon impact becoming de facto landmines”.
The Government is currently defending a High Court challenge by campaigners who say that it is breaking its own arms exporting licence criteria by continuing to sign off the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Britain is the second biggest arms exporter in the world, according to UK Trade and Investment. The Independent revealed last year that Britain has sold weapons to 22 of the 30 countries on its own human rights watchlist since 2010.
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