UK government facing condemnation over joint military exercise with Saudi Arabia

Exclusive: Labour calls on government to suspend operations without delay amid kingdom’s ongoing involvement in Yemeni civil war

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Saturday 02 February 2019 12:35 GMT
Theresa May with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Downing Street
Theresa May with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Downing Street (AFP/Getty)

A joint military exercise between the UK and Saudi Arabia is due to commence this weekend despite widespread condemnation of the kingdom’s role in the four-year-old Yemeni civil war.

Around 100 British Navy crew are set to participate in the five-day drill with Saudi forces on Sunday, leading to accusations against the government’s “complete abdication” of Britain’s moral responsibility.

Lashing out at the plans in an article for The Independent, the shadow defence secretary Nia Griffiths today calls on ministers to suspend any future joint exercises with the Saudi kingdom, without delay.

It also follows months of international pressure on the kingdom over the killing of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the United Nations launching an investigation into the distressing case.

Responding to a parliamentary question tabled in the House of Commons, the armed forces minister Mark Lancaster said the UK had two planned military exercises with the Saudi kingdom in the coming weeks.

The first is expected to launch on Sunday over a five-day period and involves two Royal Navy Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) – each with a crew of between 35 and 50 British personnel.

A second – operation Desert Soldier – is set to involve the Army between March and April in a “table-top planning exercise”.

Instead of taking a stand against the kingdom, Ms Griffith said the UK government has “in fact planned a two-week military exercise with Saudi next month, as well as the five-day naval drill which starts on Sunday”.

She wrote: “It simply beggars belief that we would even consider a joint exercise with the very same Saudi Navy which blockades key ports in Yemen, thereby exacerbating the starvation and suffering of the Yemeni people.

“To go ahead with these exercises not only represents a complete abdication of this country’s moral responsibility, it also reveals a bleak, pessimistic view of Britain’s place in the world.”

Ms Griffiths continued: “Instead of happily going along with Saudi and its abhorrent regime, we should be using our diplomatic clout to push for lasting peace in Yemen and an immediate investigation into allegations of war crimes.

“Until then, all future military exercises should be suspended without delay.”

In 2018, the United Nations warned that the war ravaging Yemen could result in the “worst famine in the world in 100 years” if the fighting continues. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the region since bombing of the country began in 2015.

Ms Griffiths also repeated her party’s call for an immediate arms embargo to “ensure that we do not export anything to Saudi Arabia” that could be used in the country’s war.

“Our own government has repeatedly ignored these calls and refused to follow the example of allies such as Germany who have suspended their sales,” she said.

“Even the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi did nothing to change the Conservatives’ policy of appeasing the Riyadh regime. Nor have the widespread reports of torture or the mistreatment of detainees led to a change of heart.”

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said the Saudi military has been “armed, supported and aided every step of the way” by the UK government.

He added: “This kind of military collaboration is a key part of the fawning relationship between Westminster and the Saudi royal family. The key message these exercises send is that no matter how many people are killed in Yemen the UK government will continue to offer its uncritical and military support to the regime.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The longstanding partnership between the UK and Saudi Arabia helps make both of our countries safer. We have vital national interests in maintaining that relationship, including intelligence sharing and tackling extremist regional threats.”

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