During a press briefing Tuesday at the headquarters of the European Union delegation in Washington, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini voiced concern about the current geopolitical situation in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region, where direct and indirect confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is escalating considerably.
Unfortunately, she forgot to say that European arms sales to Middle Eastern countries were contributing to the chaos in that part of the world.
Mogherini struck a cautious tone on the recent high-level purge in Saudi Arabia, saying that the EU would back any effort to eliminate corruption in the kingdom. Last Saturday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman orchestrated the arrest of dozens of leading royals, top officials and influential businessmen on charges of corruption. Salman’s move, supported by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is viewed as an attempt to consolidate power within the royal family and accelerate the country’s modernization.
The problem is that Salman is also considered the driving force behind Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen and boycott of Qatar, two actions that have made his country a “net contributor” to regional instability.
Yemeni conflict a menace to European security
The EU does not want disorder and turmoil on its southeastern flank. Wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have produced mass migration into Europe and Islamist militants ready to hit the Continent. In this sense, the Yemeni conflict is a significant and immediate menace to European security.
The Yemeni civil war began in 2015 between Iran-allied Shia Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition of Sunni states.
On the same day Salman’s moved against his internal rivals, Houthi militiamen fired a surface-to-surface ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, which Saudi air-defense forces managed to intercept. The crown prince accused Iran of being behind the attack, exacerbating an already tense situation in the Gulf region.
Wide range of military goods sold to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia and its allies received US$6.3 billion worth of European weapons from 2012 to 2016, including submarines, surface ships, aircraft, attack helicopters, armored vehicles and precision-guided munitions, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This figure does not take into account Britain’s supplies, which were worth $3.2 billion.
Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries that are at odds with Prince Salman (Qatar, Turkey, and Iraq) acquired from EU defense contractors about US$2 billion worth of arms during the same period.
Mogherini reiterated in Washington that the EU “keeps human rights at the center of its foreign policy.” For example, the EU has allocated US$200 million worth of humanitarian aid for the crisis in Yemen. Furthermore, Brussels has earmarked $512 million for cooperation and development projects in the country for the 2016-2020 period.
But European arms sales to countries engaged in the Yemeni conflict could have infringed the EU’s code on military exports. Under the bloc’s legislation, EU member states cannot transfer arms to countries that do not comply with humanitarian law and international rules. As well, weapons sales are forbidden if they pose a threat to regional peace, security, and stability.
Millions of Yemenis need humanitarian aid
The United Nations says Yemen is experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with nearly 20 million Yemeni people in need of assistance. Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said on Wednesday that seven million of Yemenis would face famine if the Saudi-led coalition did not lift its blockade of the war-torn country, allowing aid to be distributed to affected populations.
While UN officials are investigating if both factions have committed war crimes and human-rights violations, four liberal-progressive groups in the European Parliament have called on Mogherini to advance an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, this decision lies fully with the Union’s member states, which should approve the initiative within the European Council unanimously, and are reluctant to deal with the issue.
EU countries will pool resources to buy or develop defense systems as part of the EU’s effort to set up a common defense policy. The EU will likely have to devise a common position on arms exports if it wants to be credible in its promotion of humanitarian law and dialogue-based approach to conflict resolution.
TheEU could introduce a “democracy clause” for arms exports modelled on Sweden’s proposed legislation to regulate its defense companies’ business.
But for some EU countries — and their cronies in the defense sector — it seems that contracts with Middle Eastern countries worth billions of dollars are more important than geopolitical stability in Europe’s neighborhood.