European lawmakers adopted a motion on September 17, calling on EU member states to impose an embargo on arms as well as surveillance technology and other equipment on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt. The European Parliament (EP) also demanded member states to impose sanctions on Riyadh over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and its role in Yemen’s war.

An EU arms export report urged the EU members to “follow the example of Germany, Finland and Denmark, which, after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi introduced restrictions on their arms exports to Saudi Arabia.”

However, it remains unclear how countries will follow the example of the above-mentioned EU member states, as in many cases, perceived economic and political benefits of continuing the arms trade with the Gulf have been too significant to abandon over EU declared principles. Some countries, notably France and the UK, have simply ignored EP calls in the past.

Diederik Cops, Senior Researcher at the Belgium-based Flemish Peace Institute, observes that since 2016, there has been a gradual decrease in the number of export licenses issued by EU member states to Saudi Arabia. “In 2018, almost all arms export licenses were issued by five member states – France, Belgium, Germany, the UK, and Bulgaria; the other [then] 23 member states did not allow any meaningful arms exports to Saudi Arabia,” Cops told Inside Arabia.

Germany has suspended all arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi-killing.

In the meantime, Germany has suspended all arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi-killing. In Belgium, for example, Cops explained that the regional Walloon government announced a new policy in 2019, stating that only exports to the Saudi National and Royal Guard were allowed (because they were not involved in the Yemen conflict according to the Walloon government). But earlier this year, the Belgian Council of State suspended all export licenses to Saudi Arabia issued by the Walloon government, while the Flemish regional government has also de facto halted arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the Yemen coalition.

EU Gulf arms embargo

A display of Belgian-made arms from the FN Herstal factory in Wallonia. Earlier this year, the Belgian Council of State suspended all export licenses to Saudi Arabia issued by the Walloon government. (Photo via The Brussels Times )

Giorgio Beretta, Arms Trade Analyst for the Permanent Observatory on Small Arms, Security, and Defense Policies (OPAL) based in Brescia, cites the example of Italy, which last year suspended for 18 months the shipping of bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The EU motion, according to Beretta, encourages other EU states to follow this path which is very relevant if the European Union intends to stand for its founding values and bring about a common international policy aimed at peace and security in the Middle East. He believes that it will become increasingly difficult for EU states and governments to ignore the EU resolution and to justify the shipment of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war.

However, Frank Slijper, Program Leader of the Arms Trade at PAX, based in the Netherlands, notes that as long as France and the UK –Europe’s largest exporters – do not take such steps, it unfortunately has limited material effect. With the UK leaving the EU, members may feel even less compelled to apply any restrictions on such sales and further put economic priorities over an ethical foreign policy.

“France still exports substantial amounts of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and to the other Gulf States.”

The decision is in the hands of each government, and ultimately the EU Council, but Cops does not think that a common EU position, in the form of a formal arms embargo, will occur in the near future. He argues that France, for example, still exports substantial amounts of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and to the other Gulf States, and therefore Cops is rather doubtful that Paris would substantially alter its position. However, Slijper notes that the pressure will definitely increase for the countries which continue to export, as they are being held accountable for unscrupulous trade.

EU Gulf arms embargo

Children sit amidst the rubble of a house hit by Saudi-led coalition planes. Members of the European Parliament renewed calls for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia in September. (Photo via The Independent)

In early October, Saudi Arabia received a painful punch as the EP adopted another resolution and called to downgrade EU attendance at the November G20 summit in Saudi Arabia. The resolution comes on the two-year anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and once again condemns human rights abuses in the Saudi kingdom. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, said the resolution represents one of the strongest political messages the institution has ever issued on Saudi Arabia.

The recent European Parliament votes clearly suggest that the Gulf strategy of forging alliances with right-of-center political groups in Europe is not delivering the desired results.

The recent EP votes clearly suggest that the carefully developed Gulf strategy of forging alliances with right-of-center political groups in Europe is not delivering the desired results, as the main center-right faction, the European People’s Party (EPP), abstained on the final vote for the resolution. Some moderate conservatives from Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, and Finland even decided to join the liberal and center-left groups in backing the motion. It seems that the far-right groups are the only allies left for some Gulf monarchies.

Slijper said that despite intense lobbying efforts by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular, aimed at undercutting efforts towards stricter arms export policy, an increasing majority, including on the more conservative side, acknowledges that arms transfers contributing to human rights and international law violations are no longer acceptable.

“It is, however, important to know that the political dynamics in the European Parliament are a combination of a specific European political outlook – focusing on European interests and stressing values such as peace, human rights, and conflict prevention – with national sensitivities,” Cops noted. The latter, according to him, can help explain why moderate conservatives voted against the EPP decision to abstain, because in their domestic constituencies substantial attention is given to the issue of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, so that, of course, influences their voting decisions at the European level.

As for Beretta, the “EPP decision to abstain and of some MP’s to vote in favor of the resolution is founded in the long-standing effort to support means to create a common standard about arms export and to coordinate procedures and initiatives in this field at communitarian level.”

Beretta also noted that support of far-right groups to the Gulf monarchies is rather bizarre given their propaganda against the “Islamic invasion” and their fierce stance for “traditional and national values.” As a matter of fact, “what far-right groups are actually interested in is the business of the military-industrial apparatus which, as is well known, draws its profits mainly from tensions and conflicts around the world,” he added.

The direct effect of the EU Parliament’s motions remain limited in scope.

However, while the recent EP decisions signal a possible policy shift of certain EU members towards some of the Gulf states, the direct effect of the EU Parliament’s motions remain limited in scope, despite numerous voices suggesting that the policies may impact broader transatlantic views regarding the addressed issues, especially in Canada and even in the US (in the case of Biden’s win).

In Beretta’s view, it is difficult to predict what the United States will do if Biden is elected or what stance Canada will take, but the countries certainly cannot ignore the decisions of their European partners nor the latest and previous resolutions of the European Parliament on Yemen. He thinks the various motions on arms trade adopted in recent years are clear indication of a renewed attention on the part of political representatives which reflects a strong concern of citizens and civil society organizations.

But in Cops opinion, EP calls will have limited reach because the Parliament’s real power in EU foreign policy-making is indeed limited, as decisions need to be made at the level of the European Council, consisting of the member states. He believes the repeated adoption of the call for an arms embargo may give further support to a broad movement that is critical of arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia in countries such as the UK, the US, and Canada.

“It can help to keep the issue of arms export to Saudi Arabia on the societal and political agenda and can indirectly affect arms export policies in these countries, but this call will not inevitably have direct consequences,” Cops further explained.



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