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Theresa May Says The UK Will Keep Selling Weapons To Saudi Arabia

The prime minister faced questions from MPs as the death toll in Yemen rises.

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Theresa May today defended Britain's arms trade with Saudi Arabia despite the US having suspended sales of weapons there in the last 24 hours over high civilian deaths in Yemen.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, the prime minister said the UK had a "relationship" with Saudi Arabia, despite mounting concern that the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen was caused by Saudi airstrikes.

During Prime Minister's Questions, SNP MP Angus Robertson said: "Civilians have suffered grievously with the bombing of hospitals, of schools, of markets. The United Nations believes that 60% of civilian casualties are caused by airstrikes.

"In the last 24 hours the United States has stopped the supply of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen. When will the UK follow suit?"

His question was asked against a background of reports of Obama administration officials reportedly saying the “systematic, endemic" problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting drove the US decision to halt a future weapons sale involving precision-guided munitions, which include missile, bomb, or artillery shells intended to precisely hit a specific target.

“We’ve decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs (precision-guided munitions),” the US official said.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's 18-month-old civil war, according to the UN. In the summer, the UN human rights office said nearly 4,000 civilians had been killed in the conflict, with air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition responsible for some 60% of deaths.

Saudi Arabia is leading coalition airstrikes intervening in Yemen’s civil war on behalf of Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi militia.

In response to Robertson's question, May said the UK has a "very strict regime" of export licences in relation to the weapons it produces.

"We exercise that very carefully and in recent years we have indeed refused export licences in relation to arms including to Yemen and Saudi Arabia," she added.

Saudi Arabia is, however, by far the largest buyer of arms from the UK, which in turn is the largest military supplier in the world to the Saudis, selling equipment including night sights, fighter jets, bomb components, machine guns, and tear gas.

Some of these weapons have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in bombing raids in Yemen that have raised war crime concerns.

In his follow-up question, Robertson said: "The Saudis have UK-supplied precision guided Paveway missiles. They’re made in Scotland. The UK has licensed £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the bombing campaign. What will it take for the UK to adopt an ethical foreign policy when it comes to Yemen?"

May told the house the intervention in Yemen was a UN-backed intervention, adding: "As I’ve said previously, where have been allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law then we require things to be properly investigated."

Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

Yemeni explosives experts from the police department gather around an unexploded rocket allegedly dropped in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition.

She said Britain had a relationship with Saudi Arabia, adding: "The security of the Gulf is important to us."

"I would simply remind the right honourable gentleman that actually the counterterrorism links we have with Saudi Arabia have saved potentially hundreds of lives here in the UK," May said.

Campaigners criticised the prime minister's response in light of the Obama administration's decision, saying it did not absolve the UK of selling weapons that could potentially be used to bomb civilians.

Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade said: "The government is always telling us how strict UK arms export controls are supposed to be, but the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the destruction of Yemen is being done with UK weapons and has been underpinned and legitimised by UK support. Only last week, Theresa May and Boris Johnson were rubbing shoulders with those responsible for the bombing.

"If even the US government, the biggest arms dealer in the world, is reassessing its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, then it's surely time for the UK to do the same? The bombardment has killed thousands of civilians and has created a humanitarian catastrophe. It's time for the government to finally step up and do the right thing. Human rights cannot be ignored because of arms company interests."

Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Aisha Gani at Aisha.Gani@BuzzFeed.com.

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