Mark Menzies is Conservative MP for Fylde.
There is a lot more than the plight of Yemen and the stability of the Middle East – the world’s most troubled region – resting on the outcome of this week’s Judicial Review hearing into the licensing of British defence sales to Saudi Arabia.
The ruling could have massive ramifications for the British defence industry and the UK’s security. The industry was worth £3 billion to the economy in 2015 and is responsible for over 300,000 jobs. A ban on defence sales to Saudi Arabia would hit BAE Systems and Raytheon hardest, and would cause the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in England and Scotland.
The defence industry is of huge importance to the local economy in my constituency. BAE Systems employs approximately 5,500 workers at its Warton Aerodrome site in Fylde, while a further 4,500 people are employed less than 15 miles away, at Samlesbury. It is crucial that these high-skilled manufacturing jobs continue to be supported, driving and sustaining a buoyant economy in this part of North West England.
Any form of ban on defence exports would also have a considerable impact upon the UK’s own military capabilities. Arms licenses provide valuable income, a proportion of which is spent on research and development work into new technology, ensuring that our military remains among the world’s best. In an uncertain era this is more critical than ever.
Moreover, exports create economies of scale that keep our manufacturers competitive. The £100 million agreement, signed by the Prime Minister in Turkey recently, to build fighter jets is the most recent example of this in practice, and was signed with a government with which the UK enjoys considerably colder relations than it does with Saudi Arabia. The Prime Minister should be commended for this deal – we must all understand the reality that if the UK is not allowed to export defence equipment abroad, our competitors will gladly fill the void.
This week’s Judicial Review is being closely followed in Paris, but the French would face stiff competition from the US, China, Ukraine, Spain, Canada and a host of other countries that already sell military capabilities to Saudi. It is also worth noting that a similar review into Canadian defence export licences last week, found in favour of continuing to export defence equipment to the Saudi Arabian government, meaning Canadian defence exports to Saudi will continue.
Unlike many other countries, the UK’s defence exports are already subject to a very rigorous set of conditions guarding against improper use. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not some sort of rogue state but a key ally of the UK. It has intervened in Yemen in support of the legitimate government and with the support of a United Nations mandate. It has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on humanitarian aid in Yemen – something that is not widely acknowledged by the media.
While the suffering of the Yemeni people must end and the conflict halted, the solution does not lie in the stopping of UK defence sales. The solution lies in a political solution that includes the cessation of Iranian interference in Yemen and its support for the Houthi rebels, who have killed hundreds of Saudis with rockets fired from Yemen into Saudi territory.
The close relationship that the UK has to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – including Saudi Arabia – means that we have more diplomatic clout and an ability to influence a positive outcome than many other Western countries. If the UK’s defence exports were halted this relationship would be much diminished. This would be a terrible result for people in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia and in the UK.