Chancellor Philip Hammond is planning to travel to Saudi Arabia next week amid fresh criticism of Britain’s arms sales to the regime, the Mirror has learned.
The trip will come just days after influential Lords committee accused the Government of being “on the wrong side of international law” over arms sales during the Kingdom’s involvement in hostilities in Yemen.
The report, published by the Lords International Relations Committee today, called on ministers to suspend key weapons contrats to members of the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict, and address the causes of the “unconscionable” humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
And the Chancellor’s visit comes amid mounting questions over visits made to Saudi Arabia by senior UK officials, apparently in connection with arms sales, within days of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A Cabinet source told the Mirror: “Aren’t we supposed to be taking a tough line with these beheaders?”
The UK has licensed over £4.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and £860 million worth to its coalition partners since the conflict in Yemen commenced in March 2015.
The UK is the second largest exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia after the US, accounting for 25% of arms imports to the oil-rich nation.
Lord Howell, chair of the committee said: “It That the UK is the second-largest exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia, and the fifth largest donor of humanitarian aid in Yemen is a contradiction which the government must address as a matter of urgency.”
He added: “We do not agree with the Government’s assertion that it is narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law in the case of licensing arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition.
“It is narrowly on the wrong side: given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition, we believe they are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen, risking the violation of international humanitarian law.”
Treasury officials refused to confirm Mr Hammond’s travel plans in advance of the visit.
And they would not say what the aim of any trip to Saudi Arabia would be.
The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Hammond last travelled to Saudi Arabia in July 2018, when he visited Jeddah for discussions with King Salman on the Kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ plan for social and economic reforms.
In 2016, Mr Hammond was criticised by human rights groups, after he refused to condemn the mass execution of 47 people in Saudi Arabia.
The Government had expressed “disappointment” at the executions. But asked to go further on the BBC, Mr Hammond refused to denounce the action.
Instead he claimed: “Let us be clear, first of all, that these people were convicted terrorists.”
At least four of the men were arrested and sentenced to death for taking part in political protests.
In December (2018) the Mirror revealed British officials promoting arms exports held meetings with Saudi Arabian government and military personnel in the weeks immediately after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
A high-level delegation from the Defence and Security Organisation, which exists solely to promote arms exports, was in Riyadh on the day of the killing, October 2.
And senior officials from the Department of International Trade (DIT), including Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner, and representatives from the Foreign Office held meetings with businessmen during a three-day trade conference in Riyadh, while the Government officially sought to distance itself from the event.
The summit came at the peak of international uproar over Mr Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment, apparently at the hands of Saudi government agents in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Mr Khashoggi, a journalist and dissident who criticised the kingdom’s rulers, was murdered moments after he entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
It is said that he was strangled before his body was dismembered and removed from the consulate.
His remains have not been found. There has been speculation in Turkey that his body was dissolved in acid.
The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt both insisted at the time that the UK had withdrawn from the so-called ‘Davos in the Desert’ summit as questions mounted over Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement in the murder.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “This is a welcome and credible report and will add further weight to the growing international pressure on the UK and others to end arms sales to the brutal Saudi regime.
UK-made fighter jets and bombs have played a central role in the bombardment and the destruction. Despite the atrocities and abuses that have been committed, the Government’s position has been to push arms sales at all costs. These sales are immoral and illegal.
The Saudi regime has shown a consistent contempt for human rights and has proven that it cannot be trusted to observe the most basic rights of Saudi people. Yet Downing Street has trusted it to investigate itself for war crimes. How much worse does the situation have to get before Theresa May and her colleagues take action?”
A Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the IRC’s report on Yemen and thank the committee for engaging on this fundamental issue. The UK is doing all that it can to help parties to find a way to end this devastating conflict.
“We are putting our full weight behind the work of Martin Griffiths and the UN-led peace process, and urge the international community to do the same. It is the only way to finding a lasting solution to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”