Earlier in September, a curious development took place in Spanish-Saudi bilateral relations. On September 4, Spain announced that it had terminated the sale of 400 precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and would return a $10.6 million payment to the Gulf nation.[i] The announcement won praise from human rights agencies, but prompted head-scratching even within the Spanish government.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat the day after the report emerged, the Spanish Consul to Saudi Arabia, Pablo Perez, said, 'The Spanish embassy was surprised by these claims,' noting that 'our ties with Saudi Arabia are fraternal and friendly.'[ii] Around a week later, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell announced a reversal, saying that the Spanish government 'found no reason not to carry' the munition sale out.[iii]
The incident puts on display a conundrum facing many of the arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia as well as the other countries involved in the civil war in Yemen. Activists in Yemen have provided evidence of the use of Western-supplied munitions in Saudi-led coalition attacks that resulted in high civilian casualties,[iv] prompting human rights organizations as well as lawmakers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to question their own countries’ responsibilities in the killings. The Saudi-led coalition denies targeting civilians deliberately, but nevertheless has acknowledged mistakes in targeting, such as the bombing of a bus in August that killed dozens of children.[v]
Canceling the supply of weapons that could be used in the conflict, however, is no simple task, as Spain has found out. While many of the details of the Madrid-Riyadh deliberations about the munitions sale are not public, it is believed that Saudi Arabia threatened to cancel a much larger agreement inked only this year for the sale of five Avante 2200 corvettes to Saudi Arabia.[vi] Shipbuilders in Spain evidently took the possibility of the cancellation of the corvette sale seriously, as many were reported to have protested in the days after the munition sale was announced as terminated.[vii]
In a global buyer’s arms market,[viii] Saudi Arabia is one of the bigger clients. The country has a defense budget of over $50 billion,[ix] which it utilizes to import billions of dollars’ worth of weapons. As indicated by the episode with Spain, Saudi Arabia is beginning to use this influence to ensure its military is not isolated from foreign suppliers and, furthermore, push back on countries that criticize its intervention in Yemen or its domestic human rights situation. The specter of the cancellation of an armored vehicle agreement with Canada added teeth to Saudi Arabia’s feud with Canada in August after that country criticized the arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia.[x]
Some of the smaller suppliers to Saudi Arabia have not found it as difficult to dump sales to the Gulf country, given the defense industry’s low dependency on carrying out the agreements. Sweden canceled an arms agreement in 2015 over concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Norway and Belgium bailed on the supply of arms to parties to the conflict in Yemen earlier this year.[xi]
The bigger suppliers, however, have fewer options, as outright termination of their deals with Saudi Arabia – as demanded by human rights organizations – may strain ties with Riyadh generally, and the kingdom has options to replace suppliers should it feel a need to. Sales to the Gulf countries help keep production lines running at home, reducing platform costs and ensuring employment at the manufacturing firms.[xii] Sales of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia are lucrative over the long term thanks to multiyear maintenance and overhaul contracts. Additionally, the kingdom’s Vision 2030 arms strategy offers ample opportunities for investment and joint ventures.
Arms importers in the present era have a significant amount of influence over the sellers, especially those buyers with access to multiple potential exporters.[xiii] As a result, Saudi Arabia has not found itself isolated on the whole from purchasing arms from Western countries, nor is it likely to. Germany, despite a pledge to stop supplying Saudi Arabia with arms, continues to approve weapons exports.[xiv]
Under U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.S. ended a brief ban on the export of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia – enacted under President Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, in late 2016 – and has not indicated an interest in curtailing deliveries to its Gulf ally.
A U.K. court has ruled that the government’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia are lawful (though the decision is being appealed).[xv]
Regardless of international pressure, the kingdom appears to have rather neatly secured its supply lines.