Lives for Sale: Saudi Arabia and the Arms Trade

The lives and rights of people too far away to interest anyone have been sacrificed for a handful of jobs and very profitable arms sales.

In January this year a leaked UN report by a panel of experts on the situation in Yemen confirms that at least 119 airstrikes by the Saudi forces have been targeting civilians. Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have been first hand witnesses as a number of their medical facilities have been attacked repeatedly. The fact that the UK, Germany, Bulgaria and other EU countries are selling arms to Saudi Arabia points to their joint responsibility in supporting this country as it violates international legislation and human rights. Spain is one of those countries selling arms and making other high level deals with Saudi Arabia.

Although not the biggest trader of arms to Saudi Arabia, the government of Spain authorized the sale of munition and bombs to Saudi Arabia in the amount of 24.2 million euros during the first part of 2015. Saudi Arabia, according to data provided by the Spanish Ministries of Defence and of Commerce, is the single most important client of the Spanish military industry, making up 25% of total sales to countries outside the EU and NATO since the start of the conflict in Yemen (in the amount of almost 500 million in 2015 alone). No information on double use of the arms sold by Spain to EU and NATO or other allies by Saudi Arabia is available.


Other important deals have been made with Saudi Arabia (like the construction of the high-speed train) but the ones related to arms deals from 2008-2014 have one German Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein facilitating negotiations with relevant actors in Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Spanish arms firms and Government through her intimate links to King Juan Carlos I.

The abdication of King Juan Carlos I of Spain on June 2, 2014 did not come as a surprise to most Spaniards. Although hailed as a key player in Spain’s transition to democracy after a harsh fascist dictatorship and a failed coup, he truly disappointed most of the population. For the first time in the whole Spain’s democratic history, his rating as a leader and that of the monarchy as an institution plummeted.

The case of the elephant hunt in Botswana in 2012 – that the Spanish public would never have known about were it not for an accident that the King suffered – links up with a deal to sell tanks in the amount of 3 billion to Saudi Arabia that finally went to Germany. In that sense, it could be said that Spain is less affected than other EU and NATO allies in shared responsibilities for the atrocities in Yemen. However, it does share the shame in that national legislation was changed, by-passing Parliamentary scrutiny, in its eagerness to be able to sell these tanks to Saudi Arabia in the name of supporting Spanish businesses.

The changes made in May 2012 had to do with by-passing the strict prohibition by individual companies to sell arms to countries that could use them against their own populations or that committed grave human rights violations. This prohibiton was in accordance to the EU Code of Conduct on arms export, a Code that has apparently been violated by most of the EU members.


The national legislation on arms trade passed in 2007, the fruit of long years of advocacy by a number of international human rights NGOs operating in Spain (Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace), was changed under Saudi pressure.  In this manner the change in 2012 and the ensuing negotiation of the tank deal was not debated in Parliament. At the moment this change is not on any of the political parties’ radar to have it recalled. The change stated that the Government of Spain would be directly involved in the arms deal as “many countries insist or have legislation that only direct arms deals with States are admissible”.

In addition to weaknesses in the 2007 legislation pointed out by the NGOs, this change by the Council of Ministers effectively allowed the government to represent the interests of the arms industry to sell arms to countries that violate human rights, in clear violation of the EU Code of Conduct, but also in clear violation of national legislation.

In response to the criticism, the Spanish Ministry of Defence gave an official answer based on purely economic reasoning: due to the budgetary cuts, the national arms industry could no longer rely on sales to the Spanish government, thus, exporting arms could allow the industry to be more competitive. Thus, sadly, the lives and rights of people too far away to interest anyone have been sacrificed for a handful of jobs and very profitable sales.


As stated in the EU Code of Conduct, Member States are asked to deny issue of an export licence of arms if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression, and it also recommends the exercising of special caution and vigilance in issuing export licences to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the UN, the Council of Europe or by the EU. To date, and according to the latest report by the Human Rights Council presented to the UN General Assembly on Saudi Arabia, leaves no room for doubt as to the human rights standing in this country which is in clear contradiction to the national legislations and EU Code of Conduct.

The Security Council Press Statement on the situation in Yemen states the following: 

The members of the Security Council expressed serious concern at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which in terms of numbers of people in need is the largest in the world. The members of the Security Council underlined their full support to humanitarian workers delivering aid in very difficult conditions across Yemen. The members of the Security Council expressed concern at all reports of obstruction of the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Yemen. The members of the Security Council welcomed the establishment of the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism and called upon all States to adhere to its provisions.”

Where and how long this will take is anybody’s guess, but respecting and fulfilling legislation by democratic States should be a much easier and faster route to lessen the suffering of millions.


Human Rights
Elizabeth Villagómez

Elizabeth Villagomez, independent researcher and consultant, has been the Adviser for Economic Empowerment of Women UN Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean and was the first economic adviser at the institution in 2001 as part of UNIFEM. She holds a PhD in Economics. Her professional activity has developed in teaching and applied research in economics with a focus on gender issues. She has worked in Eastern and South East Europe, Middle East, Central Asia, South-east Asia, and the Pacific Islands for various UN agencies and other European and international organizations.
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