The British government secured a massive victory in the courts on Monday following a verdict that arms exports to Saudi Arabia had not violated the country’s laws in a ruling that saved thousands of jobs and avoided a foreign policy crisis for Theresa May.
The court rejected claims the government was acting illegally by not suspending weapon sales to the Kingdom stemming from the use of some British weapons in the Yemen conflict. Officials defended granting arms export licences for shipments to Saudi Arabia, arguing that safeguards were in place and Riyadh was co-operating with its British ally in requests for transparency.
Campaigners had brought the action claiming that Saudi air strikes against the Houthi militia fighting to control Yemen had caused thousands of civilian deaths. The armed forces of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are battling to restore the internationally-recognised government of Abdrabu Mansour Hadi after the president was forced into exile.
The case was brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade which plans to appeal the ruling. The group attacked the refusal of the International Trade Department to suspend export licences.
Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, hit out at the ill-informed points made for “propaganda purposes” by opponents of the exports. He told parliament that the ruling preserved Britain’s tight relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"This was not a conflict that Saudi Arabia or the coalition sought. They have a right to self defence," he said. “We are in close touch with a party to a conflict in ways I have never seen before.
“It’s not just the doctrine of responsible use but also the training and expertise we export."
He warned a ban would be counter-productive, resulting in a “proliferation” of armaments factories in countries that did not supervise the export of weapons.
After seeing secret evidence that was withheld from the public record, the judges ruled that the decision to carry on the arms trade was not unlawful.
They said that the "closed material", which was held back for national security reasons, "provides valuable additional support for the conclusion that the decisions taken by the secretary of state not to suspend or cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia were rational”.
“The UK has considerable insight into the military systems, processes and procedures of Saudi Arabia adopted in Yemen, due to its close and high level contacts,” it said.
The ministry of defence "also provides significant training to the Saudi armed forces in relation to targeting and compliance with international humanitarian law", according to the ruling.
Advanced British weapons are one of the country’s biggest industries, providing employment for tens of thousands of workers. Saudi Arabia is a prime destination for arms sales.
Saudi Arabia is a huge customer for the largest British armaments maker BAE Systems. The flagship defence manufacturer has deployed 6,200 staff in Saudi Arabia, many in high-paying, highly skilled positions.
Its last annual report showed that revenues from Saudi Arabia represented 21 per cent of the company’s £19bn (Dh89.8bn) annual sales. The company gains about the same amount of money from sales to the British ministry of defence and other security agencies. It sells more than a third of its output to the US government.
An adverse ruling would have been a shattering blow to the company and its shares staged a relief rally in response to the verdict.
The government said the judgement was an endorsement of its robust export regime.
After the ruling, British officials would continue to scrutinise all applications and the progress of the conflict. The review procedure would ensure sales met the standards of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.