Sales of weapons to the Middle Eastern country, which currently leads a coalition of states accused of committing war crimes during a protracted conflict in Yemen, had been banned in June 2019 by an Order of the UK Court of Appeal.
The order prevented “any new licenses for the export of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in Yemen”.
But in a statement on Tuesday, international trade secretary Liz Truss said British arms sales to Saudi Arabia would resume following the completion of a court-ordered government review into military export licenses granted to the country.
Ms Truss admitted that the decision was being made despite the review finding that Saudi Arabia may have used British arms in incidents that breached international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen.
Ms Truss said that although the review found “credible incidents of concern” that have been termed “possible” breaches of IHL, the government has classified them as “isolated incidents”.
The minister also expressed her belief that Saudi Arabia has a “genuine intent and the capacity to comply” with human rights laws going forward.
It reads: "The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons.”
“Having now re-taken the decisions that were the subject of judicial review on the correct legal basis, as required by the Order of the Court of Appeal of 20 June, it follows that the undertaking that my predecessor gave to the Court – that we would not grant any new licences for the export of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in Yemen – falls away.
"The broader commitment that was given to Parliament, relating to licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, also no longer applies.
CAAT condemns the government's decision to allow new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and exploring all options available to challenge it. https://t.co/FEHkprnZnF #StopArmingSaudi— CAAT (@CAATuk)July 7, 2020
Britain has historically been a major supplier of arms to the Gulf kingdom, with leading company, BAE Systems, reported to have sold £15bn-worth of arms in five years — including the type of aircraft used in bombing missions.
In the statement, Ms Truss adds: “I have concluded that, notwithstanding the isolated incidents which have been factored into the analysis as historic violations of IHL, Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL.
“On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.
“The Government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since 20 June last year.”
Five years of war has seen more than 100,000 people killed in Yemen, according to The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled), a well- regarded database project that tracks the ongoing conflict.
Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest nation. In October 2018, the United Nations reported that 14 million of its citizens were on the brink of famine, and Covid-19 has stretched resources even further recent months, leaving thousands of families facing starvation.
The ongoing conflict has been termed a “proxy war”, as long-term rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have each backed one faction in the country’s civil war.
Houthi rebels, aligned with Iran, took over the capital from the internationally recognised government of Yemen in 2014.
In 2015, Saudi-led airstrikes, which allegedly included use of British-made weapons, were launched in a mission to prevent the Houthi rebels from taking the south of the country.
Since then the airstrikes have bombed hospitals, schools, school buses, community gatherings and food supply chains, and the UN and humanitarian groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of breaching IHL and committing war crimes.
The rebels have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia in the war, which has seen Saudi involvement reduce in recent months.
The total number of displaced Yemenis is now up to four million, according to reports.
Anti-weapon sales lobby group, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, has said it is considering taking legal steps over the decision.
The group states the UK has licensed at least £5.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began in 2015.
Spokesperson Andrew Smith labelled the decision “disgraceful and morally bankrupt”.
He said: “The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the Government to stop supplying the weaponry?”
"We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it.”
Rosa Curling of Leigh Day Solicitors, the firm which took the original case to court, said: "Our client welcomes the Secretary of State's decision to finally accept the judgement handed down by the Court of Appeal and to agree that any decision concerning licence applications must include an assessment of whether IHL breaches have occurred.
“But CAAT is also deeply alarmed by the decision that, despite her new procedure, the Secretary of State has decided licences can continue to be granted and that there is no clear risk the Saudi led coalition in Yemen might use such licensed, military equipment in breach of IHL.
"My client's view is the evidence remains overwhelming that such a risk does in fact exist. We are considering her decision carefully with our client.”
The Department for International Trade has been contacted for comment.