Spain backtracks on Saudi arms deal as US and UK take stand with Riyadh
LONDON - The Spanish government unblocked an arms sale to Riyadh in what observers said was an effort to avoid a diplomatic spat like the recent one between Saudi Arabia and Canada.
Spain’s recently elected socialist government on September 4 cancelled the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, citing concerns the weapons might be used against the Houthis, an Iran-proxy rebel group in Yemen. Riyadh is leading a military coalition against the Houthis.
The government in Madrid leaked to local media that it would return $10.6 million already paid by the Saudi government, which was part of a deal signed in 2015 with the previous government.
Less than a week later, however, the Spanish government made an about-face after reports that Riyadh was considering cancelling a $2.1 billion contract with the Spanish state-owned, economically challenged shipbuilding company Navantia. The collapse of the deal, which was aggressively pursued by King Felipe VI of Spain, could have resulted in the loss of 6,000 jobs.
“The government is working to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and to defend the contracts for the construction of five corvettes in Navantia’s shipyards,” government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said. “That implies maintaining the government’s international commitments. She added that she did not think there was a diplomatic crisis with Riyadh.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell on September 13 said Spain would go ahead with the delivery of the laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia.
King Felipe travelled to Saudi Arabia in January to finalise the Navantia deal, an agreement that had been two years in the making. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz travelled to Spain in April and the deal was signed in June.
In July, SAMI, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned military industries company, reached an agreement with Navantia to set up a joint venture to design and build five Avante 2200 vessels to be delivered by 2022, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
A Saudi statement said the joint venture, to be based in Saudi Arabia, would create 6,000 jobs for five years. The contract would contribute localising Riyadh’s military spending with a target of 50% by 2030 in accordance with its Vision 2030 economic and social reform programme.
Spanish Defence Minister Maria Margarita Robles on September 10 told a parliamentary commission: “Decisions will be made according to a bilateral framework between two countries that are partners and have signed a contract and it will be resolved amicably.”
The initial decision by Spain’s government was tied to civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement September 12 that he certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure” in Yemen.
“We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure,” Pompeo said.
UK Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt defended Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia, saying during a debate in parliament that “there is no reason to not support an ally under fire from missiles.” Burt said the UK government does not believe Saudi Arabia has breached international law.