Will more European countries follow Norway’s lead on Yemen war?

 15 Jan 2018 - 18:47

Key pillars of Norway’s foreign policy in the Middle East include maintaining neutrality in regional conflicts, serving a humanitarian role in crisis-ridden areas, and building strong investment ties. Over the years, Oslo’s conflict mediation/resolution efforts along with Norway’s contributions to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in post-conflict zones have significantly enhanced the Scandinavian country’s soft power in the Middle East. Such an approach has enabled Norway to better cement economic relations with Middle Eastern countries while earning a reputation for bringing “good will” to the volatile region.

Having never been a colonial power in the Arab world, Norway—unlike France, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—does not bring such historical baggage to the region. Furthermore, on the “Arab Street”, Norway is not really associated with any aggression in the region in contrast to certain Western powers, as well as Russia and Iran. Nonetheless, Norway—as a close ally of the United States, which is also one of the few European countries to maintain good ties with Hamas—has used its unique diplomatic position to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Hamas, quite like Qatar. Simultaneously, Oslo’s alliance with the US has not prevented Norway from deepening ties with Iran.

Within the framework of Oslo’s vision for promoting peace in the war-torn region, this month the Foreign Ministry announced the suspension of Norway’s weapons and ammunition sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The ministry stated that the suspension “reflects the strict precautionary approach taken by Norway”, citing human rights concerns in Yemen. Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide expressed “great concern” over Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Domestic politics were a key factor behind Norway’s decision to halt exports of weapons and ammunition to the UAE, which reached nearly $10 million in 2016. In Norway, a host of civil society organisations and human rights groups, along with lawmakers, pushed hard to stop the sale of weapons to Abu Dhabi, which Norway had permitted since 2010 (although the country had previously banned the sale of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia).

How does Norway’s decision fit into the context of Europe’s general set of attitudes toward supplying the Saudis and Emiratis weapons as Yemen’s war and humanitarian disaster exacerbate? Although the European Union parliament adopted a resolution calling on the bloc’s members to stop exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia due to the Yemeni crisis, there is no European consensus on this highly contentious issue.

EU members have disagreements about where international law comes down with respect to arms sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi amid the Yemen war. Unquestionably, the strong incentives that European politicians have for not opposing such lucrative deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE pertain to the economic benefits of greater foreign exchange in their countries’ economies and the growth of their flourishing defense industries that have recently provided good-paying jobs amid periods of high unemployment in Europe.

Italy, Germany, and Spain have all sold arms to Saudi Arabia since the Riyadh-led coalition’s 2015 entry into Yemen. Consequently, those governments have received criticism from lawmakers and civil society organisations who call on their leaders to end such weapons deals with Saudi Arabia. In late 2017, political pressure in Greece, largely driven by political and moral considerations, pushed Athens to scrap a missile and bombs deal with Saudi Arabia.

As many observers of the political crisis and humanitarian disaster in Yemen concur, Western countries’ arms sales to parties involved in the Yemeni crisis have been key factors prolonging the war.

To be sure, Norway has never been a main source of the UAE or any GCC state’s arms imports and throughout this conflict the United States, United Kingdom, and France have been their top weapons sources. To state the obvious, changes in Washington, London, and Paris’ approaches to GCC arms sales—much more so than Norway’s—would prove far more influential in terms of pressuring the Saudis and Emiratis to accept a cease-fire and begin negotiating peace with the Houthis and other actors in the conflict.

The important question is how will other Western countries, including those that have higher financial stakes in continuing to supply GCC states with arms, move forward? Although as outrage over the crisis in Yemen grows and there are increasingly vocal calls on all governments that supply arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to freeze such sales, for now Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s top weapons providers in the West have leaders who are ignoring such calls.

Regardless, Oslo’s decision to suspend arms and ammunition sales to the UAE until the Yemen crisis is resolved is indeed indicative of a growing opposition across Europe to the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen and a recognition of Europe’s role in the country’s humanitarian disaster. Norway, in emphasising the need for a more a cautious foreign policy vis-à-vis Yemen, has set forth an alternative approach that Europe could embrace toward the Arab world’s poorest country where more than seven million live on the brink of famine and over 20 million need humanitarian assistance.

Dr. Khalid Al Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.