By Derek Bisaccio, Middle East Analyst, Forecast International.
On January 2, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 people on terrorism charges. Among those executed was Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent figure in anti-government protests. Al-Nimr was convicted in October 2014 for sedition and illegal possession of weapons. He denied having advocated for violence and rejected that he had any weapons, but even so, a Saudi court upheld his death sentence.
Al-Nimr’s execution sparked a new diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and received much criticism from abroad. Saudi Arabia has used the ensuing row with Iran to isolate the Islamic Republic – especially after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran – but Saudi Arabia may well see a blowback, too, in terms of its arms procurements from Europe. Throughout 2015 and after the latest executions, particularly al-Nimr’s execution, many European officials have called for the termination of arms exports to the kingdom.
Any fallout that occurs in terms of Saudi Arabia’s arms procurement from Europe is likely to be confined to particular countries on a case-by-case basis and will not amount to a European Union-wide arms embargo. Notably, France, which inked a $12 billion deal with Saudi Arabia in June 2015 that included military aircraft,[i] criticized the recent executions but otherwise did not indicate that current or future arms deals would be subject to review as a result.
But in the United Kingdom, members of the country’s Parliament have sought to restart the Committee on Arms Exports Controls to reassess arms transfer to other countries, with an emphasis on examining sales to Saudi Arabia.[ii] Elsewhere, Spain’s left-wing Podemos Party called for a review of military sales to Saudi Arabia.[iii] And German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel condemned the prisoner executions and stated that Germany should review whether it should take a more critical stance on future arms sales.[iv]
Belgium’s Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois went further, stating that he does not believe it is appropriate to make arms sales to Saudi Arabia.[v] This statement could complicate a deal for the supply of light armored vehicles (LAVs) by General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) Canada to Riyadh, given that Belgian company CMI Defence has been subcontracted to provide its 105mm Cockerill CT-CV turret for the LAV IIIs. CMI Defence’s role in the GDLS Canada deal has already been controversial in Belgium and, though Bourgeois did not refer specifically to the turret contract, his call against arms sales to Saudi Arabia may apply to the turret deal.
In the aftermath of the Saudi executions, Canada’s Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion, stated that the armored vehicles agreement, worth $15 billion, will not be canceled.[vi] The deal was concluded by the previous administration, and new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continually stated that Canada will honor it.
Should Belgium’s participation in the contract run into difficulty or be ended, however, the LAV III contract as a whole could suffer. CMI Defence has been working since 2013 to establish its turret-building operation – reportedly for up to 700 LAV IIIs[vii] – and the company is due to also provide training for Saudi operators beginning in 2017. Replacing CMI Defence with another company would take time. Furthermore, Belgium’s withdrawal would give Trudeau’s opponents in Canada more ammunition for demanding Canada cancel the contract.
For the most part, Saudi Arabia will likely not suffer too many negative repercussions from the executions of al-Nimr and the other prisoners. The kingdom effectively outmaneuvered Iran on the matter, turning the fierce Iranian response into a way to isolate the Islamic Republic at just the time when Iran has started to repair its international image. Oil prices have stayed low, a circumstance that, while cutting into Saudi Arabia’s own revenue, is useful for mitigating Iranian revenues as sanctions on Iran’s economy end. Even in the military market, Saudi arms procurements likely will not be impacted too much – but the LAV III deal could well become an exception to this rule.
[i] Defense News, “France, Saudi Arabia Announce $12B in Deals,” June 24, 2015. http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/mideast-africa/2015/06/24/france-to-study-building-nuclear-reactors-in-saudi-arabia/29213887/
[ii] Mark Leftly, “MPs resume scrutiny of arms exports to Saudi Arabia,” The Independent, January 10, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/mps-resume-scrutiny-of-arms-exports-to-saudi-arabia-a6805356.html
[iii] Podemos, “Communicado De La Secretaría De Relaciones Internacionales De Podemos Ante El Viaje Anunciado De Los Reyes A Arabia Saudí,” http://podemos.info/comunicado-de-la-secretaria-de-relaciones-internacionales-de-podemos-ante-el-viaje-anunciado-de-los-reyes-a-arabia-saudi/
[iv] Ryan Maass, “Germany rethinking arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” UPI, January 5, 2016. http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Security-Industry/2016/01/05/Germany-rethinking-arms-sales-to-Saudi-Arabia/1391452016270/
[v] Baptiste Hupin, “Bourgeois: ‘Je n’exporterais pas d-armes à feu pour l’instant vers l’Arabie Saoudite,'” RTBF, January 5, 2016. http://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_geert-bourgeois-je-n-exporterais-pas-d-armes-a-feu-pour-l-instant-a-l-arabie-saoudite?id=9177818
[vi] John Paul Tasker, “Stéphane Dion stands by $15B Saudi arms deal after executions,” CBC News, January 5, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/stephane-dion-saudi-arms-deal-1.3390854
[vii] Steven Chase and Daniel LeBlanc, “Armoured vehicles in Saudi deal will pack lethal punch,” The Globe and Mail, January 6, 2016. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/armoured-vehicles-in-saudi-deal-will-pack-lethal-punch/article28046099/