The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, is trying to convince the international community that he is changing Saudi Arabia and its policies for the better. He has received much admiration for policies including giving women the right to drive and his ambitions to diversify their economy, but, do not let this promising narrative fool you.
At the same time, Muhammad bin Salman is imprisoning women's rights activists and other critics of the state. He tortures those in police custody for dissidence and murders those who are vociferously outspoken against him, evidenced by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi’s consulate in Turkey last year. In addition, the Saudi-led coalition in the ongoing Yemen Civil War has caused thousands of civilian casualties after targeting funerals, schools, hospitals and civilian boats.
The European Union (EU) recognises how these indiscriminate bombings are violations of international humanitarian law, however, they cannot come to a consensus on how to respond. The European Parliament has called for an embargo on the 'export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to Saudi Arabia', however, this proclamation is non-binding.
France and the United Kingdom are not willing to halt their extensive exports in arms to Saudi Arabia despite the allegations that such arms are being used in operations that kill civilians, a direct contravention on international law. European member states that are still selling their weapons to Saudi Arabia are violating the Common Position of the European Union. This position states that Europe should deny export licenses if there is a clear risk that the exported military equipment will be used against another country. If the EU is going to catalyse change that will stop innocent bloodshed in Yemen, it must issue a binding mandate for member states to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The EU should also look to other methods of mitigating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take action against those who are perpetuating the violence and breaking international law. Firstly, the EU can impose sanctions on individual human rights violators, including the freezing of their assets and visa bans. Secondly, the EU can boycott all financial, diplomatic and academic exchanges it engages in with Saudi Arabia. Given Saudi Arabia's reliance on Foreign Direct Investment and its volatile regional relationships with Iran and Israel, cutting off support in these areas could influence a change in Saudi policy.
Thus, one can conclude that the most important thing the European Union can to do is to unify itself, in policy and in action. Muhammad bin Salman will not change his foreign policy because of some stern words in Brussels, we must unify ourselves under a robust and honourable policy that reinforces international law and protects civilians in warfare. With barking alone we will not get Saudi Arabia to change its policy. We have to bite.
Author: Richtsje M. Kurpershoek
Richtsje holds a bachelor's degree in Social Psychology and currently studies Conflict Studies at the University of Amsterdam.