The Cover-Up Of Australian Arms Sales To Saudi Arabia


Michael Brull explores our nation’s weak pretext for not disclosing our exports to Saudi Arabia.

As the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen spirals out of control – in part a consequence of Australia’s support for a Saudi-led siege on the country – it is worth cataloguing the government’s lies about why it won’t disclose military exports to Saudi Arabia.

The government approved four military exports to Saudi Arabia last year, and five more permits were approved since June this year. In response to public questioning, it has refused to disclose anything about those exports.

In Senate Estimates, Former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam asked the Minister for Defence, Marise Payne to tell us about our military exports to Saudi Arabia. Payne refused.

Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne.
Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne.

“Releasing that information would breach that confidence and undermine any trust in our ability to protect applicants’ professional and commercial information, which would, in fact, also be detrimental to our ability to effectively regulate the export of military goods and technology,” Payne explained.

Other officials similarly stonewalled.

By some miracle, in March this year, Senator Ludlam was able to sufficiently water down a motion on disclosing our military exports to Saudi Arabia, to the point that even the Australian Labor Party Senators voted for it. The motion urged the government to disclose documents relating to our military exports, and for Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Defence Industry, to disclose his itinerary on his previous trip to Saudi Arabia.

The government ignored the motion. Senator Ludlam proposed a motion noting this failure, and ordering that those documents be tabled, and required an explanation for any failure if the documents weren’t tabled. Senator Nick Xenophon and his colleagues backed the Greens.  The rest of the Coalition and other Senators voted against Ludlam’s motion, including the ‘battler’ Jacqui Lambie, the ‘libertarian’ David Leyonhjelm, Derryn Hinch, and One Nation’s Senators.


The government claimed “public interest immunity” from this motion. This is “on the basis of commercial confidentiality, Australia’s relations with foreign governments and national security”.

Senator Payne set out the three rationales in a letter to the Senate. In terms of “commercial confidentiality”, she explained that this could have a “detrimental effect”, by letting competitors know of a market opportunity (to sell such defence materiel to Saudi Arabia), and could “reduce buyers’ confidence in doing business with Australian companies”.


In terms of foreign relations, it could “prejudice” our relations with other governments, and constrain the ability of government bodies to “provide frank assessments in the future”. It would be inappropriate to “provide information on strategic capabilities and priorities of other governments”.


In terms of “national security”, the information would adversely affect the “proper and efficient conduct of Defence’s operations”, and Australia’s ability to “effectively regulate the export of military goods and technology”.


A similar rehashing of these grounds was given in response to a Freedom of Information request seeking to find out our military exports to Saudi Arabia.

None of these grounds should be taken seriously.

In July, Minister Pyne gave a speech about our military exports. Amidst a lot of bragging about an imminent expansion, Pyne said “The Australian-designed Nulka decoy system that protects ships from missiles not so long ago saved the USS Mason from an attack by Houthi rebels off the coast of Yemen.”

Similarly, Pyne bragged about Marand, who “make tail pieces and specialised engine trailers for the Joint Strike Fighter. They recently announced that, over the next decade their order book from the project will be worth more than $1 billion”. They will be “exporting vital components made here in Australia overseas, to take their place on perhaps the most advanced combat aircraft the world has ever seen, that will be operated by the USA, the United Kingdom, Japan, Israel and many other countries.”

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne during a visit earlier this year to Saudi Arabia, to promote the Australian defence industry.
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne during a visit earlier this year to Saudi Arabia, to promote the Australian defence industry.

Now, suppose that Senator Payne’s claims – that disclosing anything about our military exports to Saudi Arabia would affect commercial confidentiality, foreign relations and national security. Then Pyne harmed all three almost half a year ago.

Apparently, there has been no outcry about this lapse. The reason is simple. Australian military exports to Saudi Arabia are politically embarrassing – especially given the crisis in Yemen, blockaded by the invading Saudi-led coalition – so the government is simply telling a series of lies to avoid admitting our contributions to the threat of famine.


The crisis in Yemen

On 8 November, a UN official warned that if the siege on Yemen wasn’t lifted, we would see “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims”.

On 27 November, Handicap International warned

“The crisis in Yemen has led to months of food shortages: 17 million people – 60% of the population – are food insecure, of whom 7 million are on the brink of famine. Some 3 million people have been forcibly displaced by violence. Fewer than half of the health centers are operating normally. Forty-nine of the country’s 276 districts are without doctors. Between April and September, a cholera epidemic killed 2,000 people (out of 900,000 suspected cases)…. The closure of seaports, airports, and land crossings in and out of the country since November 6 has seriously aggravated the humanitarian crisis. The blockade threatens the lives of millions of people who have been struggling to survive for months.”

On 26 November, the Saudi coalition permitted UNICEF’s first delivery of humanitarian supplies since 6 November. A UNICEF official said, “Today, it is fair to say that Yemen is one of the worst places on earth to be a child. More than 11 million Yemeni children are today in acute need of humanitarian assistance. That’s almost every single Yemeni boy and girl.”

On 23 November, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned “Even with a partial lifting of the blockade on Yemen, an additional 3.2 million people will be pushed into hunger, as jointly warned by WFP, WHO and UNICEF. If left untreated, 150,000 malnourished children could die of malnutrition in the coming months.”


Outspoken Greens opposition to Australian support for the war on Yemen

To their credit, the Greens are continuing to oppose the war and calling for answers about our war on Yemen. On Monday, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson urged the government to disclose all documents relating to the joint training exercise between the Australian and Saudi Arabian navies.

The Saudi navy is currently enforcing a naval blockade on Yemen. The training exercise was exposed in a report on ABC by the outstanding correspondent, Sophie McNeill.

Greens Senators have also repeatedly spoken out in the Senate against Australian military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

On 16 November, Senator Whish Wilson said:

“Right now Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that is blockading Yemen. This has been recognised as an international crisis, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s estimated that nearly seven million people are facing starvation and death because of the conflict in that region and this blockade. We’ve just participated in a military exercise, training the Saudi Arabian navy — the navy that’s conducting the blockade. Our training exercise was near where the blockade was occurring. We are training the country that’s blocking humanitarian assistance, assistance that — as Senator Payne actually said, from advice from the foreign minister today — Australia is providing to Yemen. How could we be in a situation where we’ve just done a military training exercise that is training a country to block our own humanitarian assistance to a country that is facing an absolute catastrophe?”

On 14 November, Senator Lee Rhiannon added:

“Where does Australia stand? Australia is complicit in this suffering through its cooperation with Saudi Arabia. ‘Cooperation’ is probably too kind a word. Australia is actually bragging about its arms sales with Saudi Arabia as this war intensifies… Surely, we all know that the people of Yemen are dying. Even though there’s not much publicity, I think we all know that something shocking has happened there. And Australia is spruiking arms that kill these people! That’s what is going on in this part of the world—Saudi Arabia is permitting terrible crimes… The global community needs to place an arms embargo on parties to the conflict. The way we profit from the misery of the people in Yemen is a disgrace.”

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).