The decision was described as “morally bankrupt” by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the advocacy group that brought the initial legal challenge that led to the ban.
The Saudi government is leading a coalition against rebel insurgents in Yemen, which has developed into a 5-year long bloody conflict and humanitarian crisis — in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced from their homes.
In January this year, the situation in Yemen was named the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by the International Rescue Committee.
The UN has verified the deaths of at least 7,700 civilians since 2015 and said 60% of those were killed due to bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition, the BBC reports. But other monitoring groups believe the death toll to be higher.
On top of that, 24 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance as they face widespread food shortages and disease outbreaks.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia were halted from June 20, 2019, as a result of a High Court ruling that the trade could be in breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The court found that the government had acted unlawfully by not attempting to assess the risk of breaching this law when granting licences for the trade.
In response, an internal government review of the risks has been carried out — but it concluded that while there were “isolated incidents” of the arms going on to being used in a way that breached international humanitarian law, there was not a “clear risk” of this happening in future.
Liz Truss, the UK’s international trade secretary, announced the change in a statement to parliament on Tuesday that read: "I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL."
"The government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since June 20 last year,” the statement continued.
The decision has been widely criticised by opposition MPs and campaigners. Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said in a statement: “This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision.”
He continued: “The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role in the bombing.”
Smith added that the group were now speaking to lawyers to explore ways to challenge the decision.
He said: “The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the government to stop supplying the weaponry?”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told Sky News she was “lost for words”. She noted that the decision came one day after the government had announced human rights sanctions against 20 senior Saudi officials suspected of being involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, preventing them from doing business in the UK.
Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi regime who was killed in Turkey in 2018.
"How the foreign secretary can say on one day that the UK will act as a force for good in the world, standing up for human rights, and then on the next, agree to this moral outrage, is just unbelievable," she said in the Sky News report.
Meanwhile, shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry, told the BBC: “At a time when millions of Yemeni children are facing the mortal threat of starvation and disease, Britain should be working flat out to bring this terrible war to an end, not selling the arms that continue to fuel it."
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade says that since the bombing of Yemen began in 2015, the UK has licensed £5.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime, including bombs, missiles, drones, and aircraft.
By comparison, the BBC reports, Germany banned its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, after the killing of Khashoggi in 2018.