business current affairs human rights

Time to cut ties with the arms trade

David Cameron is off on a tour of the Middle East this week, touching down in Egypt this afternoon. Arms sales are “expected to be on the agenda” on the tour, and there are rumours that six arms companies are travelling in the trade delegation. I don’t know if they’ve been dropped, but the Prime Minister was certainly due to be accompanied by representatives from BAE, Rolls Royce, Thales, Qinetiq and Babcock. (UPDATE – Yes, eight different defence companies are travelling with the PM)

Isn’t that rather poor timing? It was only last week that an embarassed UK government hastily withdrew arms export licenses to Bahrain and Libya in the wake of the recent violence.

“This Government takes extremely seriously its export control responsibilities” said foreign office minister Alistair Burt last week. “The longstanding British position is clear: We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”

That’s a fair policy, but wouldn’t that rule out Libya? Burt’s boss at the foreign office, William Hague, called Libya “one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic” countries in the world today. If Libya is one of the most closed and autocratic regimes in the world, why did Britain sell weapons to them? Recent arms sales to Libya include tear gas, rubber bullets and small arms ammunition. What did we think they were going to use that ammunition for, duck hunting?

It’s a little late for Libya now – 200 people have been killed in the last couple of days, some of the shot while attending funerals. British ammunition  may or may not have been used, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s not too late for plenty of other places. It’s not too late to stop arms sales to other oppressive and autocratic states in the Middle East.

And yet, arms lobbying is likely to be going on this week. The head of BAE Systems is hoping to sell Eurofighter jets to Oman and Qatar, and has already sold 72 to Saudi Arabia. “The Middle East is a key export area” Simon Keith told an arms fair in Abu Dhabi today. The government’s dedicated arms trading wing, the UKTI Defence and Security Organisation, is exhibiting at the same arms fair. Whatever it may say when violence erupts, the British government is the head cheerleader for the country’s arms dealers.  ‘UK second most successful global defence exporter‘ says a press release from UK Trade and Investment last year.

One branch of the government says it has “serious concerns” about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Another branch is arming the regime with our most cutting edge weaponry.

I know it’s tempting – arms dealing, sorry, the security and defence sector, was worth £7 billion in exports in 2009, with Britain controlling almost 20% of the world’s arms sales. But this past week has shown the dangers, once again, of arming oppressive regimes. So come on Cameron, let this be the last time you share a plane with the arms companies.


“The idea that Britain should not have defence relationships with some of these countries I don’t understand. It is quite right that we do. We have some of the toughest rules on export licences and exports of arms anywhere in the world. Everything has to meet those rules.”

That was David Cameron last night, justifying why he is promoting the arms trade in his tour. He is apparently unaware of the hypocrisy of claiming that our rules are tough and robust, just one week after being forced to withdraw dozens of export licenses.

Britain’s shameless tub-thumping for the arms industry is a national shame. If you’ll excuse the expression, I’m hoping this whole PR exercise backfires on David Cameron.


  1. Let’s say no country were to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Wouldn’t they then become an easy target for an invasion aimed at attaining the oil reserves? How do we get past this problem that game theory identifies?

  2. There are no easy solutions to this, for sure. David Cameron’s reaction was to mock the critics by suggesting that there has to be an arms trade. Of course, someone has to make weapons in a world with the threat of violence. But should our Prime Minister be promoting our weapons dealers? Should he do it the week after we had to revoke export licenses for selling military equipment to the wrong people? Should he promote sales to dictators and despots at the same time as heralding a new era for democracy? Obviously not. It’s the bad timing and the hypocrisy that make this particular incident such a shameful one.

    As for Saudi Arabia, and any country for that matter, the key to its security is not its personal military but international cooperation. If a major force such as China or the US were to decide to invade Saudi Arabia, nothing their own military could do would stop them. The key would be international diplomacy to prevent the conflict in the first place, and united international forces if it did. And it’s always been like that. Germany would have crushed the whole of Europe without US help during the World Wars, regardless of our own military.

    In a globalised, interdependent world, the idea that every country needs its own forces is obsolete. You may need a border patrol and a police force, but a standing army isn’t necessary for everyone. Obviously there have to be troops somewhere to call on, and in the longer term I expect we’ll end up with some kind of global NATO. Imagine an agreement that said that any war of aggression would immediately be contained by an international force. Countries wouldn’t even try.

    We’re nowhere near signing up to that, mainly because the world’s largest powers reserve the right to fight wars of aggression (see Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait vs our invasion of Iraq) But if the Western economies suffer a prolonged economic slump and money gets tight, I think we’ll see more and more defensive pacts. Just in the last few months Britain and France have a agreed a series of new partnerships for example.

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