Socialist Worker

How Britain sells tear gas to dictators

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2776

Protesting against British arms sales to Saudi Arabia during crown prince Mohammed bin Salmans visit to London in 2018

Protesting against British arms sales to Saudi Arabia during crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to London in 2018 (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The British government has authorised sales of tear gas to several repressive states over more than a decade, new research reveals.

At least six of them are states that the government itself says have committed human rights violations.

The monitoring organisation Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) found the government approved tear gas sales to Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka.

These are all on the Human Rights Priorities List, which the British government says are “countries where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues.”

In addition, the government has also granted tear gas sales to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman. All of these have crushed demonstrations and revolts brutally over the past decade—including uprisings during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Police in Oman likely used British-made tear gas against protesters as recently as May this year.

Photographs posted to social media showed British arms firm PW Defence Ltd had made the tear gas grenades that cops used against people protesting over unemployment.

Campaign Against the Arms Trade says Britain has licensed more than £16 million worth of tear gas to Oman since 2015. AOAV says Britain has approved 20 tear gas sales to Oman since 2008—making the country the fourth most frequent buyer.

Oman is listed as a priority market by the British government, and is a key buyer of British arms according to AOAV.

Multiple 

The government has also approved multiple sales to the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman despite documented examples of it being used for internal repression.

Britain reviewed sales to Bahrain after British-made tear gas was used to crack down on protesters who had joined the uprisings across the Middle East in 2011. A report the following year found that at least 13 people died as a direct result of the Bahraini authorities’ use of tear gas.

Saudi Arabia, which Britain has also sold tear gas to, used it to crush protests.

Yet, despite the review, Britain approved four more licences for tear gas ammunition to Bahrain, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018. Bahrain again used tear gas on civilians to repress anti-corruption protests in 2015.

Meanwhile, the governments of Jordan and Kuwait have also used tear gas to crush protests during the period covered by AOAV’s report.

The report shows how Britain is perfectly willing to ignore—and even facilitate—repression and human rights abuses to help its allies.

The government’s own rules say arms licences should not be granted “if there is a clear risk the items might be used for internal repression”.

And the Tories banned sales of tear gas and “crowd control equipment” to China following protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

But Britain relies on its arms industry to bolster its role as the US’s junior partner in the Middle East. That means selling weapons to brutal dictatorships.

Murray Jones, the author of the AOAV report, said, “The case of Hong Kong shows that they do have the mechanisms to prevent British-made weapons being used for internal repression.

“So the government’s inaction on sales to the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman becomes even harder to defend.”


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