The Defence and Security Equipment International’s biannual convention (DSEI) will draw tens of thousands of arms sellers and buyers.
Anti-war activists began a week of action against it, including direct actions, on Monday of this week.
DSEI is a big deal for the British government. It funds and promotes the event—and sends its highest ranking ministers and civil servants.
And no wonder—the arms industry is one of Britain’s biggest, most lucrative industries. Nearly £8 billion worth of arms were sold from Britain in 2015, making it the third largest arms exporter in the world that year.
Eight British companies were among the top 100 arms dealers and the largest of them—BAE Systems—ranked third in the world in 2014.
But the significance of Britain’s arms trade isn’t just to do with how many weapons are sold. It’s also to do with who they are sold to. In 2016 alone, the British government granted over £250 million in arms export licences to Israel.
Following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza in 2009, the government was pushed to review its arms sales. Even though British arms were used in the assault, the Tories dropped all remaining restrictions on sales to Israel after the review.
Sales to Israel don’t just make British companies money. They’re about propping up a key ally of Western imperialism in the Middle East.
But the biggest buyer of British arms by far is Saudi Arabia—and it’s been that way for years. Britain has sold more than £68 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2006.
The biggest proportion of that comes from sales of fighter jets and other military aircraft. And Saudi Arabia certainly puts them to use.
From British-made fighter planes, Saudi Arabian pilots have dropped British-made bombs on Yemeni towns and villages in a war that’s killed more than 10,000 civilians.
Five civilians burned to death in a taxi last Wednesday after a Saudi Arabian airstrike hit a nearby petrol tanker. And at least another 14 people—including six children—were killed in a Saudi airstrike last month.
Britain doesn’t just sell planes and bombs. There’s gear for the cops too. Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Yet Britain has sold it rubber bullets, tear gas, riot shields, body armour and components for water cannons.
Saudi-led troops used British-made teargas to help crush a popular protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain during the Arab Spring in 2011.Recently though, Saudi Arabia’s crimes—particularly those in Yemen—have become a little awkward for the British government.
Tory defence secretary Michael Fallon admitted last year that British-made cluster bombs had been used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. These illegal weapons scatter small explosives across a wide area, which can then be mistaken for cans or balls and picked up by children.
Outrage at the atrocities carried out by Saudi Arabia meant there were calls on the British government to stop selling it weapons. It was a real, minor crisis for the government. The row even split parliament’s committee on arms exports down the middle.
After all, it’s hard to justify approving arms sales when those weapons are certain to be used to cause more misery in Yemen.
Yet there was no apology from Fallon over the cluster bombs, and no condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Instead he told parliament, “It is essential for our own security that we keep our relationship with Saudi Arabia in good repair.”
His response hinted at something most government ministers won’t plainly admit. The arms sales aren’t just about making money for British weapons dealers—they’re about Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In the mid-1980s Britain struck a huge deal with Saudi Arabia, the Al Yamamah arms deal, to sell brand new fighter jets in exchange for oil. The deal was strategic. Saudi Arabia stockpiles arms to prop itself up as a major power in the Middle East.
Britain and the US sell it those arms to shore up their allegiance with a heavily-armed, oil-rich country in a region they’re always fighting to control. Saudi Arabia uses the strategic importance of its arms deals as a bargaining chip and a way of selling its allegiance.
And Britain was particularly desperate to get the deal to boost its own standing in the Middle East as a junior partner to the US.
In 1989 Tory defence secretary Michel Heseltine summed up the real rationale behind the Al Yamamah deal.
“It is of considerable significance that the Saudis should have a continuing relationship with this country” he said.
“They want the kit and they are going to get it from somewhere. So why shouldn’t we sell it?”
Foreign secretary Boris Johnson made that exact same argument last year as he justified Britain’s continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Ditching arms sales would mean “vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other Western countries who would happily supply arms”. He said that would destroy Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia “at a stroke”.
Their justifications point to a sickening truth. Britain’s relationship with murderous regimes is far more important to our rulers than the lives of ordinary people who die beneath their bombs.
There will be over 1,500 companies at DSEI selling weapons to armed forces and private companies from across the world.
It costs up to £1,150 to attend the four-day long conference and £175 to attend the exhibition space.
But military personnel and the civil service are given free tickets. Everything from body cameras to heavy range artillery will be showcased.
Its main backers are the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Department for International Trade.
In fact, DSEI boasts of “full collaboration and support” from the MoD. Tory cabinet members, top ranking military officials and company bosses will lead seminars during the four-day programme.
The titles of the keynote seminars deliberately exclude anything that mentions the human cost of war.
Five cabinet ministers were set to speak. But DSEI also boasts platinum sponsorship from Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, BAE systems.
Another platinum sponsor is General Dynamics which manufactures fighter planes and armoured tanks.
The DSEI was originally an official British Army event until it was privatised in 1997.
The vast spending on arms does not make the world a safer place. The arms fairs exist so companies and individuals can profit from the suffering that warfare creates—and the British government is right in the thick of it.
Trade union leaders often seek to justify the arms industry by saying that it is “creating and safeguarding jobs”.
But the billions wasted on arms could provide jobs for those presently employed—and many more people. Instead of making deadly weapons, workers’ skills and energy should be redirected towards socially useful projects.
BAE Systems is the third largest weapons manufacturer in the world and plays a major role in the arms industry.
It’s the main supplier to the MoD and has a long term contract to sell them combat vehicles, aircraft, munitions and naval vessels.
They announced annual profits of £18.7 billion earlier this year and Theresa May helped them sign a £100 million contract to make Turkish military fighter jets. CEO Sir Roger Carr defended BAE’s bloody record by saying “we maintain peace by having the ability to make war”.
In 2010 the company agreed to pay out almost £300 million in penalties, as it finally admitted guilt after corruption investigations.
The cases under scrutiny included BAE’s £43 billion Al Yamamah fighter plane sales to Saudi Arabia and smaller deals in the Czech Republic.
Boasting a £24 billion annual revenue, General Dynamics makes the US Army’s tanks and armoured vehicles. The company is two years into a £12 billion contract to supply Saudi Arabia’s National Guard with vehicles equipped with guns and depleted uranium armour.
It won a £240 million contract with the US Army to upgrade army tanks. Until recently US defence secretary James Mattis served on its board of directors alongside its CEO—a former CIA spy now raking in £16 million a year.
Liam Fox hasn’t been defence secretary since 2011.But he’s still billed as a keynote speaker at DSEI this year.
Perhaps that’s because of his former business relationships with defence sector lobbyists—including his friend Adam Werritty.
Werritty described himself as having “defence related business interests”. Fox was forced to resign as defence secretary after Werritty inexplicably joined him at several meetings with arms dealers, Nato generals and diplomats.
The arms fair is organised by events company DSEI, whose chief executive is former RAF officer Simon Kimble.
Kimble bought out Clarion events in 2004 for £45 million. Since then the company has expanded from organising “baby shows” and Christmas fairs into the world of arms dealing.
Clarion has now organised at least seven arms fairs across the world, including DSEI—and is particularly interested in the Middle East. The company once euphemistically described the Middle East as a place where arms fairs “work well”.
It has certainly worked well too. Dealing in death and destruction has boosted the price of the company over a hundredfold.
Clarion was recently bought out for £600 million.
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