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The British arms firms dealing in death

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Arms deals, generals and government officials will gather at the DSEI arms dealers’ conference in east London this week. Gabby Thorpe investigates their industry of death
Issue 2670
Deadly deals will go down at the DSEI arms fair
Deadly deals will go down at the DSEI arms fair

Thousands of arms dealers have descended on east London to sell their wares to some of the world’s most ­dangerous war criminals.

The Defence and Security Equipment (DSEI) biannual conference is one of the biggest events in the military calendar. It is a marketplace for murder sponsored by the British state.

Britain has invited representatives from some of the most repressive governments in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

A third of all British arms exports go to 18 out of 30 countries listed on the United Nations (UN) watchlist for human rights.

The DSEI fair is an important event because the British state still sees the arms industry as central to its interests.

The British-based BAE Systems is the world’s third biggest arms company. And in 2018 Britain sold a staggering £14 billion worth of arms, reclaiming its position as the world’s second biggest arms exporter.

The Tories have raised arms ­spending by £2 billion in the last year to around £40 billion. And now Boris Johnson has pledged to further increase the defence budget to “meet the threats facing the country”.

But arms spending isn’t just about supplying the British armed forces or making profits. In fact, Britain underwrites the arms industry through the UK Export Finance (UKEF) credit scheme. It guarantees that British exporters do not lose out if a foreign buyer doesn’t pay on time.

According to the most recent figures for 2018, 46 percent of UKEF’s liabilities were for arms sales. A big part of the sum was the British government stumping up a record £5 billion to facilitate the sale of military aircraft to Qatar.

The state is willing to underwrite the arms industry because its importance goes beyond British ­capitalism’s profits.

The relationship between states and arms manufacturers has been steadily changing.

Almost 80 percent of British arms are exported to the Middle East

Prior to the Second World War, the British arms industry was made up of a variety of small companies. They largely designed and built equipment for the British army, air force and navy—not foreign powers—competing to win contracts commissioned by the government.

After the war the arms industry became less reliant on the British state as a customer. But the two maintained a close relationship.

The Cold War was a conflict between two imperialist blocs of powers led by the US and Russia.

The arms industry was crucial to their global competition. And arms spending was also important because it helped underwrite the long boom of Western capitalism after the war. The state encouraged arms companies to do business with developing countries to keep up Britain’s share of world exports.

And it was also part of the Cold War superpowers’ strategy of stoking proxy wars against states aligned with their rivals.

Arms firms went through a series of mergers, nationalisations and privatisations. The result was the birth of BAE Systems, the successor to most of Britain’s arms companies, in the 1990s.

Greater research and development costs mean that companies can’t just flog stuff to poorer countries. Arms companies see selling to other richer countries as a key part of their business. The US-based Raytheon has operations in Britain, from where it can sell on its weapons.

British arms found in Yemen show up links between Tories and Saudi Arabia
British arms found in Yemen show up links between Tories and Saudi Arabia
  Read More

Where Britain sells its weapons is also down to the West’s strategic interests in the world.

Almost 80 percent of British arms are exported to the Middle East. The region has one of the largest deposits of oil in the world. While the US and its allies don’t need the oil for their own consumption, they don’t want rival powers to get their hands on it.

This need to stave off its rivals has seen the US try to dominate the Middle East since the Second World War. Sometimes this means direct military intervention—such as during the Iraq invasion of 2003.

But the West has also relied on powerful regional allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia. Most recently this has meant backing Saudi Arabia’s ­bombing of Yemen, which is part of a bigger imperialist rivalry with Iran.

Britain has licenced over £5 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since it started bombing Yemen in 2015.

It’s not certain how many deaths the war has caused, but it is estimated that it could be as high as 70,000 people. And beyond the deaths, the bombings have pushed the country to famine.

BAE Systems has come under fire for its complicity in Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.

In June the court of appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful and called for an immediate suspension. The court demanded a review into at least £4.7 billion of the sales that have been made.

And the three judges presiding over the case said that senior Tory ministers—including Boris Johnson—ignored obvious human rights violations carried out using British technology.

The ruling is potentially disastrous for Britain’s arms industry. But Britain will not stop exporting to Saudi Arabia. The court ruling only prevents new licences being granted by Britain.

And last month the government asked the court to set aside the ruling pending an appeal. Andrew Smith from Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said that a stay in the case would lead to “more illegal arms sales and more atrocities”.

Canisters left behind at protest sites in Hong Kong contained CS gas provided by Britain

This complete lack of care is a trend that is repeated in Britain’s dealings with Israel.

In May last year the government approved a £16 million arms sale to Israel—just days after the Israeli Defence Force killed 68 protesters at the Gaza border.

Ironically, the sale took place the same week as Theresa May called the attacks on protesters “extremely concerning”.

Andrew said that the near uncritical support of the British government for Israeli oppression of Palestinians would only result in “UK weapons playing a more devastating role in the future”.

The figure given for the 2018 sales to Israel does not cover weapons that have an open export licence—the government is not obliged to release figures on these items.

This essentially means that the true scale of Britain’s arms trade is unknowable. And the government is able to escape taking any real responsibility for its role in the murder of thousands of people.

Britain’s money hungry attitude to human rights does not stop in the Middle East. Protests in Hong Kong in recent weeks have been met with horrific levels of police violence.

Crowds of people taking to the streets to demand democracy in Hong Kong have been dispersed largely through the use of rubber bullets and tear gas.

Following protests in 2014, Britain pledged to stop the export of tear gas to Hong Kong if police used it “once more” on protesters.

Yet five years later canisters left behind at protest sites contained CS gas provided by Britain.

In June Britain finally suspended tear gas exports to Hong Kong, while an investigation into the use of the chemical in the protests takes place. But Hong Kong is expected to send delegates to DSEI at Britain’s invitation.

The protests at the arms fair are vital for demanding the British government stops arms sales.

DSEI has been dubbed a “festival of violence”—and it’s time the bloody shopping trip was brought to an end.

That means taking on the merchants of death—and the imperialist interests that drive their industry.

For more information on the protests at the Excel this week, go to

Arms fair welcomes repressive regimes

The biggest arms companies in the world are exhibiting at DSEI—and all of them have had some hand in the war crimes of repressive regimes.

Lockheed Martin—the world’s biggest arms company—has a cosy relationship with Israel. The company proudly proclaims on its website that it has been selling arms to Israel since 1971.

In 2014, Israel carried out Operation Protective Edge, which killed at least 2,100 Palestinians. Lockheed’s F-16 planes were used to drop missiles on homes—murdering whole families.

Operation Cast Lead killed 1,394 Palestinians in Gaza in 2008. An investigation by human rights group Amnesty International found that Israeli forces were flying F-16 fighter planes provided by the company.

Just months before, Lockheed Martin had opened offices in Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital. They said that this move showed their dedication to Israel’s military.

Lockheed Martin is complicit in other horrific conflicts.

In 2017 US president Donald Trump signed a £100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Lockheed Martin was the biggest beneficiary, making over £20 billion.

Section 60 orders are a licence to harass

Raytheon’s laser guided Paveway IV “smart bombs” were among munitions used by Saudi Arabia in civilian areas of Yemen.

A report by Yemeni group Mtwana for Human Rights said, “Survivors of the attacks and victims’ relatives described destruction of homes, displacement of families, closure of schools and medical facilities, loss of livelihood, and trauma.”

Fighter jets used in the bombings are also supplied by BAE Systems.

BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia have a long—and corrupt—relationship dating back to a key deal in 1985. As soon as it was signed, stories of secret payments surfaced.

In March a memo leaked to the Guardian newspaper showed that Saudi Arabian prince Bandar bin Sultan hired a lobbying firm run by former FBI head Louis Freeh.

The 2010 memo said the prince, a former ambassador to the US, was a “key target” of a US state investigation. They were looking into allegations that Bandar had trousered over £1 billion in secret payments from BAE.

The firm boasted that its “relentless” work had persuaded US investigators to remove anything identifying Bandar.

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