All the fun of the (arms) fair this Sunday

A fun day out for all the family has a dark side, as arms dealers shake hands with oppressive military regimes right alongside the picnic blankets.

Joe Lo
14 July 2017
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Image: Red Arrows at RIAT, Airwolfhound/Flickr. License: Creative Commons

This Sunday, families will gather in the Cotswolds to lay picnic blankets, relax in the sunshine and watch pilots perform incredible flying feats above them.  Meanwhile in Yemen, 10,000 people have been killed in conflict, seven million are on the edge of starvation and more than 300,000 have contracted cholera. What links these two events? The planes and bombs which caused the latter may have been sold at the former.

For many the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), which takes place this weekend, is a fun day out in the Cotswolds every July. Foldable chairs are unfolded, pop-up tents are unpopped and spectacular air displays are witnessed by around 150,000 people.

Like many of these air-shows though, the Tattoo has a dark side. According to the euphemism-laden RIAT website, the weekend is a ‘key event on the aerospace and defence calendar”. Alongside the punters gather 6,000 ‘corporate guests’ and more than 1,400 ‘international military personnel’, representing over 35 countries.

Who are these corporate guests? RIAT’s list of sponsors gives a good indication. The majority are arms companies including BAE Systems, which sells fighter jets to the Saudi Arabian air force, and Raytheon, which sells the Paveway missiles which those fighter jets are currently using to bombard the people of Yemen. Others include MBDA, which sold missiles to Colonel Gaddafi, and Elbit Systems, which makes most of the Israeli military’s drones.

These arms dealers are attracted to the show as it is a chance to network with their customers – military bosses from around the world. Among the global militaries invited to the show this year are eleven which also appear on the Foreign Office’s own list of countries with the worst human rights records in the world: Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan.

The organisers have also invited Turkey, the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, whose government has just arrested the country’s local Amnesty International boss. Its air force will be in attendance exhibiting its F-16C Fighting Falcons.

If you’re looking to sell a fighter jet to the military of a despotic or human-rights abusing regime, RIAT seems to be the place for you. As the Tattoo’s website states, “the networking opportunities are endless”. Venues include the patron’s pavilion, situated in the prime place beside the runway and hosting RIAT’s “most senior guests including Royalty, Ministers, Defence Leaders and Captains of Industry”. On top of this, there are private hospitality chalets, a gala dinner, barbecue and salute party.

As Roger Carr, the chairman of BAE Systems put it: “RIAT 2016 provided an excellent opportunity to forge and enhance relationships with a significant number of our domestic and international customers in a relaxed atmosphere against the backdrop of what has to be one of the best air displays in the world.”

RIAT’s organisers should be alarmed to know that such immoral behaviour is taking place at their charity-run day out. Unfortunately, the event is run by the RAF Charitable Trust and, while there’s no reason to think the charity doesn’t spend its money on good causes, it is unlikely to object to this way of attracting sponsorship.

The charity’s board of trustees is chaired by a man called Kevin Leeson, who used to be the chief of material (Air) at the Ministry of Defence. According to his LinkedIn page, this means he oversaw buying fixed wing aircraft for the UK’s Ministry of Defence. After leaving the public sector in 2012, he has passed through the revolving door into a private sector job in the same industry – as the director of military affairs at Airbus UK, one of the companies involved in the production of the same Eurofighter jets that are bombing Yemen.

Unfortunately, a charity whose board of trustees is chaired by a senior arms industry figure is unlikely to object to his charity selling RIAT’s networking opportunities to arms companies in return for sponsorship.

Major arms deals like those done for fighter jets are not done in a weekend so it’s not possible to point to a deal and say ‘that was done at RIAT’. Nevertheless, arms companies would not spend money sponsoring RIAT if they weren’t getting something out of it and the links forged and strengthened at RIAT help lead up to the point when a fighter jet can be sold.

While RIAT is no-doubt a fun day out, those visiting should not overlook the sickening schmoozing taking place in the Patron’s Pavilion and the death and destruction it leads to.

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