Demotix/ Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved.It is no coincidence that Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP chose one of the world's biggest arms fairs, DSEI 2015, to announce that the UK government is going to step up its role in the arms trade. The event, which took place last month in London, brought the world's biggest arms companies together with government ministers and military buyers from around the world.
The minister used the occasion to emphasise his support for the industry, saying “boosting our exports successes in what is an increasingly competitive market place has to now be the priority.” After stressing his support he went a step further, calling for the armed forces to “take the lead” in supporting the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) renewed efforts to promote Eurofighter jets and missiles.
One of the motives for the shift is likely to be the recent decisions of Egypt, UAE and Qatar to buy fighter jets from France ahead of the UK. Following the Qatari decision, an article in the Daily Telegraph stated “a senior Government source said that ministers were “looking seriously at the three Rafale wins” and how the Paris authorities' involvement could have helped swing the deals.” Fallon's speech is almost certainly an outcome of that process.
In one sense it is nothing new, the UK government already plays an active role in promoting arms sales. Much of this is done via UK Trade & Investment's Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), a 130 strong civil service body that exists for the sole purpose of promoting arms sales. UKTI has 14 other "core sector teams" that look after areas from IT to energy, but they employ only 107 staff between them.
It's not even the first time that the armed forces have been enlisted to sell arms, with an investigation by The Guardian revealing that they have been used to entice a number of foreign buyers over the last few years. So far the idea of them playing a larger role has been resisted by senior military figures, with James de Waal, a senior fellow at the think-tank Chatham House telling the FT that “From a policy point of view it could also end up distorting the priorities of the government’s international relationships... The interests of industry is in industry. Those are not necessarily the same as the interests of defence, politics or national security.”
Needless to say, the move has been welcomed by arms manufacturers, with the ADS, the trade body for arms companies, describing it as 'an unquestionably positive step.' The ADS has long called for a greater military involvement for the simple reason that it could boost sales. The group's CEO, Paul Everitt justified this in saying “Sales of defence equipment to countries are about building long-term strategic relationships with them which are good for Britain. Countries buying defence equipment – such as the Typhoon – do not see the sale as buying from a company, they see it as buying from Britain.”
He is right to say that a lot of countries are consciously buying UK arms, and the prestige, legitimacy and political support that comes from them. This point was acknowledged in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committees' 2013 report into relations with Saudi and Bahrain. The report concluded “Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government." The point is that arms sales can never be apolitical, and this goes for all buyers.
Of course many of the countries that UK military sales are targeted at are among the most authoritarian in the world. The most recent government statistics show that two thirds of UK arms exports are currently going to the Middle East. UKTI's list of 'priority markets' for arms exports includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. By far the largest buyer is the Saudi regime, to which the coalition government licensed the sale of almost £4 billion worth of arms. These are the countries that the MoD will be pulling out all stops to impress.
The consequences can be deadly. UK weapons are currently being used against Yemen and over recent years have been used against innocent people in Gaza, Egypt, Bahrain and beyond. Ultimately there is a choice to be made. Even Sir John Stanley, the former Conservative Defence Minister and Chair of the Commons Arms Export Committee in the last parliament, understood that when he called for ‘significantly more cautious judgement’ when selling arms to authoritarian governments.
Of course the issue is far bigger than Michael Fallon and this government. For far too long there has been a close-knit and politically compromising relationship between arms companies and the corridors of power. This latest announcement only cements that relationship even further. It will be a boost for arms manufacturers and the despots who buy their wares, but for those campaigning against tyranny it will be yet another reminder that the UK government believes maximising arms sales to be worth more than their human rights.