Only three months ago Sir Roger Carr took over as Chair of BAE Systems, the third largest arms company in the world. The company may describe itself as a 'responsible business' which produces 'inspired work', but in reality there are few companies in the world with as much to be ashamed of.
Arming the world, regardless of the consequences
BAE's strategy is simple; it targets wherever it thinks it can make profit and indiscriminately sells aircrafts, warships, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, missiles and small arms ammunition to anyone who will pay for them. Some of its past 'customers' have included the human rights abusing regimes in Bahrain, Libya and, perhaps most controversially, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian regime has one of the most appalling human rights records in the world. To protest against the regime is to risk your liberty, and even your life. The risk has become even greater, with the government having recently passed a new 'terrorism' law that treats political dissidents, and even atheists, as enemies of the state.
The regime has been heavily criticised by Human Rights Watch, and in March 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index, ranked it as the fifth most authoritarian government in the world; behind only Syria, Chad, Guinea-Bissau and North Korea.
Most companies would be horrified by this, but not BAE. In last year's Annual Report, Sir Roger's predecessor, Dick Olver, said that "one of the highlights of 2012 from a board perspective was the visit we made to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the three-day visit, directors met with the customer, received direct feedback on the Company's performance and gained a valuable insight into our long-standing relationship with the Kingdom."
This raises the question of what the Saudi regime would have to do before BAE stopped selling it weapons.
BAE's special relationship
However, if there is one government that BAE enjoys a special relationship above all others then it's the UK. BAE's corporate strategy may be a moral vacuum, but they couldn't do what they do without government support.
In times of austerity and cuts, BAE is a financial black hole. It routinely hoovers up at least 50% of the MoD's inflated annual Research and Development and procurement budgets. In fact BAE has several long-term contracts with the MoD that guarantee a minimum income of £230 million per year until 2025.
The scale of BAE's influence is clear. It has managed to co-opt government to such an extent that it has secured a £300 million subsidy to build a new facility, and even had the government organise a visit to Saudi Arabia for Prince Charles to finalise an arms deal on its behalf.
In 2013 the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee (FAC) published the results of an inquiry into the UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Unfortunately the report made it clear that arms trade had made its way into the heart of the inquiry.
The report was a whitewash, concluding: "The government has placed a renewed emphasis on its long-term relations with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in part by relying on our rich heritage of historic links with these traditional allies.” What it did was provide the government with cover as it continues to turn a blind eye to the actions of a despicable regime in a desire to drum up sales for BAE.
This was no surprise. The committee had appointed Sir William Patey, former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as a specialist adviser; a man who was hardly likely to have acted in a disinterested or questioning manner. The committee even hosted informal meetings with representatives from BAE.
Holding BAE accountable
For far too long BAE has managed to avoid being held accountable for the litany of crimes and human rights violations that its weapons are routinely used for. This is a company that has been given government support for arming some of the most oppressive and abusive states in the world.
Next week's AGM will be one of the few times of the year when the company can be confronted with the brutal reality and truth of its business. At last year's AGM Mr Carr's predecessor said, “I personally, passionately believe that you can do no impact whatever by standing on the sidelines in life.” We couldn't agree more, and that is why activists will be making sure to give his successor the welcome that he deserves.