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Why is the government so close to BAE Systems?

The British government has a very cosy relationship with the people arming Saudi Arabia.

Andrew Smith
23 May 2016
Eurofighter_Typhoon_2.jpg

Eurofighter, by Elsie esq, CC BY 2.0

In the title of his book “Perpetual war for perpetual peace”, the great novelist Gore Vidal took five words to describe the bizarre foreign policy mantra of modern Western elites.

There was more than a hint of this dark, harsh and dystopian logic in the air earlier this month as Roger Carr, Chair of BAE Systems, proudly told shareholders that the sale of arms is an important step in promoting and securing lasting peace. “We try and provide our people, our government, our allies with the very best weapons,” he boasted at his company’s AGM last week, “the very best sticks they can have, to encourage peace.”

BAE’s so-called ‘sticks’ have definitely been used, but only to fuel war and conflict.

Over the last twelve months, its Eurofighter jets have been central to the Saudi led bombardment of Yemen. They have been used to create a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, the likes of which will feel a million miles away from the high salaries and creature comforts of an arms company boardroom. Thousands have been killed by air strikes, vital infrastructure and lifelines have been destroyed, yet the arms sales have continued.

The year-long assault is one reason why, despite its fragile economic situation, the Saudi government has continued to boost its already inflated military budget, with a further increase of 27% expected by 2020. One major beneficiary of this extra spending has been BAE. This point is alluded to in the last BAE annual report. The ‘principal risks’ section of the report identifies the commercial risk that state buyers may consider cutting their military budgets, before suggesting this will be mitigated in part because “in Saudi Arabia regional tensions continue to dictate that defence remains a high priority.”

Carr argues that it is not up to arms companies to make political judgements or to choose their allies. That is why he has consistently refused to condemn Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. Earlier this year, he told Channel 4 News that he sees Saudi Arabia as “a very important customer of which we have a very strong relationship.” I’m sure that his predecessors would have made the exact same points when they were pushing for arms sales in countries like Putin’s Russia or Gaddafi’s Libya.

These disingenuous, convenient and well-worn claims of apolitical and dispassionate moral neutrality ignore the huge amounts of time and money that BAE spends every year on lobbying and trying to influence government policy. This is nothing new, BAE has enjoyed a politically intimate relationship with successive UK Governments. Writing in his autobiography 13 years ago, Robin Cook, the former Labour foreign secretary, famously said: "the chairman of BAE appeared to have the key to the garden door to No 10. Certainly I never knew No 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to BAE."

One outcome of this relationship has been the ‘revolving door’ it has created, with many former high-ranking government staff finding employment with the company. One high profile example is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was involved in pressurising the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into corruption in BAE-Saudi arms deals in 2006. Five years later he was appointed International Business Development Director for BAE. Last year, the Guardian revealed that BAE has seconded staff to the Ministry of Defence and UKTI DSO, the civil service body that exists to promote the arms trade.

Where Carr is right is when he says that BAE does not act alone. It, and companies like it, can only profit from arming and strengthening despicable regimes like Saudi Arabia as long as compliant governments support them in doing so. UK governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with BAE, and have consistently prioritised its interests over the human rights of those facing Saudi aggression.

What is clear is that government ministers and arms company bigwigs have bought into a dangerous and warped world-view in which arming tyrants can be a legitimate, admirable and ultimately peaceful business practice, and where the human consequences of war have nothing whatsoever to do with those who provide the weapons. Arms companies like BAE will never change their ways off their own accord, certainly not when their senior executives are do desensitised to the results of their arms sales, and when war and conflict are so lucrative for them.

Once the AGM was over, the BAE Directors will have sighed a breath of relief and gone back to business as usual. Carr and his colleagues can continue enjoying the accolades and support of government ministers for another year, all the while telling themselves that the more weapons they sell the more peaceful a world they are creating.

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