Arming Repression – Today Programme, 2 January 2014

Mark Curtis’ piece on British arms exports can be listened to here. (The piece begins at 38:01)

A transcript of the piece is below:


 Archive of recent protests in Egypt being put down by the Egyptian military

This is the sound of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt being fired on by the Egyptian military. Hundreds of people have been killed in Egypt since the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011 and the coup ousting elected President Morsi last July. Yet since 2011 Britain has approved arms exports to Egypt worth 65 million pounds.[1]  Assault rifles, machine guns and military communications equipment have all been licensed.[2] Kaye Stearman works at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:

Stearman: ‘These are weapons that can be used directly in repression but even if they were weapons that could not used in this way, it’s still wrong, you’re sending a message saying this government is legitimate, this situation is alright, human rights are not being abused. We think there should be a complete arms export embargo on Egypt’.

But British military equipment has been used to crush pro-democracy protests in the Middle East at least three times since 2011.[3] In the Gulf state of Bahrain, scores of UK-made armoured personnel carriers manned by the Saudi Arabian military helped the Bahraini regime suppress protests in 2011. The armoured vehicles, known as Tacticas, were manufactured by BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company.[4] The suppression in Bahrain was bloody – 35 people were killed and hundreds detained, with torture widespread.[5]

The Arab Spring in the Middle East has challenged regimes that are undemocratic and which suppress human rights, but whose side has Britain really been on? British arms are exported to many of the world’s worst human rights abusers as a matter of routine. Professor Neil Cooper is an expert on the arms trade at the University of Bradford:

Cooper: This summer, the government released information showing that it had 3,000 extant arms export licences to countries that the Foreign Office listed as countries of concern in terms of human rights abuses, and those 3,000 export licences added up to a total value of about 12 billion pounds[6] so judged in those terms obviously that would appear to represent a significant level of trade with countries that the Foreign Office itself has recognised as countries of concern.’

British arms ending up in the hands of human rights abusers is no coincidence or mistake. Last September, thousands of arms companies gathered in London for a big arms fair. The government invited delegations from 14 authoritarian regimes including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, and 6 countries at war, including Afghanistan and Iraq.[7]

The government says it has rigorous arms export controls in place. Its stated policy is not to allow exports where there is a ‘clear risk’ that they might be used for internal repression.[8] But I dont believe this is the actual government policy. The government allows military-related equipment to go to all 27 countries that it identifies as human rights ‘countries of concern’. There is a clear risk that any of these states could use British equipment for repression.[9]

In 2012, over 7 billion pounds worth of British military-related equipment was exported around the world. All three main political parties strongly support arms exports and none has a policy of banning them to human rights abusers. David Cameron has visited over a dozen countries with arms exports on the agenda.[10]

The royal family also plays a key role. Princes Charles and Andrew have both acted as high level salesmen for British arms exports abroad. For ten years Prince Andrew was Special Representative for Trade, making trips to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.[11]Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:

Stearman: This year we saw the King of Bahrain come to the UK, he was at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Queen was on one side of him and sitting on the other was Prince Andrew. It was just cementing this royal relationship, and what made it particularly awful was at this time there was huge repression going on in Bahrain, assisted I have to say by British arms’

The Queen appears to play a key role in promoting arms exports to repressive regimes. The Queen regularly hosts state dinners for the leaders of countries buying British weapons. I have discovered that the head of BAE Systems has been invited to the same state dinners as the leaders of undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on at least 8 occasions since 2007.[12]

But why is it that Britain has such a burgeoning arms trade, including with repressive regimes? The usual answer is that it’s good for the British economy. Paul Everitt is the head of ADS, a trade body representing British military exporters:

Everitt: The sector probably generates something like £22 billion of sales, obviously that employs 100,000 people or more in the UK, in what we would see as high-value, high-tech jobs. The sector is spending something like £3.3 billion on research and development, now clearly that is focused on, if you like, the needs of our customer, but there is quite significant spillover into the rest of the economy.

But government and companies have a habit of exaggerating the figures.[13] I asked Professor Cooper about the supposed economic benefits of arms exports:

Cooper: Well, obviously at a company level, and in terms of the economic benefits for particular places where defence companies are located, clearly for those places where you’ve got significant defence companies with significant numbers of jobs, then the economic benefits in that particular locale can be quite important. But looked at from a macro-economic perspective, the benefits are not massively significant. UK defence sector jobs account for about less than half per cent of the overall workforce. UK defence exports account for about less than 2 per cent of overall British exports.

So if economics doesn’t fully explain why British governments are so keen on arms exports, what does? The sad truth is that Britain sells arms to repressive regimes in the Middle East, and elsewhere, mainly because it supports them. It wants to keep them in power, and often prefers them to democratic movements which may not support Western policies. This is not simply my view. It is what policy makers have expressed in private government planning files, which are declassified after 30 years. British arms exports have for decades helped favoured regimes maintain ‘internal security’, meaning repression. Our arms exports often go hand in hand with military training. Britain has not only sold Saudi Arabia 4 billion pounds worth of military equipment in the past five years[14], for 40 years Britain has trained the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the internal force that protects the Saudi ruling family.

It grieves me to hear the British media parrot the government’s line that it supports democracy in the Middle East. Where are the radio and TV programmes exposing Whitehall’s special relationship with repressive regimes? There is virtual silence on Britain’s alliance with, say, Saudi Arabia or, to give another example, Oman, which has the world’s longest serving ruler, who took control in a 1970 coup staged by Britain and who still wields absolute power. British arms sales and training to these regimes helps keep them in power but also gives them international legitimacy.

An opinion poll just commissioned by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, conducted by Populus, reveals that 58 per cent of the public are against arms exports to countries with a poor human rights record. Only 14 per cent believe this is acceptable.[15] Kaye Stearman:

 Stearman: What we’ve noticed is this shift in opinion. It’s not that we’ve got more people around who are pacifists or unpatriotic, it’s just that they do not want to see the UK selling arms to governments that are undemocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial. They want to see us having a much more ethical outlook, an ethical foreign policy.

[1] This is since 2011. In November 2013, the British government quietly announced the resumption of exports of British military equipment, some of which had been suspended. FCO news release, 3 November 2013,

[2] and components for combat helicopters.

[3]In August 2013, the Egyptian military used Sea King helicopters against Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo. Military components for these helicopters were supplied from Britain. 19 August 2013, In Libya in 2011, armoured personnel carriers sold to the Qadhafi regime helped quell pro-democracy demonstrations there. 21 February 2011,


[5] Ian Black, ‘Bahrain urged to deliver human rights reforms as King visits London’, Guardian, 12 December 2011

[6] For confirmation of those figures, see 19 September 2013,


[8] “The UK operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world, and has been at the forefront of implementing tough international trade controls, including most recently on exports to Egypt. We do not grant export licences where there is a clear risk that goods might be used for internal repression.” 19 September 2013,

[9]“Once military goods are sent abroad, the exporter has no control of how, when or where they will be used.”19 September 2013,

[10] For example, India, in July 2010; Egypt and Kuwait in February 2011; Saudi Arabia in January 2012; Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore in April 2012; Brazil in September 2012; and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in November 2012. 18 February  2013, Much of Britain’s arms promotion is paid for by us, the taxpayer. For example, a government arms sales unit, called the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, has 130 staff helping British arms companies export their equipment.

[11] 14 March 2013, The Duke of Kent, the other Prince Edward, spent over 25 years as Vice-Chair of British Trade International, making over one hundred overseas visits, some supporting arms sales. (

[12] refers to chair or chief executive of BAE Systems. State dinners information available at:

[13] David Cameron has said that 300,000 jobs depend on the arms industry but many analysts dispute that figure. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, British taxpayers actually subsidise arms export jobs to the tune of around £700 million per year (12 Nov 2012,, mainly through taxpayer support to research and development. ( Spending taxpayers’ money on arms may be worse at creating commercial spin-offs than supporting other economic activities. (

[14] 2008-12. 20 May 2013,

[15] The question was: “Is the UK is justified in selling military equipment to governments that have a poor human rights record”. 14 per cent agreed; 58 per cent  disagreed, 20% did not agree or disagree and 8% said don’t know. Eg, a poll held in early 2011 showed 77% of responders saying that the UK should not have been selling weapons to the Gaddafi regime.