Defence contractors are in Abu Dhabi this week for the Middle East’s biggest arms fair – supported to the hilt by UK ministers.
Khaleeji bagpipe band, a colourful aircraft display, a performance by the Armenian Military Orchestra and a big show of support from the Emirate royal families. These were some of the touches at Sunday’s opening ceremony for the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex 2019) in Abu Dhabi, the Middle East’s biggest arms fair.
It’s a decadent and distasteful celebration of militarism and weaponry. Missiles, rifles, tanks, helicopters and warships are on display for anyone that can afford them. More than 100,000 people will attend this week, including representatives from all of the world’s biggest arms companies and military delegates from 57 nations. Among those looking to do business is the UK government, which has sent a team of civil servants to support UK arms company reps in doing as much business as possible. Particularly with the uncertainty of Brexit on the horizon, they will pull out all stops to cement sales.
There is no way of knowing what kind of deals will be discussed, or the kind of weaponry that might be sold as a result. We don’t know how these weapons will be used, or who they will be used against. But the results could be devastating. There is no shortage of UK arms in the Middle East. With rising military budgets, it is an important region for the arms trade. In 2017 it accounted for more than two-thirds of all UK arms sales.
It’s been eight years since the Arab spring uprisings. UK-made weapons were implicated in the violence, particularly in Libya where UK contractors were upgrading Gaddafi’s tanks on the eve of the uprising, and Egypt where UK-made teargas was turned on protesters. No lessons were learned, and there has been a significant increase in arms sales to many of the regimes. Since the uprisings began, and, despite the atrocities that have taken place, the UK has licensed a further £200m worth of arms to Egypt, and £100m worth to Bahrain. The sales include rifles, ammunition, armoured vehicles and a host of other deadly weaponry.
The impact of UK arms sales is most strongly felt in Yemen, where UK-made fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the ongoing war. For almost four years now the Saudi Arabian-led coalition has used them to inflict the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 60,000 people have been killed, and yet the arms sales continue unabated. Last week a House of Lords committee chaired by a former Conservative cabinet member told the government that these arms sales are illegal.
Weapons sales can never be apolitical. They don’t just provide military support, they also send a clear endorsement and have gone hand in hand with a fawning and uncritical political support for the regimes. This was evident last March when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was welcomed to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. Prince Mohammed was hailed by Theresa May and her ministers as a force for liberalism, but not a word was said about the people being bombed in Yemen, or those tortured, abused and executed by his regime.
None of this is by accident. The Department for International Trade employs more than 150 civil servants and military personnel for the sole purpose of promoting arms sales. This week several of them are in Abu Dhabi for Idex, but next week they could be anywhere, desperately chasing ever-more lucrative deals.
In 2011 the then prime minister, David Cameron, described the Arab spring as “a massive opportunity to spread peace, prosperity, democracy”. Eight years later, with UK-backed despots in place, and arms sales going through the roof, those words could not sound more hollow. We are forever being toldhow “rigorous” and “robust” export controls supposedly are, but it’s simply not true.
As the sun sets on Idex, the buyers will leave stronger and the sellers will leave richer. Little if any thought will be spared for the people they might be used against. The event will last for four days, but the arms being promoted in Abu Dhabi could be used in atrocities for years to come.