The tawdry spectacle of David Cameron’s Middle East trip (updated)

Presumably like many of my fellow countrymen, I am writhing with embarrassment about my Prime Minister’s ugly little junket to the Middle East this week.

It is a thing of wonder that, even as the PM is accompanied by the heads of BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Thales UK, Number 10’s press briefings should insist that the primary purpose of Cameron’s trip is about “encouraging political reform”. Or that Cameron’s defence, when challenged about arms sales, is to argue that

The idea that we should expect small and democratic countries like Kuwait to be able to manufacture all their means of defence seems to me completely at odds with reality.

Right – small and democratic countries like:

  • Bahrain. Last year, exports approved by the UK government included assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and submachine guns – oh yes, and tear gas and crowd control ammunition. (OK, Bahrain may not be exactly democratic. But it’s small, right?)
  • Libya. Q3 2010 goods approved for export included “wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training tear gas/irritant ammunition … ammunition comprised £3.2m of the £4.7m million of military items licensed”
  • Egypt. 2010 approved exports included “components for all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection; military communications equipment; optical target surveillance equipment; components for armoured personnel carriers; components for semi-automatic pistols; and components for submachine guns”
  • Saudi Arabia. 2010 exports included “armoured personnel carriers, ground vehicle military communications equipment, sniper rifles; small arms ammunition; weapon sights”; 2009 included “CS hand grenades, tear gas/irritant ammunition and tear gas/riot control agents”

These details are courtesy of Campaign Against the Arms Trade; but in fact, as the Guardian’s Datablog shows, there’s practically no country in the region that we don’t flog arms to.

You could – if you were feeling very charitable – take the view that lots of governments were selling lots of arms to countries in the Middle East, and that no-one anticipated the wave of repression now underway. That would seem to be the underlying implication of the government’s defensive line that it has now revoked export licenses to Bahrain and Libya – as if to say, ‘Ugly business, old chap; but who could possibly have known that these regimes were so ghastly?’

But for David Cameron cheerfully to head over to the Middle East even as the shooting’s underway in countries all around him, on an arms sales junket – wow. That truly puts Britain in a class of its own.

Update: This from a press release out today from Saferworld, the conflict prevention NGO:

…in 2010, the LibDex arms fair in Tripoli saw a large proportion of the exhibition hall taken up by UK companies. Yet throughout this period there were serious questions about Libya’s status as a responsible arms importer. Libya repeatedly attempted to source orders that far outstripped its defence needs and a 2008 UN report showed that Libya sent weapons originally sold to it by Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria on to Darfur in clear breach of the UN arms embargo on the region.

And also this:

Although the UK is to be credited for revoking export licences to Bahrain and Libya, and the EU yesterday announced that it was suspending all arms trade with Libya, the fact is that many of these licences should never have been issued in the first place and, in the face of recent events, this is somewhat a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Although the problem is not confined to Libya alone, the way exports to the country have been approached is a clear illustration of the serious flaws in how EU members’ put their own rules into practice.