Activists fear international race for arms deals as UK sales to Saudi Arabia spike

  1. 2016 saw the first year-on-year rise in arms sales since 2010
  2. Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen widely criticised, with international bodies concerned it has contributed to mass civilian casualties
  3. Need for production to maintain competitiveness has campaigners wary that governments will marginalise rights concerns

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia jumped to £841 million between April and June this year, up from less than £300 million in the previous quarter, according to figures published by the government on October 24.

This can be seen against new figures showing global arms sales rose 2 percent in 2016, having declined for the previous five years, according to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released on December 11.

The research group attributed the rise to “ongoing military operations in several countries and persistent regional tensions that are leading to an increased demand for weapons.”

The October UK statistics had been met with alarm by anti-arms trade activists, who highlight the heavily-criticised bombardment of Yemen, led by the Saudi air force, as cause for concern over the UK government’s priorities.

“Arms exports are still being put way ahead of human rights by the UK government and they will only make the situation in Yemen even more unstable,” says Andrew Smith, of pressure group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

“The suffering in Yemen certainly hasn’t stopped, and the airstrikes have been an even greater number this year than they were last year,” says Smith.

Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Middle Eastern and North African governments have been engaged in a large-scale bombardment of areas held by rebel Houthi forces, in support of Yemen’s government.

The bombardment has been repeatedly criticised by the international community, including the UN Human Rights Office who reported in September that air strikes had contributed to at least 5,000 civilian deaths.

CAAT have consistently argued that the UK fails to live up to its own guidelines on arms sales to foreign governments.

In June, the UK high court dismissed CAAT’s allegations that the UK’s trade with Saudi Arabia was in breach of its obligations under domestic and international arms sale restrictions.

CAAT warns that the UK’s exit from the EU is likely to see it pursue further trade deals with governments with poor track records on human rights. In December 2016, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told the Gulf Cooperation Council in Manama that her government would “step up” its relationship with governments in that region.

In January, May secured a deal to sell £100 million worth of fighter jets to the Turkish government, while International Trade Secretary Liam Fox visited Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in late 2016 and early 2017. All of these countries have been highlighted as areas of concern by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A global race to stay up-to-date

Although total arms exports are dwarfed by the UK’s total exports, which amounted to approximately £327 billion in 2015, the UK’s defence sector is upheld as a flagship industry by lobby groups. As an arms exporter, the UK ranks behind only the United States in an analysis of a multi-year period, and there appears little indication of slowing down.

Aude Fleurant, director of the arms and military expenditure programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) told WikiTribune that the arms export industry has grown in part due to a failure to coordinate infrastructure spending by leading arms manufacturers.

Instead, says Fleurant, some exporters have turned to “promote exports to maintain national production capacity and to reduce costs by increasing the number of units produced.”

“In this respect, most major arms producers in Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, UK) are faced with the same problem,” she says.

Production vs responsibility debate heightened for UK

Major defence projects often require international collaboration beyond simply the buying and manufacturing countries and can take decades from conception to completion, Fleurant points out.

However, proponents highlight the strength of the defense industry compared with the rest of the economy as a reason to ensure the UK maintains its position as a leading arms exporter.

“Exports like these are crucial to securing long-term and sustainable growth in the UK,” says Jeegar Kakkad, chief economist of defense industry lobby group ADS.

The defence industry saw productivity rise 29 percent from 2010 to 2015, compared to just two percent in the rest of the UK economy, Kakkad points out.

“We must continue to build on this success,” Kakkad says, adding: “We want to see the UK secure a [Brexit] deal that delivers a smooth transition, and secures access to the skills, R&D and influence that are critical to our global competitiveness.”

CAAT argues that these skills and jobs can be maintained without increasing arms sales.

“The arms trade currently employs some of the most skilled engineers in the world,” says Smith, “[It] is an industry that gets a huge amount of support from the government, both financially and politically. We want to see that same support being given to industries such as renewable energy and low carbon technology – things that will go towards making a better world.”

Trevor Taylor, of the Royal United Services Institute, is sceptical of this proposal, telling WikiTribune by email that parts of the UK that have lost their central industries show that “replacement work of comparable value is slow to be attracted and thus recovery takes decades, if it occurs at all.”

Smith counters this by pointing out that two weeks ago, BAE systems cut 2,000 jobs in one of its main UK manufacturing centres.

“That’s a sign of just how unstable the industry is,” he says, “it is dependent on the spending whims of human rights abusers and dictatorships.”

CAAT submitted its appeal to the high court decision finding UK arms exports legal this week. There is not yet a date for a hearing or a decision on whether the appeal will be heard in court.

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