The UK government makes a great deal of its support for the democratic awakening of the Arab Spring, yet continues to support repressive regimes through arms sales and trade missions.
By April 2011 the UK government had officially revoked over 160 military licences (i.e. for arms and weaponry) to Bahrain, Egypt and Libya. This gesture neatly hid the fact that many licences remained in place. Some of the revoked licences were for weaponry with such repressive potential - such as sniper rifles, tear gas and crowd control ammunition - that MPs questioned why such licences had been granted in the first place.
Revoking a licence is rather like a slap on the wrist. It is a way of visibly expressing displeasure, without much hurt involved. Soon, everything is back to normal. The latest figures for military licences, released in January 2012, covering the third quarter of 2011 (July-September), reveal that this is indeed the case.
Bahrain is an excellent example. In February the UK government revoked 44 military licences after troops had fired on protesters. This was in stark contrast to 2010 when export licences included tear gas and crowd control ammunition, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns.
Despite continuing repression, the UK government soon reverted to form. The process started slowly with just £127,000 of military licences approved in the second quarter. By the third quarter business as usual was the watchword with military licences worth £1,348,000. These included licences for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles and naval guns. Not one licence was refused or revoked.
Arms sales to Egypt follow a similar trajectory. In March the government announced that it had cancelled 44 licences. Yet by the second quarter, military licences worth £220,000 were approved, rising to over £1.5 million in the third quarter. This included thermal imaging equipment, components for military combat vehicles and military helicopters, and military communications equipment.
Arms sales to Libya have followed a different pattern. The UN Security Council agreed an international arms embargo in late February which was lifted in mid-September. In the intervening period NATO forces supported a 'no-fly zone' - in effect giving NATO carte blanche to use air power to support anti-Gaddafi forces. This proved a unique shop window for western arms companies to display their wares to potential buyers.
However, the UK government is eager to make up for lost time, despatching a trade mission to Libya in February. The mission is organised by UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), the government's arms sales unit, which had previously categorised Libya as a "priority market". The mission is officially listed as a "civil security" one, but this, in turn, raises concerns about the equipment and services being promoted and the likely recipients in a country awash with weaponry and militias.
Other trade missions in the region are planned for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). In addition, British companies were represented at arms fairs in UAE (15-17 January) and Bahrain (19-21 January).
But when it comes to arms sales, no customer comes close to the Saudis, who buy more weapons than the rest of the region combined. Saudi Arabia's purchases include a fleet of Eurofighters, together with training and maintenance contracts, and the fleet of Tactica armoured personnel vehicles which entered Bahrain in March. In 2010 UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia totalled £425 million. Some of these weapons are likely to be deployed when the Arab Spring reaches Saudi shores. There have already have been reports of protests and repression in the eastern province.
On Friday 13 January prime minister David Cameron made a flying visit to Saudi Arabia. Unlike his tour of the Middle East in February 2011, he was not accompanied by a retinue of arms company executives. There was little advance notice or publicity. Nevertheless, the purpose of the visit was clear. The UK wanted to "strengthen cooperation" with the Saudis and Cameron was the man to do it. Issues of human rights or repression would not interfere with the arms trade.
For successive UK governments, selling weaponry is just another business opportunity. But the arms trade has a devastating impact on human rights and security and damages economic development. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) calls for an end to arms sales to repressive regimes and an end to all government promotion and support for the arms industry