Why Britain arms Arab dictators

IssueMarch 2011
Feature by Emily Johns , Milan Rai

As we go to press, the British government’s systematic, sustained and deep-rooted support for repressive Arab regimes is being exposed by the wave of grassroots pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, and by anti-arms trade campaigners at home. Late on 18 February, the British government was forced to cancel more than 40 arms export licences to Bahrain, after the Gulf state’s security forces fired on peaceful pro-democracy activists, killing four people, and the Campaign Against Arms Trade publicised the scale of British arms exports to the royal dictatorship.

From 2003 to 2009, the government approved arms export licences for £118.1m worth of military or dual-use products to be exported to Bahrain. In the first half of 2010, the British government issued 42 arms export licences for Bahrain worth £5.3 million, including for sub-machine guns, rifles and shotguns, as well as tear gas and irritant ammunition.

Over the past nine months, foreign office minister Alistair Burt confirmed, hundreds of cartridges of tear gas and other riot control equipment were licensed for export to Bahrain. Amnesty International released a report on repression in Bahrain just a week before the killings at the Pearl roundabout on 17 February. The report, Crackdown in Bahrain: human rights at the crossroads, detailed detention of peaceful political activists without trial, and allegations of torture, and said: “Respect for human rights in Bahrain has deteriorated significantly in the past year in the face of growing anti-government sentiment and violent protests.”

As this decline in human rights was going on, the British government was selling riot control and other police-military equipment to the Gulf state. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has publicised the fact that no requests for arms export licences for Bahrain were refused by the British government in 2010. The arms export department, the UK trade & investment defence & security organisation (UKTI/DSO) has listed Bahrain as a key market for UK arms exports.

CAAT has pointed out that Libya is also a UKTI/DSO priority market country. In the third quarter of 2010, equipment approved for export to Libya included crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition and tear gas/irritant ammunition. Ammunition made up two-thirds of the £4.7m of military items licensed.

On 19 February, Human Rights Watch said that up to 84 people had been killed during anti-government protests in Libya over the preceding three days. Libya and Bahrain were both invited to attend the Farnborough airshow in 2010 and the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in 2009. UKTI/DSO supported the Bahrain International Airshow 2010, where it organised an outdoor event, and the UK had by far the largest pavilion at Libya’s arms fair LibDex in 2010, according to CAAT.

Tear gas
On 18 February, Channel 4 News reported that, in the last year, the export of tear gas canisters had been approved for Libya, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, all of which have poor human rights records.

In Kuwait, for example, Human Rights Watch noted at the end of January that: “During 2010, the government tightened restrictions on public gatherings and began using violent methods of enforcement.” Despite this, the British government was happy to export repressive technologies. Sarah Waldron, Campaigns Coordinator at CAAT, said:
“Government ministers claim they wish to support open and democratic societies in the Middle East but at the same time are aiding authoritarian regimes and providing the tools for repression. They don’t just approve the sale of this equipment – they actively promote it.” “There should be an immediate arms embargo – but more importantly we should be asking why these exports were ever licensed in the first place.”

Reasons why
There is a simple explanation for the keenness on repression: democracy is actually an obstacle to British foreign policy aims in the Middle East and throughout the world. There is a more technical element to this, just to do with arms sales. Firstly, producing arms domestically for the British government is expensive, and if firms can expand their production runs for foreign sales, this tends to decrease costs for the MoD.

Secondly, arms sales help with “petrosterling recycling”. When Britain buys oil from Middle Eastern states, they end up with large heaps of pounds sterling which need to be brought back to Britain if the UK economy is not to be undermined.

Ideally, for the recycling of this “petrosterling”, oil states should be induced to buy expensive products from the UK, products which do not enable them to compete economically with the UK. In other words, expensive waste. In other words, weapons.

If we want to understand postwar British policy towards the Middle East, we need only look at Kuwait. When, in the late 1950s, British policymakers realised they no longer had the strength to hang onto Kuwait as a “protectorate”, they faced a strategic decision.

Foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd sent a secret telegram in 1958 to the prime minister, describing the two main options: “immediate British occupation” of Kuwait or independence. The advantage of occupation “would be that we would get our hands firmly on the Kuwait oil”, but the political costs in “international opinion and the rest of the Arab world” were too high.

Independence “where the British do not exercise physical control” was preferred, though, Selwyn Lloyd noted: “we must also accept the need, if things go wrong, ruthlessly to intervene, whoever it is has caused the trouble.”

Earlier, the foreign secretary had summarised British interests in the Persian Gulf as: “free access” to oil products from the Gulf states; continued availability of that oil “on favourable terms and for sterling”; and “to maintain suitable arrangements for the investment of the surplus revenues of Kuwait”. In order to secure these interests, communism, pseudo-communism and “Arab nationalism” would have to be barred.

The price of oil is a key issue, as is its availability for purchase in sterling. The reinvestment of “the surplus revenues of Kuwait” in the British stock market, propping up the City of London, sterling and the British economy generally, was also crucial, according to this analysis.

The peoples who live in Middle Eastern oil states are often plagued with the delusion that the oil profits drawn from their soil should be used to meet their social and developmental needs rather than enriching Western investors. That’s where the repression comes in.

If there is not a constant downward pressure from repressive states, some form of democracy will break out, and people will begin to interfere with the proper pricing of oil supplies and the proper use of oil profits.

This is precisely what happened after the Second World War in Iran, for example, when a democratically-elected parliament called for a more equal relationship with the Western oil company that dominated the Iranian economy and Iranian politics.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP), refused to adjust an arrangement that meant it paid more in taxes to the British government than in oil royalties to the Iranian government. Iran nationalised its oil. Britain blockaded Iran with warships, cutting off oil exports and bringing the economy to its knees.

Britain also initiated the 1953 CIA coup that established the vicious torture-state of the shah of Iran. It then received enormous US and British support. It’s not just the oil states like Iran that need to be inoculated against nationalism and democracy, it’s the entire region that needs British tear gas and bullets and so on, because, as we have just seen, the plague of nationalism and democracy can be very infectious.

A militarily powerful state like Egypt must be neutralised to prevent it exerting influence over more important (and more subservient) regimes such as the Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship of Saudi Arabia.

That’s why Britain and France launched their abortive invasion of nationalist Egypt in 1956. That’s why Israel’s successful destruction of Egypt’s military capacity in 1967 won it so much Western support.

That’s why the pro-Western dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak received unstinting British support – until it was clear he could last no longer. These are some of the reasons for the British government’s systematic, sustained and deep-rooted support for repressive Arab regimes.

If we want to halt this support, we will have to tame our predatory political, financial and economic system, not just a handful of greedy, heartless arms dealers.