BAE Systems under fire over Saudi deals

Chairman, Dick Olver, endured a torrid time at his final AGM as protesters against its deals with Saudi Arabia were ejected amid stormy scenes

The first protester evicted from a BAE Systems annual meeting for five years was shaking as two burly security guards carried him out by his legs and arms, but his voice remained steady as he shouted out against BAE's sales of aircraft and military equipment to the Saudi Arabian regime.

Many more evictions were to follow, including a gaggle of members of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who adapted DJ Otzi's "Hey! Baby" to include the lyrics "I wanna know why you profit from death." They were just getting going on what they would do with the BAE drunken sailor when the chairman, Dick Olver, finally snapped and sent in the heavies.

Yesterday's AGM was the last opportunity to rough up Mr Olver over the ethics of Europe's biggest defence contractor. A search is on for the 66-year-old's successor after nearly a decade in a role that has seen the share price double, but thousands of job cuts and the failure to pull off a merger with the Airbus maker EADS last year.

CAAT had vowed to pursue Mr Olver to BAE's Hampshire headquarters for one last fiery interrogation over its relationship with Saudi Arabia. BAE has been selling aircraft to the kingdom since the 1960s, and a year ago this month agreed a £1.9bn deal to build Saudi Arabia 22 Hawk trainer jets.

By issuing dozens of proxy votes, which gave anti-arms protesters the right to ask questions, CAAT easily took over a meeting that is usually held in central London.

If a 30-odd minute train journey from Waterloo to Farnborough doesn't exactly sound like a firm going into hiding from its critics, the £16.20 return was enough to put off the unions. Last year, members gathered in droves outside the QE2 centre in Westminster to protest at the threat to jobs, but even the probable closure of the Portsmouth dockyard, threatening 1,400 jobs, wasn't enough for them to turn up in meaningful numbers this time.

Genuine shareholders also weren't happy by a relocation that was said to cut the cost of the meeting by 10 per cent. "This is a crappy bus," moaned one sexagenarian private investor under his breath as he boarded the double-decker laid on from Farnborough station. This former City fund manager wanted to know what BAE "will look like in five or seven years" as defence projects either side of the Atlantic are slashed or put on hold: "I think that this is an awesome company. It's just such a shame that the Government isn't trying to help it."

Sales in 2012 were £17.83bn, down from £19.15bn the year before, though Mr Olver pointed out a 4 per cent increase in the dividend payout to 19.5p.

"In truth, we don't know the scale of the defence cuts we are dealing with," Mr Olver conceded.

This was about as far as BAE got on its financial performance; that bus-hating shareholder wasn't going to get an answer to his hope that it will focus on the cyber security market to sustain growth to 2020. The protesters started rather tamely, sarcastically clapping the mention of "shareholders" and pumping their fists in the air when Mr Olver spoke of the company "going forward". Indeed, the odd claim that BAE's engineering support of Team GB had "contributed at least 19 medals" at the Olympics was met with the tame rejoinder of "poppycock".

Still, it was all getting heated enough that Ian Tyler, the former chief executive of the construction group Balfour Beatty, joked with The Independent that he was relieved not to be asked to stand up when he was named as an incoming non-executive director. Unfortunately, he later had to after one protester in his row pinned herself to the floor as security tried to force her out.

A woman in her twenties really got the event going when she took to the lectern. Mr Olver, grim-faced and flanked by 10 glum directors including the chief executive, Ian King, and the non-executive Harriet Green (who surely thought she had it easy as boss of Thomas Cook) knew something bad was coming.

"Many of us wanted to mark the occasion of your last AGM," said the interrogator. "We want to present you with our own personal award, the prestigious 'whitewash' award for all your work … You've been happy about supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia, a more oppressive regime than Burma."

Security managed to rush the man running to the stage, so Mr Olver didn't get to find out the nature of his prize.

What followed were shouts that BAE supported dictators and regimes that oppressed women. Increasingly frustrated, Mr Olver repeatedly argued that BAE met its "internal" standards of the governments it would manufacture for, which, anyway, had to be approved by the US and UK governments.

"You need to stop and think about Saudi Arabia, a country going through huge change," argued Mr Olver, which only led to angry rebuttals that the regime was getting worse.

A post-doctoral scientist from Cambridge University wanted to ask Nick Rose, the man charged with finding a successor to Mr Olver, how he would identify a candidate on a par of the current chairman's ability for "obfuscation". Mr Olver glared back: "I'll decide who answers the questions, thank you very much."

On the bus back to the station, while eating the cheese sandwich and giant flapjack that BAE had provided, the 38-year-old doctor said: "I think Olver made my point quite clearly."

Comments