The British Government has been heavily criticised for allowing arms sales to a number of Arab governments that have cracked down on pro-democracy protests in recent weeks, killing scores of people and injuring thousands more in demonstrations across the region.
Since it came into office the Government has granted permission for weapons sales to countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including a licence for weapon-makers to sell tear gas to the Bahrain administration. The Government also sanctioned sales of crowd control ammunition to Libya, combat helicopters to Algeria and armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia.
A Department for Business report on weapons exports, published in the third quarter of last year, gave the green light to British arms manufacturers to sell a number of crowd control products to the Bahrain government, including "CS hand grenades, demolition charges, smoke canisters and thunderflashes".
The approval came during elections in Bahrain, which were mired by a crackdown on Shia opposition groups.
In the past two days, at least four people have been killed and 231 injured in protests aimed at overthrowing the deeply unpopular administration in the tiny Gulf state. Asked an emergency question in the House of Commons on the subject yesterday, Foreign Secretary William Hague urged restraint in Bahrain and urged Britons to stay away. He expressed the government's 'great concern' at events there but did not directly address former Labour Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane's question, which asked whether the government would ban weapon sales to Bahrain and other countries in the region.
Last night the government bowed to pressure on its position and promised to review "recent [arms] licensing decisions" for exports to Bahrain. But there was no mention of reviews of sales to other countries.
David Cameron and other leading Conservative cabinet ministers have long standing ties to Bahrain. A year before last May's General Election, the then Leader of the Opposition received a "gift of a fountain pen and half suite cufflinks and studs, provided by His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa," the King of Bahrain. The present is listed in the Register of MPs' interests. Defence Secretary Liam Fox registered travel expenses worth £1,400 paid for by the Bahrain government.
Responding to the criticism last night, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said that the government "closely considers" allegations of human rights abuses. He added: "We will not authorise any exports which, we assess, might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, which might be used to facilitate internal repression, or which would in any other way be contrary to the [British Government's] criteria."
But that defence was met with short shrift from the government's critics. Pressure groups accusing ministers of propping up authoritarian regimes across the Arab world. "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," said Sarah Waldron, campaigns coordinator at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). "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."
Denis MacShane said that the idea of civilians dying because of British manufactured arms made him feel "physically sick". "With the protests spreading across the Middle East, I am very concerned that once Britain is going to be caught on the wrong side of history again, defending the indefensible," he said.
The Foreign Office policy to date chimes with a determination at the top of government to put commercial interests at the heart of British foreign policy. Within weeks of entering Downing Street last year, David Cameron embarked on one of Britain's biggest ever trade delegations, to India, during which the two governments announced a deal between BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Indian aerospace group Hindustan Aeronautics to supply 57 Hawk trainer jets.
BAE Systems, which yesterday announced an annual profit of more than £1bn, is able to sell arms to Bahrain and other Arab countries under the terms of the licences set by the government. Ian King, the company's chief executive said: "We do not sell from a catalogue into these countries for these types of products.
"We need export licences for everything we do and they are granted by either the US State Department or the defence export department in the UK. Politics change over time but at the time of our delivery we would have a valid export licence that approved it. Governments can cancel them and then they tell us and so we don't. It is not something we can do off our own backs." No weapons supplied by BAE Systems were used to quell the protests of recent days.
Britain's ingrained position in the Middle Eastern arms market is further underlined by the expected presence of at least 92 British companies at a pan-Middle East arms fair, scheduled to be opened in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. The chairman of the IDEX event, Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, and the chairman Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, says on its website: "Over the recent years significant investment in resources and facilities at our host venue... have enabled IDEX to sustain its reputation as the largest defence exhibition in the Middle East and North Africa region."
Since the start of the year, there have been fatal clashes in several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Jordan, as well as Bahrain.
As part of its campaign, CAAT yesterday highlighted British sales of tear gas to Bahrain and Libya. The group said that Libya, which witnessed renewed anti-government protests this week, is a "priority country" and that "high level political interventions [by Britain] in support of arms sales to Libya.
CAAT also points to arms sales to Egypt, where last week demonstrators finally overthrew the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, after three weeks of protests and more than 300 deaths. Material sold to the Egyptian government last year, included: "all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection, military communications equipment, optical target surveillance equipment and components for armoured personnel carriers," CAAT says.
Arms export licences
Equipment approved for export by the British government in the third quarter of 2010 included:
CS grenades, smoke ammunition, smoke canisters, tear gas/irritant ammunition, tear gas/riot control agents, thunderflashes. The Foreign Office said last night the licences issued over the past nine months for tear gas were for "trial/evaluation purposes". It added: "In addition there are a number of open individual export licences that have been approved. One of these includes equipment that can be used for riot control."
Tear gas/irritant ammunition, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, ammunition for wall- and door-breaching projectile launchers. A large amount of military hardware including "military utility vehicles" and "military infrared/thermal imaging equipment" was licensed for temporary export. Items in this category are likely to be for display at a major arms fair, campaigners believe.
Combat helicopters, military utility helicopters.
Components for armoured personnel carriers. REFUSED: tear gas, riot control agents, thunderflashes.