Trading in repression: Activists slam 'whitewash' probe into UK-Gulf arms deals

Anti-weapons trade groups are up in arms after a UK inquiry said there would be no advantage in stopping weapon sales to Gulf states. The report claims there is no evidence British weapons were being used in “internal repression.”

A report detailing the findings of a year-long inquiry into UK relations with the Gulf was published by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday. Although the report accepts “many serious human rights concerns in these states,” it did not see any reason to halt highly lucrative weapons trading with the Gulf.

“Ending Defence sales would have significant costs for the UK-Saudi relationship" and there is “little evidence to suggest it would have any positive effect,” the committee’s report said.

However, the report accepted that Britain has a “credibility problem” in its dealings with the region and in particular in its record on calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia, “one of the least democratic states in the world with a notoriously poor human rights record.”

The inquiry also advised the UK government to "improve the monitoring of the funding flowing from Saudi Arabia to organizations with an extremist message" and to ensure that its "legitimate promotion of religious values does not inadvertently contribute to the furtherance of extremism.”

With regard to rights abuses in Bahrain, the report recommends classifying the country as “a country of concern” in the UK’s government next Human Rights Report if no steps are taken to improve the situation.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) reacted to the report immediately, condemning it as a “whitewash” of UK-Gulf relations. The group says the UK government is turning a blind eye to the many human rights violations happening in the Gulf for the sake of multi-billion pound weapons deals.  

“Unfortunately, it looks as though arms company and establishment interests reached into the heart of this inquiry,” wrote campaign said in a statement. “The Foreign Affairs Committee is giving cover to the UK government as it continues the policy of pandering to despicable regimes in its desire to drum up sales for [defense firm] BAE Systems."

While CAAT said they greeted the opening of the Gulf arms trade inquiry with enthusiasm a year ago, they said they were concerned about several aspects of the inquiry. Citing the appointment of Sir William Patey, a former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as a specialist advisor to the inquiry, CAAT said they were suspicious that the investigation was “less than fully transparent.”

Saudi Arabia has been the UK’s largest market for weapons in the Middle East, with an estimated value of $100 billion. In the last five years alone, the UK has given export licenses for around $6 billion worth of defense equipment. 

The inquiry has drawn the attention of Gulf leaders, with Saudi Arabia threatening that the report would provoke “negative consequences” in bilateral relations with the UK.