Sale of tear gas & water cannon to ‘human rights-abusing’ Gulf nations worth millions to UK

© Kemal Aslan
The UK government has once again been accused of “arming repression” in countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, after nearly £46 million worth of British export licenses for crowd control items were issued to Gulf States.

It was also found to have developed a “secret” Gulf Strategy Unit, through which several British intelligence and security agencies are coordinating units to be based permanently in the region.

However, the government believes the system vetting arms exports and human rights abuses is “extremely robust,” because a number of nations now have no longer access to British arms purchases.

According to a new report by anti-poverty and human rights charity War on Want, Britain has been training snipers and public order forces, and selling tear gas and surveillance technology to countries widely criticized for human rights abuses. Since 2010, an estimated 6,000 individual export licenses for all types of arms and defense technology were issued to governments in the Gulf region. The British government’s earnings from the deals added up to £16 billion (US$20.2 billion).

Of those approved, 120 licenses – with a total price tag of £45.6 million – specified the sale of crowd-control devices, often used to suppress dissent during democracy protests that have taken the region by storm since 2011. War on Want researchers found licenses for items such as water cannon, CS grenades and appliances that can emit extremely aggressive sounds in order to disperse crowds.

Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia were identified by the government as “priority markets” for British arms and defense technology exports.

In Oman, where freedom of speech and a citizen’s right of association have been strictly restricted since the Arab Spring, British forces are now “working more closely than ever across military, counter-terrorism and intelligence fields to tackle shared threats to stability.”

In August last year £16.5 million worth of tear gas and “irritant ammunition” was sold to the Omani government by British firms. It came on top of a £1.7 million deal for “acoustic devices for riot control” dating back to 2012.

“This is the latest chapter in the long and violent history of British imperialism in the Persian Gulf,” War on Want executive director John Hilary said.

“The UK government’s renewed military and economic strategy is putting the UK’s access to oil ahead of any commitment to democracy and human rights. It’s time for an immediate ban on exports of arms and repressive technologies where there is a risk of use for internal repression or human rights violations.

“The government has a serious case to answer when clandestine meetings between public intelligence and security agencies form the basis of the UK’s role in arming repression in the Gulf. It’s time the government came clean on the personnel, objectives and activities of the government’s secretive Gulf Strategy Unit.”

Britain’s largest arms client, Saudi Arabia, purchased £1.7 million worth of materials used in quashing dissent in December 2012.

A spokesman for the Department for International Trade told RT that plans for a British base in the Gulf were “not new” and that the announcement had been made last year.

“The government takes its arms export responsibilities extremely seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world,” he said. “We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export licensing criteria and risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment.

“Our export licensing system allows us to respond quickly to changing facts on the ground. We have suspended or revoked licenses when the level of risk changes – for example, most recently in Ukraine and Russia – and we constantly review local situations.”