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Time for an inquiry into the use of British arms in the Middle East

Last Friday, over 50 unarmed protesters were murdered by Yemen’s Western-backed dictatorship. As growing unrest threatened to make Ali Abdullah Saleh the third tyrant toppled by the fury of the Arab street, the dictator opted for a shoot-to-kill policy against his own people:

“They shot people in the back of the head as they were running away,” said Mohammed al-Jamil, an Indian doctor treating the wounded with specks of blood on his hands and face.

“Whoever did this wanted these people to die,” he added, tearing open a box of syringes.

We don’t know for sure who made the bullets that were fired into heads of these demonstrators. But we do know that, just over a year ago, Britain licensed the sale of £160,000 worth of bullets and body armour to Yemen’s rulers. We also know that Saudi Arabia’s British-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers were killing scores of civilians in the north of the country even before the current wave of unrest hit the Arab nation.

Or take Bahrain, where 21 protesters have been killed and dozens others ‘disappeared’ by the security services in the last week. In its struggle against the democracy movement, the dictatorship has been able to make use of British “CS hand grenades, demolition charges, smoke canisters and thunderflashes.”

Colonel Gaddafi is now being given the standard ‘Genocidal Dictator/Mad Dog’ treatment by the British press. How perverse, then, that just a few weeks ago we were selling him “tear gas/irritant ammunition, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, ammunition for wall- and door-breaching projectile launchers.”

And then, of course, there is Saudi Arabia: a leading candidate for ‘most repressive dictatorship on Earth’, and the grandfather of Arab despotism. It remains one of Britain’s biggest arms export markets, with 72 Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft and more than 200 armoured personnel carriers being sold there over the last few years. If there is an uprising against the House of Saud, we can expect a response that would surely rival Colonel Gaddafi for its brutality.

In all of these cases, British arms have been used by dictatorships to repress their own people. Some of the weapons sold could only realistically be used as such. Yes, arms licenses for Yemen, Bahrain and Libya have now been revoked: but as Arab mortuaries fill with corpses, it’s clear the horse has well and truly bolted.

That’s why it’s crucial that we have a public inquiry into the sale of British arms to these dictatorships. All those who approved such exports must be made to account for their decisions in full public view, not least to answer why they authorised the selling of weapons clearly intended for repression.

Given Britain’s recent arms selling spree in the Middle East – headed by David Cameron himself – such an inquiry could not be more timely.

It’s also a challenge to supporters of the Libyan campaign. They accuse critics of ‘whataboutery’: ‘just because we can’t intervene everywhere, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene at all’, is a summary of their argument.

But the point is we do intervene in countries like Bahrain and Yemen – but on the side of the dictators fighting their own people’s aspirations for democracy and human rights.

It’s not just selling arms, either. Former British diplomat Craig Murray has it on good authority that Hilary Clinton authorised the recent Saudi invasion of Bahrain to bolster the country’s autocrats.

Even more perversely, the European Union has come out in support of Bahrain’s repression. Robert Cooper – the right-hand man of Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy supremo – has argued:

I’m not sure if the police have had to deal with these public order questions before. It’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence. It’s a difficult task for policemen. It’s not something that we always get right in the best western countries and accidents happen.

He even went as far as to argue that: “One should understand the authorities were right to restore calm and order and that’s what they’ve done.” He was most concerned about the possibility of a Shia government – i.e. a government representative of the majority group in Bahraini society – because it would play into the hands of Iran.

It’s clear that the icy winds threatening the Arab Spring are partly blowing from the West. This support for anti-democratic counter-revolution must be challenged, and a starting point would be for us to investigate Britain’s role in the violent suppression of people fighting for democracy. It would mark the beginning of a total reassessment of British foreign policy.


  1. John says:

    Isn’t helping puppet dictators keep their masses poor with an iron fist socialist globalism?

  2. scandalousbill says:


    So by your definition George W Bush is a global socialist?

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