Bad timing: Cameron’s Middle East arms tour
Colin Brown on the long tradition of British PMs selling arms to Arabs, come what may
David Cameron's trip to the Middle East risks becoming a serious embarrassment for Britain's relations with the region's emerging democracies. This morning he told the Kuwaiti Parliament with commendable frankness that the West had been 'wrong' to prop up some of the leaders now being forced out of office.
But while he was admitting the West's mistakes, more than 100 British companies were taking part in a huge Middle East arms fair aimed at flogging weapons to world leaders who could be next in line for a dose of people power.
It's unlikely Cameron will pay a personal visit to the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX 2011) in Abu Dhabi before he flies back to London on Friday after taking in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Instead, he has sent defence minister Gerald Howarth to lead the British delegation.
Those attending say the exhibition is like a war zone - helicopters chatter overhead as armoured desert vehicles fire off rounds into the sky, showing off just the sort of kit with which to put down a popular uprising.
There is hardly any pretence that some of the weapons on show will be used against the potential protestors. Lt Gen Shujaat Zamir Dar, chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, extolled the virtues of a Pakistani-made automatic rifle called the MP5 in an interview for CNN as "very suitable for internal security".
Nice. Or you can buy the latest fighter jet to strafe the central squares of your capital should they be taken over by protesters. Better still, how about a drone - a pilotless aircraft - capable of firing missiles at pro-democracy campaigners from a command post by remote control?
Cameron's briefers deny he is touring the Middle East to sell arms. They say the objective is to boost British business, strengthen security ties and promote political reform.
Eight of the 30 businesses represented on the PM's flight - including Rolls-Royce, BAe Systems, Cobham Group, Qinetiq, Thales and Ultra Electronics - produce defence equipment. The fact is, the arms trade is a vital source of jobs for Britain - the industry's turnover is £35bn a year - and the government wouldn't be doing its job if it didn't show a lead.
Yet the dangers of propping up hateful dictatorships for the sake of huge earnings are all too clear, as Cameron himself admitted this morning.
Echoing Harold Macmillan's famous phrase about the winds of change, the PM told the Kuwaiti Parliament: "History is sweeping through your neighbourhood. Not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely."
He admitted that Britain and other Western countries had backed authoritarian regimes in the Gulf region, and had made few efforts to push allies towards democratic reform. That approach was wrong and counter-productive, Cameron said.
"To be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse."
This would be all very laudable if it did not reek of cant. Every prime ministerial visit to the Middle East I have covered as a political correspondent over the past 30 years has had something to do with arms, however discreetly.
Usually, the PM is just passing through en-route to somewhere more newsworthy, such as Iraq, or Afghanistan or even the Far East. But invariably, Thatcher or John Major or Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown had to pay their respects to British trade by landing in a Middle Eastern potentate's back yard to check how the most recent arms deal was doing.
Many hours were spent by Thatcher and successive prime ministers in care and maintenance of Saudi Arabia's vast Al-Yamamah defence deal. That was for the sale of Tornado fighter jets, which is reckoned to have been worth $43 billion to the British defence giant, BAe. Because such huge sums of money were involved, invariably there were rumours of kick-backs and murky dealings which were never proved.
As journalists we saw a small side of the wealth lavished on British delegations. When we visited the UAE, those at the back of John Major's jet were each presented with an expensive watch as a personal gift from the Emir. They were handed out as the Prime Ministerial plane took off by a No 10 official from a black bin bag. I got an Ebel sports watch worth around £1,100. I insisted on paying duty on it when I got back to Heathrow, but it left a grubby feeling.
When he gets back to the Heathrow VIP lounge, Cameron might care to reflect on what on earth he was doing in the region while the uprisings in the Middle East were being brutally put down. He could say he was promoting British interests, but it's hard to believe that he was promoting civil liberties rather than guns and missiles.
If the proud words of his speech to the Kuwaiti Parliament mean anything, he would have done better leaving the arms sales to the defence industries and taking his kids off on holiday for the half-term break. He could have had a nice beach holiday alongside Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh. ·
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