By Kaye Stearman 13 September 2012 for OpenDemocracy.

After being home to several Olympic competitions this summer, London’s ExCel Centre is to host one of the world’s most important arms fairs in 2013. But the event’s past affiliations with autocratic regimes and the nature of the exhibitors and buyers involved should be enough to forbid it from happening.

[This article, published almost a year ago summarises the issues surrounding the Arms Fair to go ahead in London in a couple of weeks time]

In one year’s time, on 10 September 2013, a huge business exhibition is scheduled to open in London’s ExCel Centre. It presents itself under the title of Defence Security & Equipment International (DSEi), and emphasises its civilian and humanitarian aspects in an attempt to disguise its real purpose. However, the truth is straightforward – DSEi is an arms fair, and its purpose is to exhibit and sell deadly weaponry to governments, however undemocratic and repressive they might be.

DSEi has been held at ExCel since 2001. It takes place in odd number years, alternating with Farnborough International, another euphemistic name for an arms fair. Unlike Farnborough, which allows public access (although not in all areas) and tries to present itself as “family friendly”, DSEi is the real deal. It is open only to registered buyers and sellers, brokers and agents, government and military delegations. In 2011, there were in excess of 28,000 visitors.

Who runs DSEi?

Both DSEi and Farnborough were privatised in the 1990s. DSEi was previously owned by Reed Elsevier, the academic publishing empire. Understandably, the arms connection didn’t go down too well with the medics and academics who were its authors and editors and after a vigorous campaign organised by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and others, Reed sold the business in 2008 to Clarion Events, a professional events company owned by private equity. Clarion has no qualms about the ethics of the arms trade and has gone on to acquire more “defence” exhibitions, including the poetically named “Counter-Terror Expo”

Who are the sellers?

In 2011, over 1,300 companies, from the UK and overseas, exhibited at DSEi. The giants of the arms world were present, including the UK’s BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics from the US. Also present were state-owned Israeli Rafael, German Heckler and Koch, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of small arms, and the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (whose stall was later closed after MP Caroline Lucas discovered sales literature for banned cluster munitions).

But there were also small and specialist companies, many of them British. These companies are the hidden face of the UK arms trade, with premises on anonymous industrial estates. (So anonymous that one company, Ovik Special Vehicles, writes on its website: “Due to the nature of some of our business we do not publicise our location.”) In order to expose such dissembling and to empower local action against the arms trade, CAAT has researched and published an arms company map of the UK, available on their website.

Most smaller companies manufacture components, rather than products or systems, or supply specific services. For some, arms is just one part of their business, for others it is all they do. However, exhorted by the export cheerleading of UKTI, they line up to exhibit their wares to the buyers and brokers who enter the cavernous exhibition halls at ExCel.

Who are the customers?

The arms business is essentially a government to government transaction. The firms who exhibit their wares may be privately or state owned but both rely on state contracts and subsidies. DSEi itself operates in the context of substantial government support from UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, the government’s arms sales unit, the Ministry of Defence and the military establishment.

Official military delegations are invited, and their schedules arranged, by the UK government. Given that the purpose is to sell dangerous weaponry, many of the invitees are representatives of repressive and authoritarian governments. And, because UK weaponry tends to be highly technical and expensive, the ideal customer is also rich or likely to become so in the near future. So there is no surprise to find that the most sought after customers are rich states of the Middle East, North Africa and, increasingly, Asia.

So who attended in 2011? There is little or no information available on the thousands of “trade visitors” but the official invitation list for DSEi (released only at the last minute before the opening) is highly revealing. Of the 63 countries invited, 14 can be classified as “authoritarian” as defined by the Economist Intelligence Unit. These were Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt. Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Vietnam. A further eight invitees were identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as being involved in a “major armed conflict” – Colombia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Turkey and USA.

DSEi and the Arab Spring

Six months before DSEi opened its doors, when the Arab Spring was in its first flowering, the UK government responded to public and media pressure by revoking over 150 arms export licences to some affected countries, principally Bahrain and Libya. Of course, the governments concerned already possessed plenty of arms which they proceeded to use against civilians protesting for democratic reforms.

In the case of Bahrain that situation continues, as, after their grand gesture, the UK quietly resumed arms sales months later, inviting Bahrain and Egypt to browse for weapons at the fair even as their citizens still faced armed repression on the streets. Libya followed a different course, with a UN weapons embargo imposed in March 2011 and NATO action against the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, their erstwhile (if highly unpredictable) ally. Libya was not invited to DSEi in 2011, but UKTI dispatched an arms trade mission there in February 2012, and no doubt by 2013 Libya will be again on the invite list.

But the big fish in the arms export world is undoubtedly Saudi Arabia and everyone wants to dangle the right bait to reel in the record catch. Just look at the figures. The UK sells more arms to Saudi Arabia than the rest of the region combined. Since 2008, the UK has licensed over £4 billion worth of “strategic exports” to the Saudis, overwhelmingly military goods. There have been lots of big ticket items – “aircraft, helicopters and drones” comprise £3.4 billion of the total – but there are also “grenades, bombs, missiles and counter measures” valued at £233 million and “small arms” worth £88 million. No wonder, Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes – is an honoured guest at DSEi and other arms fairs.

The Arab Spring saw repressive governments using the weaponry they purchased from the UK and other governments against their own people. Yet, rather than stop selling them arms, the UK government still sees them as a lucrative export opportunity. It continues to organise arms trade missions to individual countries and to hold arms fairs. However, CAAT and fellow members of the Stop the Arms Fair coalition believe that there is still real potential to stop the next DSEi through political pressure and mass action in local communities and in London.

Above all, what is needed is greater public awareness of the arms trade and the massive damage that it causes. Weapons are used by governments against their citizens and in neighbouring countries. Resources spent on arms are resources not spent on health, education and welfare. In the UK, government subsidies for the arms industry would be better used to support the renewables industry and green jobs.

DSEi is dangerous for everyone – it’s time it was stopped next year and forever.