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DSEI: London arms fair where Middle East deals are made

Invitees to DSEI in east London include countries the UK government has listed as human rights concerns, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq
One of the world's largest arms fairs, Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), opened on 14 September, 2021, with exhibitors selling everything from torpedos to tanks (MEE/Frank Andrews)
By Frank Andrews in London

To a ripple of applause, the grinning, bespectacled minister posed for photographs, scissors in hand, before cutting the ceremonial golden ribbon.

Behind him, a conductor in red and blue regalia directed a military band - all trumpets, clipped drum rolls and crashing cymbals - to round off its final, rousing number.

The 2021 edition of London's biennial arms fair - known as Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the biggest in the world - was officially open for business.

Exhibitors selling everything from torpedos to tanks, ejector seats to bandages, helicopters to rifle sights, filled two vast halls on Tuesday, at the Thames-side Excel conference centre in east London, for the start of a four-day show exhibiting weapons and military technology that has long been the subject of controversy and protest.

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On the UK government's long list of invitees, rubbing shoulders with the more than 800 exhibitors there to flaunt their wares, were six countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and Iraq, listed by the British foreign office as human rights priorities.

Seven of the invitees, meanwhile, have military sectors at "critical" risk of corruption, according to Transparency International. These include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq, again, as well as Morocco, Oman and Qatar.

For Dr Samuel Perlo-Freeman of Campaign Against Arms Trade, the list of countries invited shows the UK government is "not serious about arms export controls, or global peace, human rights, or good governance".

"The arms deals sealed at DSEI will make the world a more dangerous place," he told Middle East Eye.

Protests an 'irritant'

The event, which is run by a company called Clarion Events Ltd and the British government's own arms export promotion unit, is a target for protesters and rights groups who oppose the arms trade, particularly to countries with a history of human rights abuses.

Many of the exhibitors sell weapons to Israel, which has committed war crimes against Palestinian civilians on multiple occasions; as well as Saudi Arabia, which led a coalition of countries into a devastating war in Yemen, now home to the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The conflict has so far displaced at least four million people and killed more than 233,000.

UK Minister for Defence Procurement opens DSEI on 14 September, 2021, saying it would help Britain retain “its position as a leading global exporter”
UK Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin opens DSEI on 14 September, 2021, saying it would help Britain retain “its position as a leading global exporter” (MEE/Frank Andrews)

The UN, which says Yemen is stuck in an "indefinite state of war", published a report last week that noted that states including the UK, France and the US were continuing "their support of parties to the conflict, including through arms transfers," adding, "arms sales are fuel that perpetuates the conflict".

Companies were found to be selling banned leg restraints at the DSEI fair in 2007, and then again in 2011, the same year that two exhibitors were thrown out for promoting cluster munitions.

On Tuesday, demonstrators tried to block entrances to the fair.

One protester dressed as a dalek failed to get past security. Others, from the Young Communist League, set off flares inside the event.

"I just can't believe that people think it's acceptable to produce weapons and keep killing people, said Lyn Bliss, from a protest group of pensioners called Mad Hatters. "All these people want to do is to make money out of selling weapons and causing death and destruction - totally immoral."

She said roughly 50 people joined her group on a march from Stratford to the conference centre, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company.

Attendees are greeted by a video playing on a big screen hanging from the ceiling
Attendees are greeted by a video playing on a big screen hanging from the ceiling, on 14 September, 2021 (MEE/Frank Andrews)

In the days running up to the event, protesters tried to block roads exhibitors were using to transport their products into London, with the protests leaving the event's organisers exasperated.

“It’s an irritant for us, of course it is," DSEI spokesperson Major General Roddy Porter told MEE. "People get covered in paint, or you can’t get in the gate or something… but we do recognise the right people have to make their point."

Porter said that "one could have a long discussion about the fact that we have the capability to defend the freedoms we enjoy", and that this "enables the people to protest in the way they do"

"However populous those demonstrations might be," he added, "it’s very clear… let’s take general elections as a metric, that the vast majority of people understand the importance of defence to our own borders, and our own sovereign interests around the globe, and those of our allies."

There have also been demonstrations against another British-hosted arms fair, in Liverpool in October.

Suits and uniform

The Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force's team of acrobatic, ceremonial planes, were scheduled for a flypast on Tuesday, but rain kept them on the runway. The only rumble of jet engines came from the occasional planes flying in and out of London's City airport down the river.

But the mood around the fair on Tuesday was jovial, if business-like.

Around each corner in the maze of stalls stood gleaming drones, helicopters and tanks, next to euphemistic slogans like 'armour steel with a proud heritage'

Two Spanish naval officers, chatting freely in all white uniforms, meandered past the various stands, while a bearded man in a SIG Sauer polo shirt enquired about military-grade boots.

"Doing business with Taiwan is not easy," another man with a crew cut cautioned two colleagues. Others, some in uniform, some in suits, some sporting regimental ties, chatted over coffee and laptops in the "Canada business zone".

Around each corner in the maze of stalls - many of which towered high above even the largest camo green trucks, in a feat of (expensive) logistics - stood gleaming drones, helicopters and tanks, next to euphemistic slogans like "superior mobility solutions" and "armour steel with a proud heritage".

Set to earnest music, large screens showed looped videos of explosions, jets taking off from aircraft carriers, dark boats cutting through water and people looking at complicated maps in blue-black command rooms.

 maps dsei
At one exhibitor's stall, a photo shows several people looking at a range of maps in a dark room, on 14 September, 2021 (MEE/Frank Andrews)

At another stand, a photo showed an armoured personnel carrier in the colours of the union jack. It read, "British by Birth."

Jeremy Quin, the UK's defence procurement minister, said on Tuesday he hoped the fair would help the UK retain "its position as a leading global exporter" and "keep our people safe and prosperous for the decades to come".

Asked about DSEI’s role in this grandiose vision for arms-dealing Britain, spokesperson Porter told MEE: “What the minister for defence procurement was talking about, we can provide the platform for some of those discussions to take place. We provide the meeting rooms, the defence contractors on site… By the same token, it enables the defence industry to say, ‘that’s your aspiration, here’s how we can meet it.’”

No comment

Among the exhibitors at the fair were Israeli arms manufacturers that have previously come under scrutiny as Israel's military has used their products on Palestinians with deadly effect.

Representatives from Elbit Systems UK and Israel Aerospace Industries gave no comment when approached.

A tank in the colours of the union jack that reads 'British by Birth'
An armoured personnel carrier, in the colours of the union jack, bears the words: 'British by Birth' at the DSEI arms fair, on 14 September, 2021 (MEE/Frank Andrews)

Rafael said it had no one available to speak to reporters, though a man from its security team wearing an earpiece did come and stare at this journalist as he watched a video of a CGI-torpedo tearing towards a boat - from the point-of-view of the torpedo.

His response to "Hello" was a silent stare. When asked if there was an issue, he replied, "It's an exhibition - you can do what you want."

When approached at the fair, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, US companies that sell weapons to countries including Israel and Saudi Arabia, said they were unable to give interviews.

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The same went for Leonardo, an Italian company that sells weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and has been embroiled in several corruption scandals; as well as Thales, whose weapons have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and who is facing charges of corruption - that they have denied - in South Africa.

A spokesperson for another company that sells weapons to the Saudis and Israelis, British company BAE systems (the only firm to give MEE a statement on Tuesday) said: "We only trade with legitimate governments."

When asked what it would take for a government to be deemed illegitimate, given Saudi Arabia's track record of killing Yemeni civilians, for example, it answered that the company "regularly reviews their business trading principles" and has declined to do deals with certain countries, without specifying which ones.

British military escorts walking with uniformed delegates from Saudi Arabia and Egypt told MEE that they were unavailable for interview.

A Belgian-flagged vessel docked on the Thames by the Excel centre
A Belgian-flagged vessel docked on the Thames by the conference centre, on 14 September, 2021 (MEE/Frank Andrews)

A Government spokesperson told MEE, “Defence and security exports support 250,000 jobs across the UK and contribute over £1.8 billion to the economy. We always undertake strict checks before inviting foreign governments to export summits, including DSEI 2021.”

'Moral disgrace'

It's impossible to quantify the business done at DSEI. Companies are loath to disclose details and often the presentations, chats and coffees only lead to deals months later.

But the - overwhelmingly male - national and commercial representatives were clearly happy to be meeting in person again post-pandemic.

A man from a major international arms firm greeted a counterpart from a rival company by saying the name of his organisation then pretending to spit on the floor - and stamping where he spat. They laughed heartily and shook hands.

Towards the close of the day, many drank beers together. Two younger men chatted holding half-drunk bottles next to a squat camouflage vehicle.

A sign left over from the day's protest hangs outside a shop near the Excel centre
A sign left over from the day's protest hangs outside a shop near the Excel centre (MEE/Frank Andrews)

Outside, on the banks of the Thames, a protester shouted "shame on you" at the men and women in suits as they streamed out of the centre, many heading into nearby hotels.

At a local cafe, three protesters, wearing badges bearing the Palestinian flag, sat for a cigarette and discussed the day’s demonstrations.

'The DSEI arms fair is a moral disgrace and an insult to the people of London' 
- Siana Bangura, Campaign Against Arms Trade

Minutes after they left, a group of four, all in black polo shirts, sat down at the same table. Drinking beers, they casually ribbed each other, discussed the weight of a certain type of torch and spoke cheerfully of how busy the first day had been.

On the other side of the street, protesters leaning out of windows several stories up appeared to be trying to drop things on people leaving the Excel.

"The DSEI arms fair is a moral disgrace and an insult to the people of London," Siana Bangura of Campaign Against Arms Trade said in a statement.

"As the Mayor of London has emphasised, the weapons that DSEI delegates will be eagerly ogling in the Excel Centre are often the very same that have devastated the families and homelands of communities living a stone's throw away, and across the city."

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