David Cameron last night defied mounting criticism over his arms mission to the Middle East – declaring that Britain has ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ for selling weapons to Arab leaders.
The Prime Minister accused his critics of being ‘at odds with reality’ after he was condemned for taking eight arms manufacturers on his tour of the Gulf.
They were invited to join his trip despite concerns that British-made equipment had been used by the Gaddafi regime to suppress unrest in Libya.
Nothing to be ashamed of: David Cameron meets the Emir of Kuwaiti in Kuwait City on day two of his visit to the Middle East
But yesterday an angry Mr Cameron said he could not understand why anyone would oppose his attempts to boost British defence sales in such a volatile region.
In a speech to the Kuwaiti parliament, he admitted that past British governments had miscalculated in their policy of propping up brutal dictators in the region.
The picture above is the first evidence that military equipment made in Britain is being used by Colonel Gaddafi against protesters in Libya.
The image is from footage captured by an amateur cameraman and smuggled out of Libya in recent days and shows an armoured personnel carrier speeding past demonstrators.
The vehicle has been identified as British-made and critics say the picture dramatically exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy: Our ministers offer vocal support to protest movements in the Arab world, but at the same time they are arming their despotic oppressors.
Across the region yesterday, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, UK arms companies were busy peddling their wares.
Among the equipment being promoted at the Idex 2011, the Middle East’s biggest arms fair, were CS gas shotgun cartridges and stun grenades – precisely the type of weapons used by security forces to try to quell crowds of pro-democracy protesters.
According to ADS, the body that represents UK companies, an estimated £7.2billion worth of British defence exports are sold every year – half of which go to Middle Eastern countries.
Official figures show the UK Government approved at least 75 arms export licences to Libya since 2008, worth between £75million and £100million.
Since the election, British firms have sold crowd sniper rifles, tear gas and ammunition to Gaddafi regime.
Military export licences from Britain over the first nine months of last year totalled £64.3million to Saudi Arabia, £4million to Egypt, £270million to Algeria and £15.9million to the United Arab Emirates.
We sell combat helicopters, bomb-making parts, missiles, body armour, elements for unmanned drones, military software and heavy machine guns.
Of course Britain is not alone. According to data collected by Forbes magazine, from 2007 to 2010 the Pentagon persuaded Congress to approve $180billion worth of arms sales to the Middle East region with $100billion signed off since President Obama took office.
Marking the 20th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from Saddam Hussein’s forces, Mr Cameron said: ‘A properly regulated trade in defence is nothing we should be ashamed of.
‘The fact that there are British defence companies on this visit – BAe, Thales and others – is perfectly right in this regard.’
The Foreign Office has already revoked a series of export licences for Libya and Bahrain in the wake of the crackdowns on protesters in those countries. But Mr Cameron said it was right to do business with allies such as Kuwait.
‘The idea that Kuwait should not be able to have its own armed forces able to defend its own country, I find an extraordinary argument to make when we helped liberate the country,’ he said.
‘We have probably the toughest set of export rules probably anywhere in the world. It is obviously difficult to get it right on every occasion.’
An angry Mr Cameron told a journalist: ‘I simply don’t understand how you can’t understand that democracies have a right to defend themselves.
‘Are we honestly saying that for all time, countries like Kuwait have to manufacture and maintain every single part of their own defences?
‘There are very few people who would even consider that argument for any length of time and give it any consideration at all.’
But Yasmin Khan, senior campaigns officer at the charity War On Want, said: ‘As people in the Middle East risk their lives opposing authoritarian regimes, it is deplorable that David Cameron is seeking to exploit the crisis by promoting sales of weapons and torture equipment to the region.
‘Cameron should cancel this tour immediately and ban all UK companies from weapons deals with regimes that deny human rights to their people.’
Defence Secretary Liam Fox declared that Britain should retain a ‘healthy slice’ of the weapons industry. Speaking at the Civitas think tank in London, Dr Fox said: ‘We have to recognise that countries have a right of self-defence and not all of them have a defence industry so they will always buy externally.’
In his speech to the Kuwaiti parliament, Mr Cameron said that successive British governments have been guilty of ‘racism’ by propping up repressive regimes because of a belief that Arabs could not ‘do democracy’.
The Prime Minister said some of his predecessors’ policies had also helped foment instability in the Middle East by their failure to promote democracy.
The law firm that employs Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s wife has come under fire for lobbying on behalf of the Libyan regime.
DLA Piper reportedly advised the Libyans on how to get compensation from the EU for agreeing to stop the migration of Africans from Libya to Europe, although Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Mr Clegg’s wife and a senior partner in the firm, is understood to have had nothing to do with the Libyan work.