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The London Dinner Oiling the Wheels of the Global Arms Trade

Steve Shaw reports on an exclusive event in the heart of London’s Mayfair which brings together politicians, businessman and media personalities.

An anti-arms trade activist holds a placard during a protest outside the annual black-tie dinner of the Aerospace, Defence and Security Group at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, London in January 2020
‘It Will be Driven Towards Selling as Many Weapons as Possible’
The London Dinner Oiling the Wheels of the Global Arms Trade

Steve Shaw reports on an exclusive event in the heart of London’s Mayfair which brings together politicians, businessmen and media personalities – and arms.

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At more than £400 a head, the ADS Group dinner is one of the most exclusive events to be held at the luxurious Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane.

High-profile businessmen, military personnel and politicians come together at the beginning of the year to swill champagne, network and talk business opportunities.

A world away, in the sun-baked arid landscape of Yemen, previous business deals – worth more than £6 billion over five years – have been paying off in the form of a humanitarian disaster which has put 14 million people at risk of famine and killed thousands more.

The ADS Group is a trade body for the defence industry and its members and includes BAE Systems, the British company behind the Eurofighter and the Tornado – both of which have been used by Saudi-led forces carrying out a bombing campaign against Yemen.

Raytheon UK, manufacturer of the Paveway guided bombs which are also being used in the conflict, is another member, as is MBDA, which makes Brimstone missiles, marketed as the “most accurate precision strike product on the market”.

Attendance at the dinner, which took place on 22 January, costs £470 per head for non-members and £235 for members. Exactly who attends is largely kept secret, but a 2015 guest list obtained by campaigners included more than 40 MPs. The event has also included speeches given by media personalities including well-known BBC presenters such as Jeremy Vine and Andrew Neil. 

This year, the broadcaster Clare Balding, who led an emergency appeal for victims of the Yemen conflict, pulled out of speaking after pressure from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. 

“We welcome Clare Balding’s decision to pull-out of the event, and urge any other public figures that are approached to speak to refuse,” the group’s media coordinator, Andrew Smith, told Byline Times. “The companies represented at the dinner have played a central role in enabling human rights abuses around the world.

“The arms industry thrives off relationships between individuals and companies. The reason that companies are prepared to spend £235 per head and to pay for MPs to attend is because, ultimately, they believe it will be profitable for them. Some of it will be small talk, some of it will be networking and some of it will be business, but it will all be driven towards one goal, which is to sell as many weapons as possible.”

Mr Smith explained that the annual dinner illustrates just how entrenched the arms industry has become in British politics. “There are vested industries all across the economy, but it is hard to think of an industry that carries as much weight and enjoys so much integration with Government,” he said.

“There is a whole civil service department, the Defence and Security Organisation, that exists for the sole purpose of promoting arms sales. This has been the case under Labour governments, Conservative governments and coalition governments. The fact that it has commanded such support across all parties is symptomatic of the influence carried by BAE Systems and the other major arms producers.

“It is a unique industry, driven by war and conflict, and its existence only serves to fuel further violence. The products being sold are not benign, they are deadly, and they are having an extremely damaging impact around the world. Many of the companies in attendance are the same ones that are fuelling and profiting from the terrible Saudi-led bombing of Yemen. With the possible exception of the oil industry, it’s hard to think of a sector that has done so much damage.”

A 2018 analysis by the group Action Armed Violence found that, since 2008, nearly a third of all arms exports authorised by the UK were to nations the Government had identified as among the worst for human rights. The £12 billion of arms deals included exports to China, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Colombia and Russia.

Arms have also been sold to Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s Government in Egypt. With the help of the £141 million worth of arms, President al-Sisi has carried out some of the worst human rights abuses in the country’s modern history – including the killing of more than 1,000 people, the jailing of more than 60,000 and the targeting of journalists, human rights defenders, protestors and critics of the Government.

Representatives of the Sisi Government also received an invite from the UK Government to attend the 2019 Defence and Security Equipment International event, one of the world’s biggest arms fairs, hosted at London Docklands.

Andrew Feinstein, one of the world’s leading experts on political corruption and the global arms trade, told Byline Times that it is events such as the ADS Group dinner that “oil the wheels of the global trade in weapons”.

“They are gatherings that bring together the politicians, corporate executives and arms dealers who are responsible for the deals that enable the murder of innocent civilians in places like Yemen, the brutal repression of citizens in Egypt or the surveillance of activists in the UK and US,” he said.

“They are also the people who often benefit from the corruption that pervades the arms trade. The exorbitant cost reflects the sums of money that circulate in the weapons business, and particularly the illicit benefits that are such an intrinsic part of the trade.

“It is these types of informal gatherings at which the initial contacts are often made that lead to arms deals being concluded, especially deals that contain elements of illegality. Therefore, the networking ‘benefits’ of these events are at best questionable. 

“Deals are done, but the nature and legality of those deals is problematic. Given the arms trade’s national-security-imposed secrecy and, the reality that the trade accounts for 40% of corruption in all global trade, elected representatives should not be participating in events that facilitate this murky reality.

“The reality is that most arms deals have their origins in informal conversations, in which the non-public issues, including bribes, can be agreed. There is obviously always a formal, legal process, but the key details of deals are often concluded informally. The vast majority of arms deals, including deals between governments, contain some element of illegality.

“For this reason, these sorts of events in which politicians, defence company executives, military leaders and intermediaries mingle, are very common in the arms trade. This is an industry in which people move constantly between the companies, government, the military or intelligence services, in what is described as the revolving door.”

The British Government maintains that it operates “one of the most robust export control regimes in the world” and states that human rights abuses are a key part of licensing assessments. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn questioned former Prime Minister Theresa May on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, she claimed that export licences are considered “very carefully” and that the Opposition leader “never backs Britain”.

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt also told a husting event last year that “one of the things we won’t do is export arms if we think there’s a risk that they could be used in a way that could violate international humanitarian law”. Days earlier, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government must suspend the arms sales because it had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”. The Government is appealing the decision.

Byline Times has contacted the ADS Group for comment.

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