Amid rising tensions, UK arm sales shoot to record high

According to the only publicly accessible official data, British weaponry exports doubled in 2022 to a record £8.5 billion, indicating growing geopolitical unrest and the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Qatar, who spent £2.7 billion on weapons, was the biggest buyer from the UK, and 54% of that purchase ended up in nations that Freedom House has deemed to be “not free.” These include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

The £8.5 billion recorded in 2022 is more than double the £4.1 billion recorded in 2021 and is unquestionably a record since the UK started publishing export data in 2008. The previous peak was £6.9 billion in 2015, just as Syria degenerated into civil conflict.

According to Sam Perlo-Freeman, a researcher at the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), “the latest export license figures for 2022 show that the UK arms industry is working overtime to arm some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes, as well as countries engaged in armed conflict, with the UK government’s full approval.”

In the Gulf, there were two of the biggest armament buyers. The first Eurofighter Typhoon, which Qatar purchased from BAE Systems for £2.4 billion in 2022, was delivered last August, a few months before the winter World Cup.

Saudi Arabia, the UK’s largest customer historically, purchased £1.1 billion worth of British weapons, including £964 million cost of missiles and associated parts, which were previously used by Saudi Arabia’s air force to conduct bombing missions in Yemen.

Following a successful legal challenge by CAAT, the UK briefly stopped selling Saudi Arabia weapons that could have been used in Yemen. The campaign organization is suing over the decision to continue.

The Saudi-led coalition, which entered the Yemeni conflict in 2015, is accused of regularly hitting civilian targets with planes and guided missiles provided by nations such as the UK.

According to an investigation by Oxfam, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen used weaponry provided by the UK and US in bombings that killed at least 87 civilians between January 2021 and February 2022. However, the air raids stopped in March 2022.

Although the majority of the £2.3 billion in weaponry the UK provided to Kyiv in 2022 came from inventories held by the British military, export licenses were not necessary for the £401 million worth of exports to Ukraine.

The Department of Business and Trade’s publicly available official data was analyzed by CAAT to produce the export figures. The US ($1,060 million) and Turkey ($424 million) were the other top two countries receiving armaments.

However, the value of a substantial fraction of UK arms shipments is not taken into account, thus the true level of weapons exports is far higher. The value of open-export licenses, which cover the majority of the UK’s exports to Saudi Arabia, is not quantified; only the value of single-use export licenses is made public.

According to the UK government, it considers applications using “a strict risk assessment framework” because it takes its responsibility to issue licenses for weapons seriously. It has attempted to defend continuing sales to Saudi Arabia by asserting that there is no “clear risk” that the use of the weapons could lead to war crimes, which include the targeting of civilians.

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