The prime minister is touring Gulf states, including Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in a bid to sell British-made Typhoon fighter jets and promote the defence industry, which creates over 300,000 jobs.
The trip comes just a month after Saudi Arabia was “insulted” by a parliamentary inquiry into the country’s support for possible human rights abuses and military assistance to Bahrain’s monarchy.
A European Parliament resolution last month condemned the UAE for its “crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society activists” as the number of political detainees rose to 64. The country has threatened a boycott of British goods over alleged support for the opposition group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
New contracts from these countries could provide a much needed boost to BAE after the firm lost out on a deal to sell 126 fighters to India this year, but the move has raised questions human rights in the region.
Arms export figures for January to March of this year show the UK gave £138m worth of licences to Middle East and north African countries.
Saudi Arabia received £80m in export licences, £77.5m of which was for combat aircraft, Oman received £14m and UAE got £6.4m, including licences for machine guns, night sights and small arms. Egypt was issued £12m in licences, of which £11.97m were for “projectile launchers” components.
A recent report by MPs on the committee on arms export controls questioned the export of components that could be used for internal repression to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the UK cancelled 158 arms export licences to countries in the Middle East and north Africa, fearing human rights abuses.
Both Libya and Saudi Arabia were listed as “priority markets” for arms exports in 2011/12 despite being flagged as “countries of concern” by the Foreign Office.
The committees on arms export controls warned that the export licence system is not sufficient to ensure that arms are not used for repression, as in many cases arms have left the UK before suspension occurs.
While David Cameron has highlighted the importance of the jobs created by the defence industry, arms exports comprise just 1.2 per cent of total exports (£5bn) and 0.2 per cent of jobs. Critics have highlighted the £700m in taxpayer funding the industry receives.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) says Cameron is sending a clear message of support and warned that, a year after the Arab Spring, the UK is still arming repressive states.
CAAT spokesperson Henry McLaughlin explained that alongside prime ministerial visits, the industry receives support through research funding, export credit insurance and a government promotion unit with nearly 150 staff.
“This is all paid for by the taxpayer, though the beneficiaries are BAE Systems and other international arms companies,” Mr McLaughlin explained.
“Military industry is, despite the subsidies, declining. Although it still employs a lot of skilled workers, such as engineers, these skills are needed in other industries.”
“Despite everything that has happened in the last two years, the UK government continues to bolster authoritarian regimes with weapon sales and to spend taxpayers’ money on promoting further deals.”
Speaking to students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, David Cameron seized the opportunity to criticise Iran’s nuclear ambitions which he claimed could “trigger a nuclear arms race across the whole of the region”.
Cameron added that he was a “supporter of the Arab Spring” but insisted that it was important to “respect individual countries’ journeys”.