Prime Minister David Cameron is criticised for leading a business delegation to Kuwait that includes defence manufacturers. Siobhan Kennedy looks at the history of UK arms deals.

Prime Minister David Cameron in Kuwait (Reuters)

During his trip to the Middle East, Mr Cameron has been travelling with 36 business leaders, among them the heads of BAE Systems, Thales UK and QinetiQ.

With the region in turmoil due to anti-government revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, he has come under fire from the Scottish National Party, which is tabling a Parliamentary Question on British arms sales to these countries. The Campaign Against Arms Trade has also criticised the visit.

SNP Foreign Affairs spokesman Angus Robertson said: "Amid violence and unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, it is extraordinary that the Prime Minister has embarked on a tour promoting arms sales - particularly when questions remain over whether the UK sold the weapons and riot control equipment being used against demonstrators by various regimes."

"It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister has embarked on a tour promoting arms sales." SNP MP Angus Robertson

In Kuwait on the 20th anniversary of the liberation of the country from Saddam Hussein's forces, the Prime Minister rounded on his critics. "The idea that we should expect small and democratic countries like Kuwait to be able to manufacture all their means of defence seems to me completely at odds with reality.

"I would have thought this argument is particularly powerful right here in Kuwait which, 20 years ago, was invaded by a thuggish, bullying neighbour who disrespected your sovereignty, invaded your country and destroyed parts of your capital city."

Arms sales

According to the Guardian, in the last year, Britain has exported the following materiel to the following countries: Bahrain - rifles, tear gas, ammunition; Egypt - bombs, missiles, body armour; Kuwait - riot shields, patrol boats, military software; Libya - ammunition, crowd control equipment, tear gas; Tunisia - gun parts, radar equipment.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed that licences for these items had been granted, but could not say if they had been exported.

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Export licences revoked

After the violent crackdowns against demonstrators in Bahrain and Libya, the Government has now revoked export licences to these two countries.

The Foreign Office said it had no evidence that British equipment had been used against protesters in Bahrain. Channel 4 News understands that British companies have exported riot control equipment to Bahrain in the past.

Referring to Libya, a Foreign Office statement said the Government had "revoked eight individual export licences for a range of goods that could be used for internal repression".

The statement added: "We have no evidence that British equipment has been used in the recent unrest in Libya. However, given the deplorable and unacceptable levels of violence this is a matter of serious concern which we are urgently investigating."

IDEX arms fair

British companies are currently exhibiting at the biggest arms fair in the Middle East, IDEX in Abu Dhabi. The Defence Minister Gerald Howarth has visited, but Mr Cameron will not be attending.

In a speech to the Kuwaiti Parliament today, the Prime Minister defended the Government's objective of helping to win business contracts for British firms.

"Yes, ours is a partnership based on a shared economic future as we need our economies to grow and diversify in this challenging globalised world. And yes, ours is a partnership to deliver shared security interests, not least as we confront the terrorist threat we face from extremists."

The Prime Minister added: "Right now, the value of trade and investment between Britain and Kuwait alone is already over £1bn a year. And the Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser, and I have today set a new challenge to double this over the next five years."

'Healthy slice'

In a speech in London, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said he wanted Britain to win "a healthy slice" of the defence market. "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.

"I want to make sure the United Kingdom - within the limits that we set ourselves ethically on defence exports - is getting a healthy slice of that."

The Gulf states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain - are a major market for Britain's aerospace, defence and security industries.

In 2008, 10 per cent of Britain's trade in the aerospace and defence fields was with these countries - amounting to £1.6bn worth of business.

The biggest defence agreement between Britain and the Gulf states is BAE Systems' Al Yamamah aircraft deal with Saudi Arabia. There have been allegations of bribery and corruption, but in 2006, a Serious Fraud Office investigation was discontinued on grounds of national and international security.

"History is sweeping through your neighbourhood."
Prime Minister David Cameron

The main thrust of Mr Cameron's speech was a call for reform in the Middle East. "History is sweeping through your neighbourhood. Not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely. Across the Arab world, aspirations are stirring which have lain dormant.

"It is too early to say how things will turn out. Too often, in the past, there has been disappointment. But there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Optimism, because it is the people - especially the young people - who are speaking up. It is they who are choosing to write their history - and doing so for the most part peacefully and with dignity.

"It is they who are showing that there is more to politics in this region than the false choice sometimes presented between repression and extremism."

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