UK remains as the second biggest arms exporter

British manufacturers exported £11bn worth of arms during 2019 – the second highest figure on record – despite a court order that the UK must halt any sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen.

UK exports also exceeded those of Russia and France for the second year in a row, according to official figures released by the Department for International Trade (DIT), placing Britain number two in the global rankings behind the US.

Orders were down from last year’s £14bn, reflecting what the department said was “the volatile nature of the global export market for defence” but the £11bn total for 2019 is only the second time the £10bn mark has been surpassed in a year.

It also comes despite the fact the UK won “no major platform orders in 2019” according to DIT, and the fact that arms exports to Riyadh were dramatically halted in June last year after the court of appeal ruled that ministers had ignored whether Saudi airstrikes in Yemen broke humanitarian law.

The court defeat, however, was not mentioned in the government report. Full UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia resumed this June following a review, with the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, calling his counterparts in Riyadh a day later to stress how keen Britain was to continue selling military equipment and services.

No figure for the value of UK arms exports to Riyadh alone is included in the data, although the unstable Middle East remains the largest destination for British arms. The region accounted for just short of 60% of all arms exports during 2019, down from nearly 80% the year before.

Britain also exported £86bn worth of arms during the past decade, from 2010 to 2019, with 60% going to the Middle East. Key orders included BAE Systems-made Typhoon jets going to Saudi and the nearby Gulf states of Kuawait, Qatar and Oman.

Unlike the government, BAE itself does disclose the value of its Saudi business. Its annual reports say it has sold £15bn worth of arms during the last five years, including £2.5bn worth during 2019.

Arms trade campaigners said the figures should be “a source of great shame” and accused the government of arming and supporting repression around the world.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade, added: “These sales are not just numbers on a spreadsheet: for people around the world they could be a matter of life and death. UK-made weapons have played a devastating role in the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.”

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