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Making a killing at the DSEI arms fair

PUBLISHED: 09:08 20 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:08 20 September 2017

Arming The World perform in Dial Arch Square, Woolwich (Picture: Melissa Page)

Arming The World perform in Dial Arch Square, Woolwich (Picture: Melissa Page)

Melissa Page

“Another day, another dollar,” says a man in a blue and grey jacket as we arrive at the world’s biggest arms fair.

Ministry of Defence, Met and British Transport Police officers shepherd us into the ExCeL, where we will join 34,000 shoppers for this year’s Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI).

To no-one’s surprise, security is tight. More than 100 anti-arms trade protestors were arrested ahead of the four-day event while trying to stop weapons arriving at the Royal Docks exhibition centre.

Visitors face security vetting, metal detectors and sniffer dogs before they can mix with ministers and military delegations from 56 countries.

The Government sees the fair as a chance to score lucrative arms deals with foreign states.

HMS Argyll moored outside DSEI (Picture: Alex Shaw) HMS Argyll moored outside DSEI (Picture: Alex Shaw)

Four MPs, including defence secretary Michael Fallon and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, were lined up to speak at the event. None went to a UN event in Geneva aimed at tackling the illegal arms trade, which took place the same week.

“We must work to defend and promote the established defence industry,” said Mr Fox in his speech on the opening day, September 12. “Those who trade from advanced economies must remember that if we did not provide countries with the means of defending themselves, then we would see the proliferation of uncontrolled and unregulated arms sales free from oversight and inhibition.”

But Britain cannot promote democracy when it arms “a roll call of despots, dictatorships and human rights abusers,” said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), one of the groups protesting the fair.

Guests include countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which also feature on the Foreign Office’s human rights watch list.

German firm Rheinmetall give their Boxer armoured vehicle a Union Jack makeover (Picture: Alex Shaw) German firm Rheinmetall give their Boxer armoured vehicle a Union Jack makeover (Picture: Alex Shaw)

“Each to their own,” a man sitting behind me tells a colleague on Friday, the closing day. “We’ve all got wives and mortgages. When they come home, we want to make sure they are not living in some pagan hovel.”

An employee at BAE Systems, whose aircraft have been used in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, sends me to the reception desk for press questions, who pass me to an intern, who passes me to the Head of Corporate Media Relations. She tells me the company will not comment on UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia and to contact her by email.

Patriotic displays are everywhere. Military bands march through the venue and the frigate HMS Argyll is moored outside to showcase the best in British engineering.

Cheshire-based ammunition wholesaler Edgar Brothers flogs bullets with David Bowie’s image on a display stand, later taken down after the photo rights holders complain.

Arming The World perform in Dial Arch Square, Woolwich (Picture: Melissa Page) Arming The World perform in Dial Arch Square, Woolwich (Picture: Melissa Page)

This biscuit tin Britain is ripe for satire. No surprise, then, to see Stratford host Arming the World, a mock catwalk show featuring actors dressed as weapons.

Three members of the red, white and blue-suited Outreach Team cheer on UK goods like tear gas and the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet during the half-hour performance, which tours seven venues around London to coincide with the fair.

“The more we looked into it, the more we found out how little public knowledge there is about DSEI,” said artistic director Christine Bacon, who has worked on political theatre about asylum seekers and the Sri Lankan civil war. “When we sat down to think about all of the themes we look at, the arms trade is a crucial factor in all of them.”

Around 100 artists take part in a protest art exhibition in Poplar’s SET gallery, Art the Arms Fair, with all works auctioned off to raise funds for peace campaigners.

Margaret Slee, 98, protests the DSEI arms fair (Picture: Peace Pledge Union) Margaret Slee, 98, protests the DSEI arms fair (Picture: Peace Pledge Union)

Street artist Banksy donates Civilian Drone Strike, a piece depicting military drones firing on a child’s drawing of a house. It raises £205,000 for CAAT and human rights group Reprieve.

With a record 1,600 stands at the fair, exhibitors have to compete for attention. Some use sweets and coffee to lure in customers, others free wine. Many, women.

While organisers celebrate a century of women in the Royal Navy, host talks on closing the gender gap in engineering, and let Eastenders actress and former Wren June Brown, who played Albert Square’s Dot Cotton, patrol the Thames on HMS Puncher, one stall uses models to sell flow control valves. Stringfellows, the strip club, offers the mostly-male delegates free entry and a lap dance.

Everything would be packed away in a few days. This week ExCeL hosts the Great British Sewing Bee.

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