How I (nearly) got into an arms trade conference

How shameless is the government’s arms sales unit? Even as ordinary people across the Middle East are laying down their lives in the struggle for democracy, UKTI DSO organises a seminar to help arms companies to sell weapons to the repressive regimes of the region.

The event was called Middle East: A vast market for defence and security companies, it was presented by London Chamber of Commerce, and it was to be hosted in the City of London by Royal Bank of Scotland. (The very same RBS that Amnesty International recently forced to stop financing the makers of cluster bombs.)


The programme said:

The Middle East is one of the regions with the greatest number of opportunities for UK defence and security companies. As a region, the Middle East […] procures the highest proportion of orders from the UK (c. 40% of total orders). Within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia stands out as the top destination for the UK defence industry. Also featured in this list as top destinations for UK defence products are Oman, UAE and Bahrain, however the Middle East as a whole represents a priority market for the UK defence and security industry and is undoubtedly a very worthwhile region to target.

Attend this seminar to receive a detailed update of the opportunities for UK defence and security companies in this region.

Campaign Against Arms Trade quickly organised a demonstration, which was announced on Facebook. Within two days, a rumour started circulating that the event had been cancelled, which was confirmed by the organisers. But while the online publicity had been taken down, tickets remained on sale. Hmm, suspicious…

Not to be fooled so easily, CAAT stuck to the planned demonstration on Thursday 8th September. I went along in my business suit, all the better to pass off as an arms dealer. As our group neared RBS, one of us had an idea: Why doesn’t someone pretend to be an arms dealer and try to find out if the seminar is taking place there? Reluctantly, I volunteered.

Protester outside arms industry event with banner saying 'business as usual.'

Out the front of the RBS building were a number police from both Metropolitan and City of London forces. RBS had posted two burly security guards checking people’s ID cards as they went in. I simply told them I was there for the “Defence and Security event” and they let me right in. At the main reception I asked where the event was taking place and they asked for my name. I thought they were going to check it against a list of delegates, but they just printed off a laminated security pass with my name on it, and told me the seminar was booked on the third floor. This was too easy!

I used the barcode on my freshly minted visitor pass to open the security gates, and I was in! I went up to the third floor and wandered about. The main auditorium was prepped for an audience and the atrium was ready for a reception, but there was no-one there! Finally I asked a member of staff where the event was. She took me into her confidence: “Haven’t you been told? The event was cancelled and then reinstated at a new location, because of protesters.”

She told me that she hadn’t been told where the event had been moved to due to security considerations, which she found ridiculous. “You could be a protester!” she said, adding “but I’m sure you’re not.” She took me back to reception and introduced me to a woman who told me that the event had been moved just across the road, to the Bishopsgate Institute.

Only then did the head of RBS security ask me where I was from. “Campaign Against Arms Trade” I replied, and the game was up. I handed over my pass and left the building to rejoin my fellow campaigners.

I did try to find out where in the Bishopsgate Institute the event was being held, but the receptionist there told me that she hadn’t heard of it. In retrospect I wish I’d been more brazen and just walked straight in and had a look around, as unlike RBS, the Institute has no security to speak of.

One thing that surprised me was how easy it was to gain access to the venue with nothing more than a smart suit, a polite manner and a respectable haircut. I didn’t even have to lie! Those who know me know that I’m usually fairly scruffy, but it’s good to know I can pass for an arms dealer when I need to!

On the whole, a good day: We embarrassed a whole arms-dealing conference into hiding from us, we saw through their “cancellation” ruse, and we managed to find out where they were hiding.

But of course that’s not enough. We need to stop these events from happening altogether. Consider this: That seminar was organised by the civil service and hosted by a bank that is 83% owned by the taxpayer. That means that your taxes are being used to promote the sale of weapons to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. If that makes you as angry as it does me, then please support the good work of Campaign Against Arms Trade. Thank you.

Pic of protesters outside arms industry event. They have a banner saying 'business as usual' and postcards saying 'this is not ok.'

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

Keep in touch