Posted on 4 April 2022 in arms trade, bulletin, war

Putting the Needs of the Customer Front and Centre

Jill Gibbon has visited many international arms fairs disguised as a consultant. There she learned that in the global arms trade, only the needs of the customer truly count.

Main image copyright: Jill Gibbon.

Bullets circle on rotating podiums, bombs glow on pedestals, missiles are suspended from corporate logos. Reps hand out toy grenades, pens that transform into fighter jets, and sales catalogues. This is DSEI 2021, the world’s largest arms fair. The initials stand for the Defence Security Equipment International but the event has little to do with defence. Missiles are displayed here as commodities.

I am not an expert in arms production or control, I am an artist. I started visiting arms fairs in 2007 as part of an art project. I originally only intended to go once; fifteen years later I still visit. I have become obsessed with the industry, fascinated by the marketing, horrified by its disconnection from and impact on the world outside. I get in by dressing up as a defence consultant. This gets easier as I grow older. In the manual ‘How Not to be Seen’ Hito Steyerl (2013) includes ‘being female and over fifty’ as a way to become invisible.[1] I am largely ignored as I wander up and down the aisles.

I peer through a gap in a wall of male suits. A Lockheed Martin rep is describing a new generation of joint air to ground missile—JAGM. There are two versions on display, each with a different code number. The rep says they have ‘improved lethality’. I would like to ask more, but this would draw attention to my lack of technological knowledge. He mentions they will replace Hellfire missiles, which I remember lined up in previous fairs. The Hellfire range includes a thermobaric weapon similar to those Russia is currently using in Ukraine, designed to suck air from lungs and oxygen from buildings, vaporising inhabitants. The Lockheed Martin website euphemistically calls it the AGM-114N (MAC), and says the US has used it in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the UK in Iraq. War is widely used to guarantee the effectiveness of a weapon. A press release quotes Mark Stenger, the director of Air-to-Ground Missile Systems: ‘Hellfire is the world’s best air-to-ground system. Its lethality and combat-proven performance, coupled with its precision-strike capability, have proved superior in Afghanistan and Iraq’.[2] On the Lockheed stand a video shows a missile soaring through a pure blue sky, then descending in a ball of light. The impact on the ground is not shown.There is rarely any sign of casualties in an arms fair. Unless they are for sale. One stand has a wounded child laid out on display but this is a mannequin for military training.

In the middle of the fair an effusive host introduces a programme of speakers. Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence is on first giving a keynote speech about ‘Government, industry and our international counterparts’. He winces slightly as he describes ‘the sophisticated considerations of our national security requirements and the complex international markets in which they operate’.[3] The phrase ‘sophisticated considerations’ gives a polite gloss to a contradiction at the heart of the arms industry where weapons are marketed as offering ‘security’ yet promoted to ‘international markets’.

Saudi Arabia has one of the largest pavilions in the fair with the slogan, ‘Invest Saudi’. Two men pose at the front of the stall with a silver statue of a bird of prey. They smile as cameras flash, then sanitise their hands. Saudi Arabia has been a regular visitor to DSEI since it opened in 1999, and is the largest importer of UK weapons.[4] Now, it is also an exhibitor showing SAMI, the new Saudi Arabian Military Industries. SAMI aims to produce half of Saudi Arabia’s military equipment locally by 2030. This depends on collaborations with established international arms companies. SAMI has recently signed joint ventures with Navantia, CMI Defence, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and Thales, and a memorandum of understanding with the missile manufacturer, MBDA Systems. BAE Systems has long invested in Saudi Arabia’s military infrastructure. Many in the SAMI management team come from Western arms companies.[5]

SAMI coincides with growing criticism of arms exports to Saudi Arabia during the war in Yemen. Missiles and fighter jets made in the UK and US have been used in Saudi-led airstrikes that have targeted and killed civilians, and destroyed vital infrastructure triggering a humanitarian disaster.[6] A United Nations report documented ‘serious international humanitarian law violations’ and warned that countries selling arms for use in the conflict could be ‘aiding and assisting’ war crimes.[7] Campaign Against the Arms Trade is currently challenging the legality of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the High Court; and the US House of Representatives blocked a sale of missiles in 2019. SAMI will allow Saudi Arabia to produce weapons locally, independent of criticism while continuing to access international technology, research, and investment. The CEO of SAMI, Andreas Schwer, was quite overt about this, saying ‘We have signed more than 25 agreements with foreign partners, so we have multiple opportunities to acquire alternative technologies from other partners where there are no limitations. There is no risk that any limitation of a single country or government can block Saudi Arabia from getting a full localized portfolio of products’.[8] SAMI is an example of the globalisation of the arms industry, where manufacturers are increasingly connected while the details of those connections are ever more opaque.[9]

Russia provides a further example of these connections. It exhibited at DSEI until 2014, when it was banned by an EU arms embargo, imposed in response to its invasion of Crimea. However, it continues to exhibit at IDEX, a sister event in Abu Dhabi managed by ADNEC,[10] the same company that owns the DSEI venue, ExCel. The soaring lines of the ADNEC logo hover over both events. I visited IDEX in 2017, and still have a box filled with marketing materials from the fair. There are glossy IDEX gift bags, pens with company logos, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, MBDA, mints packaged to mimic boxes of explosives, ear plugs in metal cases with the slogan ‘the sniper’s choice’, a fan decorated with cherry blossom and a logo for the China Shipbuilding Trading Company, tubes of camouflage paint, a notebook with a cover showing models posing in fluorescent chemical protection suits, key rings with tanks and running figures attached, soft toys with arms company branding. At the bottom of the box there is a catalogue from Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms export agency. The cover announces, ‘The New Defence Order Strategy. The Russian Military-Industrial Complex. The Renaissance.’ Inside, the war in Syria is described as a marketing opportunity for Russia’s arms industry: ‘In the course of the military operation in Syria, Russian weapons including high precision weapons were shown to the best advantage. This heightened interest in Russian weapons and military equipment has already increased big backlogs of orders for Russian defence industry companies. The export future for different Russian air-delivered munitions is getting better and more promising as many various customers show their interest in these products’.[11] Russia is the second largest arms exporter in the world after the US. It also imports weapons. In 2018 Russian soldiers were filmed carrying new UK-made sniper rifles in Ukraine, manufactured and sold after the 2014 arms embargo.[12]

Back in DSEI Wallace promises, ‘We’re making it easier for you to get an export licence by unblocking the approval bottlenecks’.[13] UK arms licences are already lax. Anna Stavrianakis argues their function is primarily to give an appearance of regulation.[14] Research by Action on Armed Violence shows that Britain has approved arms exports to 80% of the countries on its own embargoed or sanctioned trade list, including military navigation equipment to Russia in 2016.[15] The majority of UK arms exports are supplied through Open licences where it is not necessary to state the quantity or value of weapons.[16] This means that weapons can be sold on unofficially to other countries or groups, and is the likeliest route of UK-made sniper rifles to Russia. 

The Defence Secretary ends his speech with assurances about the UK’s global defence partnerships, ‘Above all, they will be underpinned by robust accountability and always put the needs of the customer front and centre’.[17] This sums up the strange logic of the arms industry, where weapons are products, war is an opportunity to showcase them, repressive regimes are clients, and the customer always comes first.


[1] Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: a Fucking Didactical Educational (MOV file), MOMA 2013, accessible at (accessed 17 March 2022).

[2] Lockheed Martin, ‘US Army Awards $90 Million HELLFIRE ii Contract to Lockheed Martin for Latest Battle-Proven Configuration’, Lockheed Press Release, 20 April 2005, accessible at (accessed 19 March 2022).

[3] Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary DSEI Keynote Speech 2021, 16 September 2021, accessible at (accessed 22 March 2022).

[4] Martin Armstrong, ‘The UK’s biggest arms export partners’, Statista, 16 March 2021, accessible at (accessed 17 March 2022). The UK has sold over £20 billion worth of military equipment and services to Saudi Arabia since 2015. See also CAAT, Open? The UK’s Secret Arms Sales, 14 July 2021, accessible at (accessed 18 March 2022).

[5] The Chief Strategy Officer, Walid Abukhaled, previously held senior positions at BAE Systems and Northrop Gruman. The Executive Vice President of Missiles, Tim Carter, had a management role at Lockheed Martin. See Argaam, ‘SAMI announces new management team’, Argaam, 3rd September 2019, accessible at (accessed 18 March 2022).

[6] The UN estimates that 377,000 people have died in Yemen as a direct or indirect result of the war. According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi-led Coalition carried out 24,676 air raids up to the end of January 2022. Of these, around 28% were against targets that were identified as civilian. A further 39% of the targets could not be identified. Only 32% were identified as military targets. Air raids have frequently targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings and market places with deadly consequences. Many air raids appear to be clear violations of International Humanitarian Law, and some have been described as apparent war crimes. In some cases investigators have identified weapons used in the attacks as manufactured in the UK and US. See also CAAT, ‘The War on Yemen’s Civilians’, 15 February 2022, accessible at (accessed 14 March 2022).

[7] HRC, Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, United Nations, 28 September 2020, accessible at (accessed 30 March 2021).

[8] Agnes Helou, ‘Amid Western arms embargoes on Saudi Arabia, SAMI has a backup plan’ Defense News, 14 January 2020, accessible at (accessed 20 March 2022).

[9] Arms industry analysts Paul Dunne and Elisabeth Sköns make this point in their study of the post-Cold War Military Industrial Complex (MIC). They argue, ‘The concerns of Eisenhower are certainly still relevant as the post-war restructuring may well have left an MIC that is just as pervasive and powerful, more varied, more internationally linked and less visible’. Paul Dunne and Elisabeth Sköns, ‘The Military Industrial Complex’, in: A.T.H. Tan (ed.), The Global Arms Trade Handbook (Abingdon 2010: Routledge): 281–292, 289.

[10] The initials ADNEC stand for the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company.

[11] Alexandra Grigorenko (ed.), The New Defence Order Strategy: Russian Military Industrial Complex. The Renaissance (St Petersburg 2017: Defence Media), 73.

[12] Sky News, ‘The Unknown Arms Trade’, accessible at (accessed 20 March 2022).

[13] Wallace, Defence Secretary DSEI Keynote Speech 2021.

[14] Anna Stavrianakis, ‘Playing With Words While Yemen Burns’, Global Policy, 8, no. 4 (2017)accessible at (accessed 11 April 2021).

[15] Murray Jones, ‘UK approves military exports to 80% of countries on own restricted list’, 26 January 2021, accessible at (accessed 22 March 2022).

[16] CAAT, Open?

[17] Wallace, Defence Secretary DSEI Keynote Speech 2021.


Jill Gibbon is a Reader in Art at Leeds Beckett University. She holds a B.A from Leeds Polytechnic, an M.A from Keele University, and a PhD from Wimbledon School of Art, the University of Surrey. She has published on art as an interdisciplinary method in War Studies, and has drawings in the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum and the Bradford Peace Museum.