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Dealing With the Devil: Surrey Pride & BAE Systems

BAE Systems has been arming the Saudis since 1985, when a £43 billion deal was struck with the desert kingdom

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"One wonders how an LGBTQ+ pride group rights could so willingly team-up with a company profiting off of the persecution of sexual minorities in Saudi Arabia and deaths of countless Yemeni civilians."


This past February, LGBTQ+ group Surrey Pride announced defence firm BAE Systems, Inc. as its top sponsor. A spokesperson for Surrey Pride admitted that the decision was ‘controversial’, but ‘ironic’ may be a better descriptor. The pride group has thrown its lot in with a top purveyor of arms to Saudi Arabia, a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.

Surrey Pride has ignored calls to rescind this sickening sponsorship, still proudly displaying BAE Systems’ familiar white-on-red logo on the ‘Sponsors’ page of its website. One wonders how an LGBTQ+ pride group rights could so willingly team-up with a company profiting off of the persecution of sexual minorities in Saudi Arabia and deaths of countless Yemeni civilians.

Although the spokesperson went on to laud BAE’s resolve to ‘break down industry stereotypes’, the exorbitant earnings that the company has raked in the past four years by enabling a destructive war against Yemen far outweigh any newfound charity.

I have been a passionate ally of the LGBTQ+ cause ever since Saudi authorities detained one of my best friends for being gay. Moreover, my outspoken criticism of the U.K.’s complicity in the Yemen conflict is well known to anyone who follows me on Twitter. To pin blame on a nefarious, Faustian alliance between white, Western activists and the forces of neo-imperialism is tempting. However, there is a far simpler explanation: capitalising from ignorance.

A majority of UK citizens oppose British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yet 42% percent are unaware of the Saudi war against Yemen  —now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the EU— that such arms sales are enabling.

Is Surrey Pride’s willingness to partner with BAE the result of blissful ignorance? One would hope that following a month of criticism for its decision, including from high-profile British LGBQT+ activists, Surrey Pride would see the light and recognise the devil with whom they are dealing. However, if the connection between BAE money and dead Yemenis is still too hazy for Surrey Pride, I will attempt to paint as clear a picture I can.

BAE Systems has been arming the Saudis since 1985, when a £43 billion deal —the largest export agreement in Britain’s history— was struck with the desert kingdom. The U.K.’s arms sales came under heightened scrutiny in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its regional allies launched a military intervention in Yemen with British-made weapons.

The alleged goal of this adventure is to prop-up Yemen’s fledgling, pro-Saudi government against armed rebels. In a Machiavellian fashion, the Saudi-led coalition has committed atrocity after atrocity to meet its ends. Coalition airstrikes have slaughtered 13,000 civilians since the beginning of the war. Twenty million Yemenis, including five million children, face the prospect of starvation as a result of the conflict. Cholera, a largely dead disease for most of the world, is thriving with 10,000 cases reported per week. All in all, the UN estimates that 80% of the country’s population is in need of aid. That equates to four out of five Yemenis, in case math’s was not the strong suit of Surrey Pride’s spokesperson.  

What does Saudi Arabia have to say for the human catastrophe it has precipitated?  “There is no war without collateral damage,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki stated plainly.

In the face of such destruction, BAE Systems has been only too happy to count its blood-stained revenues. Westminster has sanctioned a staggering £4.7 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia —of which BAE profits undoubtedly made up a significant amount— since the war started.

That BAE Systems in unaware that its bread and butter lies in arming this catastrophic conflict is inconceivable. The firm’s stocks soared in April 2018 following the provisional sale of 48 typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia.  By the same token, shares took a hit this past February after Germany imposed a ban on weapons exports to the Kingdom.

Moreover, the nightmare unfolding in Yemen is hardly a series of far-off statistics. Reports, pictures, and videos of innocents killed in Saudi airstrikes surface on a near daily basis. Just in the last week, 20 women and children died in a coalition attack in the Hijja governorate. This dirty war may be news to the average Brit. But to suggest that a major British defence firm selling jets to Saudi Arabia is ignorant of how they are being used, especially amid such extensive media coverage around Yemen, is ludicrous.

The bottom line is unequivocal: BAE does well when Saudi Arabia commits war crimes in Yemen. Conversely, BAE suffers when the Saudi war machine is constrained. And the company is fully aware of this reality, turning a blind eye to the many atrocities.

Perhaps the flak Surrey Pride received over the past month was undeserved. With the war against Yemen unknown to nearly half of Britain, the decision to embrace BAE may well have been the product of a lack of knowledge rather than an indifference toward the fate of Yemeni civilians.

But let the ignorance end here. Surrey Pride must realise that any money from BAE Systems is dirty money. Dirty money made from the blood of innocent civilians. Above all, the advancement of one minority group should not come at the detriment of another. Surrey Pride’s spokesperson would be prudent to note that a BAE sponsorship of Surrey’s LGBQT+ community is paid for by a business model that runs on the suffering of brown men, women, and children.

The onus also lies on Britain’s anti-war community to raise awareness of the war in Yemen, and how firms like BAE Systems are profiting off of it. We are sometimes too eager to name and shame. Education is a more effective alternative. Sharing informative content, amplifying hashtags like #StopArmingSaudi and #StopBombingYemen, and supporting student groups like Students Stop The War (@STWstudents) and London Students for Yemen (@LS4Yemen) are all good place to start.

BAE Systems only sees value in death and destruction; this will not change. Surrey Pride, however, must take this opportunity to acknowledge that knowledge is power.

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