The chairman of multinational arms company BAE Systems has said he is happy to continue to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, although they have been used to suppress peaceful protests in Bahrain.
Dick Olver repeatedly refused to answer questions about the use of his firm's armoured vehicles by Saudi forces called in by the Bahraini regime in an attempt to crush pro-democracy campaigns. He was challenged several times at BAE's annual general meeting (AGM) in London today (4 May).
Olver insisted that BAE "will continue to support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" but said, "I'm not going to comment on the use" of the weapons in question.
Anne-Marie O'Reilly from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) tried to ask the board to give individual answers about their feelings on the issue. But a visibly rattled Olver retorted, "I will decide who answers the questions".
O'Reilly is one of a number of opponents of the arms trade who own single shares in BAE in order to try to hold the company to account at its AGM. The questioning, which lasted for over an hour, was overwhelmingly dominated by questions critical of BAE, relating to the Middle East, corruption and BAE's alleged influence within the UK government.
BAE chief executive Ian King, asked about his recent sales tour of the Middle East with David Cameron, quoted the Prime Minister's insistence that "every country has the right to defend itself". There were shouts of "Against its own people?" and "And murder its own citizens?".
Olver insisted that "Everything we are doing is a force for progress and, we hope, for stability in the Middle East". He said he believes it is better to "engage" than "shout from the sidelines". This provoked a cry of "Did engagement with Gaddafi work?", followed by "Or Mubarak?". Both dictators have benefited from BAE sales.
Responding to a question by activist Rhiannon Rees, Olver said it was "not the case" that BAE had no ethical criteria other than following the law. He defended the company's "own policies of responsible trading".
But Olver was urged to resign by arms trade researcher Barnaby Pace, who accused him of failing to be open about several investigations into alleged corruption by BAE. Olver declined to answer a question about alleged bribes in South Africa, and Pace told him, "You are consistently lying".
Pace pointed out, as he has at several previous AGMs, that Olver refuses to accept his challenge to a public debate.
There was open laughter during Dick Olver's introduction to the meeting, when he insisted that "BAE is committed to being a world leader in responsible behaviour". Chief executive Ian King was jeered as he insisted that "the safety of our people, and those using our products, is critical".
The board were challenged several times over the remarks of a High Court judge who stated in court in December that BAE had benefited from corruption. The judge made clear his frustration with the decision of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to reach a 'plea bargain' with BAE, that saw the company admit only to accounting irregularities.
Catholic peace activist Chris Cole, who asked the first question, expressed his "astonishment" that the board had failed to apologise for the corruption. Olver refused to do so despite being asked several times.
Challenged by pacifist campaigner Albert Beale, he insisted that the accounting problem in question was an "immaterial item" which happened "way low down" the company's hierarchy. Beale pointed out that the payment had been signed off by Olver's predecessor, Dick Evans.
Olver avoided a question by Cole, who wanted to know what discussions the BAE board had engaged in about the ethics of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones. CAAT's Kaye Stearman raised the remarks of the MP who chairs the Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie. Tyrie had criticised BAE's contracts with the UK government, saying "BAE effectively held a gun to the head of the government". Olver defended the contract but did not comment on Tyrie's remarks.
The meeting concluded with a question about the living wage, in response to which Olver admitted that he did not know whether all BAE employees in the UK received it.
Speaking after the AGM, CAAT spokesperson Kaye Stearman said, "As usual, BAE has ducked most of the questions, preferring to talk about profits and sales rather than its manifold shortcoming and unethical behaviour".
She added, "While most people recoil in horror as democracy protests are crushed in the Middle East, for BAE 'regional tensions' are another lucrative business opportunity to sell more weaponry to dictators and extend their economic interests".