The chairman of arms giant BAE Systems has refused to rule out selling arms to the Saudi government even if the country uses them to put down peaceful protests. Dick Olver said he is “proud” to sell arms to the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Olver struggled to keep control as he answered questions at BAE’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in central London today (2 May). BAE is a multinational firm that presents itself in the UK as a "British" company. The Saudi government has long been one of its best customers.
BAE’s board were challenged by opponents of the arms trade who buy single shares to get into the AGM, by regular shareholders angry about executive pay and by workers at BAE’s Brough plant, who are facing redundancy.
Olver’s attempt to set the groups against each other failed when the Brough workers and anti-arms activists began to applaud each other’s questions.
Regular attenders at the AGM said they had never seen Olver so flustered or so little in control of the meeting. On several occasions he was accused of being rude to shareholders and patronising to the workers from Brough.
At one point, Olver shouted at South African former MP Andrew Feinstein, who urged him to give an assurance that he will co-operate fully with corruption investigations in South Africa. Olver shouted, “I’m not going to play words with you!” and refused to give the assurance.
There were jeers when Olver insisted that BAE had “a culture of responsible behaviour”. The same response greeted the company’s chief executive Ian King, who said, “The safety of our people and those using our products is critical”.
Olver was asked if there were any circumstances in which he BAE would not be prepared to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. He refused to state any other than to say he would comply with UK arms licences. The UK system for licensing arms sales has long been regarded as flimsy, due to the influence of arms companies within government.
Pat Gaffney of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi asked Olver if he could guarantee that the Saudi regime would not use BAE’s weapons against their own people. Olver replied simply, “No”.
Challenged by Sarah Waldron of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Olver admitted that BAE had joined trade minister Stephen Green on an arms sales trip to Libya within the last few days.
Olver was asked by Symon Hill, associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank, if he was planning to sell more arms to the Bahraini regime. He said he was “proud” to “support” Bahrain with Hawk jets and weapons parts, and refused to comment on the regime’s brutal repression of peaceful protest.
Several questioners suggested that BAE should diversify its work to include renewable energy, thus moving away from arms and keeping jobs in Brough. There was applause from both anti-arms activists and Brough workers. Olver ruled it out, saying he would not “flip-flop” between industries, while at the same time praising his company’s contribution to hybrid buses.
Veteran activist Albert Beale asked the board to state the ratio between the chief executive’s pay – about £2.5 million per year – and the pay of the lowest paid member of staff. Olver said the firm paid good wages but he had “no idea” about the ratio.
Beale pointed out he had asked the same question last year, meaning there had been a year in which the board could have worked it out.
Told that pay ratios were considered a serious issues in the public sector, Olver said, "We don't live in that world. We live in a competitive world."
One questioner pointed out that BAE board members are paid £4,000 each every time they attend an international board meeting, in addition to their salary. In response to criticism of the re-appointment of board member Peter Mason, Olver insisted “You are very lucky to have him on the board”.
As the AGM went on, hundreds of workers from Brough demonstrated outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, where the meeting was taking place.
Brough shop steward Tim Smith said that BAE's bosses had "shown us a lot of disrespect". A worker from who had been employed by BAE for 26 years said his father and grandfather had also worked at the plant, where he now faces redundancy.
He added, “You’re not performing but you’re giving yourself pay rises. We are performing and you’re sacking us.” There was loud applause.
Another Brough worker, about to become redundant after 21 years, struggled to hold back his tears as he stood to ask his question. He said, “I notice you give thanks to the people who are standing down from the board. Will you be giving thanks to me?”
Olver triggered open laughter when he insisted that BAE is “one of the leading companies in the anti-bribery area”. The firm has long been accused of corruption, and was recently fined for “accounting irregularities” after making a plea bargain to avoid bribery charges in relation to Tanzania.
Arms trade researcher Barnaby Pace repeatedly tried to get an answer about a specific aspect of corruption allegations in the US. Olver refused to answer several time. As Pace continued to press the point, Olver told him, “If you want to stay in the room, you’ll have to sit down”.
Ann Feltham of CAAT asked if the chairman would apologise to the people of Tanzania. Olver said, “I don’t think I need to do that”.