issue 261 - November 1994
A Geneva-based international weapons dealer puts his side of the story.
‘I would say that the arms trade is now more powerful than during the years of the Cold War. Previously you had two blocs: now you have several and every country is trying to sell as much as they can without restrictions. The US is now the biggest exporter. Its share of the international market has more than tripled since the Cold War finished.
The Middle East is still the biggest market, but now the Far East is second.
In the Middle East money is now relatively scarce. Saudi Arabia cannot pay for all its orders and has asked the US to reschedule $10 billion. This is completely unprecedented.
The traditional argument is that making weapons improves a country's security but in reality the arms trade is based on short-term profit. This is especially true of private companies.
At the moment there are only five or six countries in the world under arms embargoes – Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and the former Yugoslavia. Actually they are not embargoed at all because you can always find holes.
Russia and North Korea are both selling to Iraq and Iran. Russia is very difficult to control. The only country that could do anything is the US who might block IMF loans. But it's pointless telling Yeltsin what to do because the industry is all privatized now and he has no real power over it.
All governments are hypocritical about the arms trade. They keep business out of the public eye whilst selling as much as they possibly can. Controls like the UN Conventional Arms Register could work, but only if governments were willing to admit what they have been selling. There will always be a breach in the system as it relies on honesty – and in the arms trade everybody tries to cheat. Also many buyers want to keep their purchases secret and suppliers have to agree or they may lose their contracts.
Even countries that claim they are trying to enforce this or that arms-control measure or agreement are meanwhile selling as much as they can. The US has asked the other big suppliers – UK, Russia, France, China and Germany – to practise restraint yet the US itself accounts for 70 per cent of global arms transfers.1
The majority of the people I know in this business did not set off in life thinking: 'I am going to work in the arms trade'. It's just something that happens. Of course if you start working for a defence supplier you are automatically involved. Many others are ex-military people; they have the advantage of talking the same language as their customers.
Sure, there is corruption. There are lots of payoffs and kickbacks to pay. In Nigeria, for example, you have to pay something every three minutes just to turn a deal. Governments themselves may also play a crooked game. Before they choose a system they want to test and evaluate it. They put out a tender for, say, 100 or 200 tanks on the international market. Firms that want to make money come to the bid. They then have to send one example of their product to the country for between one month and a year, along with all the logistic equipment which goes with it. This costs the firm a lot of money but if they don't do it they have no chance at all. Some governments try to rip firms off. They have no intention of buying anything but they use the testing period to learn about the system so they can copy it.
Nowadays a middle-man like me can expect to make between a half- and two-per-cent commission on a deal – and the kick-backs have to come out of this. If you make only a million dollars off a deal you're considered lucky these days. It's much more difficult than before. The large sales tend to be inter-governmental, but you can make big money if you are prepared to deal with embargoed countries. In one deal for artillery shells with Libya the available commission was 35 per cent. About one-third of that went on kickbacks, the rest was split between the two men who set up the deal. They made over $60 million each. There are no real risks in this business if you work properly and stay within the law. It's like selling anything. As for guilt, it's not part of my philosophy. If it were I would be better off in another job. When you sell a shell you don't think what is going to happen with it. If you sell a car it's the same – someone might get run over. Some dealers don't even get to see the weapons; to them it's just a transaction on paper.
I have a problem with one of my neighbours. I told her about my work and now she doesn't say anything at all to me, not even 'good morning'. No, guilt is not a way of thinking in this game. You are involved through choice. If you start thinking like that you should work for Médecins sans Frontières or do some form of humanitarian work.’
Interview by Darius Bazargan
1 The official figure according to SIPRI is 48 per cent