Record numbers expected as Europe’s biggest arms fair opens in London

Europe’s biggest ever arms fair got under way in London on Tuesday with record numbers expected to attend, boosted by interest from countries with controversial human rights records.

Authoritarian Egypt and Vietnam are among those sending delegations, defence sources said, as well as Indonesia and India – all countries whose arms-buying strategies have been affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A handful of delegations are coming to DSEI who “would normally be Russian export customers”, sources added, “but what they’ve seen on the Russian side of the battlefield has persuaded them there is an opportunity to diversify”.

In particular, Russian firms are said to be struggling to fill export orders because so much of the country’s stock is being used on the battlefield.

Sam Perlo-Freeman, a researcher at Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), said: “A lot of countries that are being talked about as new arms export markets are ones we would be concerned about. Egypt is a repressive regime and Vietnam an absolute dictatorship. Indonesia is involved in brutality in West Papua.”

A full list of countries sending delegations published by the UK government shows eight from the Foreign Office’s list of priority human rights countries. As well as Egypt, these are Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with the Saudi presence particularly notable on the opening day.

Held at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands, the four-day trade show has 1,600 arms manufacturers and related firms exhibiting, and includes a working dock where British and Dutch frigates are among those weighing anchor. Clarion Events, the organiser, said: “We are set to break all records.”

Grant Shapps is due to make his first public speech as defence secretary on Thursday at an event not just fully supported by the Ministry of Defence but also protected by a Met police operation. The policing cost £3m the last time event was held, two years ago.

A man wearing a Chiron-X1 high-impact close-quarter fighting training suit is attacked by a member of the sales team during a demonstration at DSEI. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Arms trade campaigners had spent several days trying to disrupt the show during its setup. Twelve people were arrested, including nine last Thursday when activists blocked a road in front of one of the site gates. Protesters held an Anglican prayer service and a Quaker meeting before police moved in to clear the way.

Those involved with CAAT say the Met has adopted “harassment-style policing” based on the forward intelligence policing model heavily deployed by officers 15 or more years ago but not seen again until relatively recently.

Emily Apple, a press officer with CAAT, said that when she first arrived near ExCeL centre on Monday last week, an officer called out to her by name. “Police then watched me have coffee before I joined the protest; later, after I left, they followed me on the DLR until Canning Town station.”

Arms exports data is only gradually being published but there is growing confirmation that 2022 was a year of rapid growth amid a wider rearmament prompted by the invasion of Ukraine as well the shift from Russian to western exports.

French arms exports soared to €27bn (£23.2bn) last year, from €11.7bn the previous year, according to a parliamentary report released in July. Equivalent figures for the UK are not yet available.