A controversial deal with Saudi Arabia catapulted Britain to the top of the world arms export league last year, as U.K. firms won a record £10billion in orders from overseas, showed official figures.

The figure amounts to a third of all worldwide export orders for military equipment.

An essentially political, government-to-government contract — the sale of 72 Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft, for £4.4billion, to the Saudis — accounted for Britain’s number one position.

The Ministry of Defence said the terms of the contract and the expenditure involved are confidential. But officials made it clear that when upkeep, spares and training were included, the deal could amount to £20billion spread over many years.

Over the past five years, the top arms exporters have been the U.S., with $63billion worth of sales, UK ($53billion), Russia ($33billion), France ($17billion) and Germany and Israel ($9billion each), according to government figures.

Analysts said the latest figures reporting Britain’s top spot in 2007 should be treated with caution, as they represent orders and not actual deliveries of equipment. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008