Today, Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia – or ‘MBS’ to his media team – is talking business in London with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. If much of the mainstream media is to be believed, the meeting represents the advent of a new era in British-Saudi relations; a pragmatic deal between two states with uncertain futures.
Both sides have described the $100bn in reported deals in conspicuously nebulous terms. They will be “broad and wide-ranging” – according to Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister – but the details cannot currently be confirmed. Yet it is highly likely that most of the negotiations will take place in the bosom of a single and comfortingly familiar sector for both governments; the British arms industry.
The Anglo-Saudi military pact is nothing new. Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest importer of UK weapons. When prompted, British officials tend to claim the UK arms trade has a moral prerogative, arming our allies abroad while energising our economy at home. In actuality, it is one of the world’s most lucrative mob circuits.
We can’t know the precise details of the deals that will be negotiated in secret between British and Saudi bureaucrats this week in the seclusion of Downing Street and the penthouses of the Dorchester Hotel. But history has a tendency to repeat itself. The biggest arms trade between the two countries – known as Al Yamamah or ‘the Dove’- was inked in 1985. And, according to Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, it is the most corrupt commercial transaction on record.
As part of the deal, the UK has sold the Saudis billions of dollars worth of aircraft, shells and naval vessels. In return for their arms, the UK is paid in oil – 600,000 barrels a day. The process continues today. Oil is loaned to petrol companies, who sell it and wire the cash to a special bank account at the Bank of England. This money is then dispersed through government and private bank accounts. The quantity of oil traded is so enormous that some of it is likely to have ended up in the tank of your car. When you buy petrol from a Shell or BP garage, you may well be unwittingly participating in ‘the Dove’ deal, converting Saudi oil into unregulated cash.
The Saudis do not exchange oil for arms to help you drive to work every day. They do it to launder a slush fund for bribery on a colossal scale. Since the deal took place in the 1980s, an estimated £6bn of bribes from this fund have been paid to senior civil servants and businessmen. The Saudi and British governments tend to call these ‘commissions’.
£1bn of the commissions have gone to a single person, Prince Bandar: the former Saudi Ambassador to the USA. As a gift for his part in the deal, he also received an airbus A340 Jet painted in the colours of his favourite team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Another notable beneficiary of the deal was Mark Thatcher. He allegedly received millions of pounds in commissions for facilitating inside access to British officials, including the then-prime minister – his mother, Margaret Thatcher.
The Saudis do not trade with the UK because of the quality of British arms technology. The Saudis trade with the UK because the British government enthusiastically participates in a system of bribery and corruption. During the 1980s, US Congress repeatedly blocked arms trades between their country and Saudi Arabia. One Saudi official commented: “We would prefer buying weapons from the USA. American technology is generally superior. But we are not going to pay billions of dollars to be insulted. We are not masochists.”
Since the evidence of corruption is overwhelming, an investigation into ‘the Dove’ deal was attempted by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). It was shut down in 2005 by Tony Blair’s government “in the interest of national security”. A year later, Blair signed a new arms contract with the Saudi government. They called it ‘the Peace Deal’.
The contracted company for all deals with the Saudis has been multinational defence, security and aerospace company BAE Systems. Since the 1980s BAE has notionally been a private company, but it is closely entangled in the British government and has no major domestic competitor. When Tony Blair shut down the SFO investigation into company corruption, he made it clear how close BAE was to his administration, telling parliament, “If you want to blame anyone for this, blame me”.
This is what we know about the past. The details of more recent arms deals will take years to unearth. Yet British weapons are being used now in Yemen, where a war between the Saudis and Houthi rebels broke out in March 2015. At least £4.6bn of British arms have been sold to the Saudis since the beginning of the war.
The Saudis are using these weapons to bomb civilians, including children. While atrocities are being committed on both sides, a UN report claims that the Saudi-led forces are responsible for the majority of child casualties. The report condemned the “shocking levels of killing and maiming”- killing and maiming that is committed with UK-manufactured arms.
The civilian casualties in Yemen represent the tip of an iceberg. Firing a weapon isn’t the only way of killing someone with it. Arms made in the west are used to communicate power and engineer obedience. Bolstered by British weaponry, the Saudi military have blockaded all the major ports into Yemen: a country that imports 80% of its food. UNICEF predict that 150,000 children could die by the end of this year. With the Saudi government having blocked media access to the country, we don’t know for certain how many have died already.
If you ask a government minister about the arms deals with Saudi Arabia, they will say that the UK’s export criteria is the toughest in the world. Such a claim is not simply spin or a point of ambiguity; it is a lie. Nor, as the government might also claim, is the arms trade a necessary exercise in diplomacy with foreign allies. It is a profitable nexus of powerful men that generates private wealth.
UK arms deals are negotiated through the British government, largely in secret, by politicians who claim to represent the interests of their people. Those people should be able to decide if they want the arms trade to represent them.