The Saudis are here again, looking shifty and out of place against the drab late winter skyline of London. They’re in town to drink tea with Lizzy, be photographed next to an inbred-looking bunch of parasites, and talk to our benighted government about how much they love their other Kingdom, the one that’s apparently united. No doubt there won’t be a single reference made to the war in Yemen, how many lives it’s claimed or how Britain is happy to sell the Saudis arms that only serve to exacerbate the conflict. Nothing will be said. Nothing is ever said. The Tories would call it realpolitik, but we know it to be nothing less than cowardice.
For the past few decades Britain has had a strange relationship with dictators, but especially so with the Saudis. Yes, Thatcher was happy to flog arms to Saddam and count Indonesian dictator Surharto as a friend or have tea with mass murderer Pinochet, but it takes a special kind of idiocy to perpetuate the arms deals with the corrupt desert kingdom. And here I’d like to have a look at what happens when our model of democracy, with its supposed checks and balances, accountability and openness comes up against a series of arms deals brokered with the House of Saud in the mid-80s.
The National Audit Office isn’t, on the surface, a very exciting department. It’s the government’s spending watchdog, and it “scrutinises public spending”, which makes it sound nice and open. And usually it is. Usually. And yet 26 years ago it published a report on a matter so controversial and shrouded in secrecy its report was never made public. That had never happened before – or since. The matter under scrutiny? Arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
David Cameron met with the Saudis amid a barrage of publicity surrounding Saudi public executions. UK governments have favoured the value of Saudi-UK relationships, rather than being concerned with any moral or ethical details. Theresa May is neither an exception to that rule, or would ever feign from it. Over £100bn of private Saudi wealth is invested in the UK . It's all about the money.
I noticed a couple of weeks ago that it was pretty much 26 years to the day that this now notorious slab of government officialdom was first loosed on the world, and I waited for eagle-eyed Fleet Street journalists to mark the occasion a series of timely and incisive pieces, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. Perhaps there’s too much Brexit in people’s eyes these days to worry about a report based on something that happened so long ago EastEnders was in its infancy. But I feel this anniversary does need to be marked, for various reasons.
The only NAO report never to have been published was handed to the Public Accounts Committee in late January, 1992. It concerned the sale of planes, tanks and other military hardware to the theocratic state of Saudi Arabia, and the Arabic name for these deals was ‘al-yamamah’, or ‘the Dove’. These deals were signed by Michael Heseltine in 1985.
The NAO had initially refused to release copies of a 1992 report on the deals, even to the police. The official memo of understanding between the two parties records the value of the total UK-Saudi deal. Included was a copy of the original UK-Saudi memorandum of understanding, signed at Lancaster House in September 1985 by Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary, and Prince Sultan. It was marked "Royal Saudi Air Force Secret ''
But immediately the Dove had a whiff about it that wasn’t entirely pleasant. There was talk of slush funds, kickbacks and secret payments to a whole host of middlemen. The Thatcher government and the arms company in question, British Aerospace (now known as BAE), did their best to deny and disavow, but still the stench pervaded. The Guardian was first off the blocks as the ink on the deals was barely dry: “Bribes of £600m in jets deal”, was the headline back in October 1985.
Eventually the NAO took a closer look and a report was compiled in the deals and subsequently handed to the Public Accounts Committee in 1992, however only the chair of the PAC, Robert Sheldon, was allowed to see it. This was highly irregular. Naturally Sheldon, already a privy counsellor, was a fully paid-up member of the establishment (and subsequently became a peer), and as such he played his hand perfectly and ensured the report went no further than his desk.
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The attempts at scrutiny didn’t end there. Another report into the arms-for-oil deals was floating around in 1997, and again MPs were not only not informed as to its contents, but its very existence. Fast-forward a decade, and the next prime minister, Tony Blair, was doing his best to add to the murk when he stopped the Serious Fraud Office from, well, investigating serious fraud, as some of their finest investigators were ready to pounce on al-yamamah-related documents in Switzerland. Blair wheeled out the oldest of old chestnuts ‘the national interest’ line to justify his actions.
However from time to time something floats to the surface and we’re given a glimpse of the squalid arrangements deeper down. An MoD memo from the summer of 1992 referred to ‘special accounting arrangements’ for the Saudi deals. The late Ian Gilmour, MP, something of a bit-player with the defence brief and as establishment as it got, explained to Newsnight how it was with the Kingdom "You either got the business and bribed, or you didn't bribe and didn't get the business.” This has echoes of the ‘we have to sell arms to the Saudis to prevent others from doing so’ line trotted out with numbing regularity to justify the shipping of weapons to an unstable Middle East theocracy. A curious moral defence if ever there was one.
And yet another anniversary of non-publication of the reports passes, the 26th. Does any of this still matter, 26 years later? I think it does. The arrogance and disdain with which the cosy cartel known as the British establishment treats voters – and MPs – is frankly disgusting. The usual roll call can be heard: Sir this, Lord that, privy counsellor whathismname, Baron thingybob. It’s always the same. Because that’s all it ever is. Throw in various conflicts of interest and you have all the ingredients for a classic establishment cover-up.
And 26 years later we are still taking the oil as the House of Saud takes the arms. These days the Kingdon is engaged in a war with neighbouring Yemen, the ideological basis of which is supported by the Tory government, despite the deaths of civilians and the widespread destruction of infrastructure. The attitude of every government since Thathcher seems to be: “look, the oil tap is gushing; don’t ask too many questions.”
The Saudi air force, along with the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf allies, have backed the internationally recognised government in Yemen against a rebellion that swept much of the country from the north. But this coalition has been heavily criticised for striking civilian targets, and Britain is under particular fire as a major weapons supplier to the Saudi air force.
Instead we’re left to fill the void with speculation: Mark Thatcher (the “King’s son”) received millions in secret bungs; the Saudis are using British-made arms to kill innocent people; the former and current bosses of BAE have a direct line to government. BAE, in the meantime, has had to defend itself against charges of corruption from various quarters, not that such things bother defence departments or arms dealers.
Today I read that BAE is still getting away with it, still managing to have enough malign influence to buy silence and favours. According to a confidential memo a US investigation into the al-yamamah deals shows that a Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, received massive payments from BAE over the years, totally more than £1bn. The memo also shows how between them, the Saudis and BAE have managed to get the US authorities to water down criticism of both of them. This just adds another detail to the rumours than BAE only got the al-yamamah deal in the first place because it was willing to pay massive bribes. The only thing BAE has admitted to in the past is false accounting and misleading statements. It’s also worth remembering that it has had to cough up £300m in fines for criminal activity associated with arm deals to Czech Republic, Hungary and Tanzania.
Perhaps only a massive, wide-ranging change of culture will expose the corruption, the obsession with secrecy, and the downright sleaze, but for that it seems we will have to have a change of government with genuinely radical intent. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is that government, perhaps not. Time will tell. But then a quarter of a century-plus of it has so far failed to tell us anything other than this: when is a crime is not a crime? When it’s been committed by BAE and the British government.
Max Webster is the editor of Political Provocateur