Flickr/airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0
In December 1965, the government of Saudi Arabia signed a ‘Letter of Intent’, confirming its desire to buy arms from UK companies as part of the Saudi Arabian Air Defence Scheme. The letter paved the way for the purchase of “Forty Lightning fighter jets and twenty-five Jet Provost training aircraft from BAC [the British Aircraft Corporation]; nine radar stations from Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) and training, logistics and other support services from Airwork.”
Just over fifty years since this “Letter of Intent”, what can we learn from the history of British arms deals with Saudi Arabia?
1) “Bribery has always played a role in the sale of weapons”
The largest arms deal ever reached between the two countries – and the biggest in British history – was outlined on September 26, 1985, in a ‘Memorandum of Understanding for the Provision of Equipment and Services for the Royal Saudi Air Force.’ As Nicholas Gilby points out in his book Deception in High Places, the memo promised:
“The Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will purchase, and the Government of the United Kingdom will supply 48 Tornado IDS aircraft, 24 Tornado ADV aircraft, 30 Hawk aircraft and 30 PC-9 basic training aircraft together with associated support services, equipment, weapons, ammunition and electronic warfare systems for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force. The total costs of the programme will be of the order of three to four billion pounds sterling.”
Over twenty years, the set of arms deals stemming from the memo – known as al-Yamamah (‘the dove’ in Arabic) – is estimated to have “brought [in] £43bn in revenue” for BAE Systems, the world’s third-largest arms company, with over 83,000 employees and an annual profit of $1.2bn in 2014.
The specifics of al-Yamamah are complex. Because “the Saudi government indicated that it intended to pay for the contract in oil sales rather than in hard currency”, Siri Schubert of Frontline explains, a variety of actors were involved:
“Since the oil had to be shipped out of Saudi Arabia and sold on the world market, BP and Royal Dutch Shell became part of the negotiations and were asked, with a commission, to ship the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day from the Saudi peninsula and sell it on the world market. The oil companies then deposited the proceeds from the oil sale into a specially created British Ministry of Defence (MOD) account. From this account, BAE was paid for the arms and support services. It was reported in the British press and later confirmed by our reporting, that the British government took a 2 percent fee from the Al-Yamamah accounts, which amounts to close to $1.6 billion over the life of the 20-plus year contract.”
Aside from the financial gains that al-Yamamah provided for the British government, BP, Shell and above all BAE, there is substantial evidence that Saudi Prince Turki bin Nasser was also a beneficiary of a specially-created BAE “slush fund.”
Peter Gardiner, one of the men “who lavished luxury on Prince Turki for more than a decade” through his travel agency, revealed to the BBC in 2004 how “on BAE's instructions, he would lay on a seemingly endless stream of five-star hotels, chartered aircraft, luxury limousines, personal security and exotic holidays for Prince Turki and his entourage”, initially costing BAE “two hundred thousand pounds or three hundred thousand pounds” a year, before increasing “to about a million pounds a year and quickly to two and three and by the time it was completed it was moving up towards seven million pounds a year."
Prince Bandar bin Sultan – Saudi Ambassador to the US for twenty years and nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his closeness to the American political dynasty – played a key role in negotiating the al-Yamamah deal, as the son of the then Defence Minister, Prince Sultan. He was asked by Frontline’s Lowell Bergman about corruption in Saudi Arabia in 2001, to which he replied:
“You know what? I would be offended if I thought we had a monopoly on corruption… If you tell me that building this whole country, and spending $350 billion out of $400 billion, that we misused or got corrupted with $50 billion, I'll tell you, ‘Yes.’ But I'll take that any time... What I'm trying to tell you is, so what?”
For his part, Prince Bandar allegedly “got corrupted with” BAE’s money to pay the expenses of his private Airbus. And in a 2007 Guardian interview the late Labour defence secretary, Denis Healey, demonstrated how Saudi royals like Bandar have been able to find common ground with UK weapons manufacturers:
"Bribery has always played a role in the sale of weapons – I think almost no role in the sale we made to the Americans or the Germans or our western allies. But in the Middle East people couldn't buy weapons unless you bribed them to do so, and that was particularly true in Saudi Arabia."
While BAE maintained that there was “nothing untoward” about payments associated with the al-Yamamah deal, it did agree to pay fines of more than £250m in 2010 after the US Department of Justice found the company guilty of “intentionally failing to put appropriate anti-bribery preventative measures in place", while making “hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to third parties, while knowing of a high probability that money would be passed on to foreign government decision-makers to favour BAE in the award of defence contracts."
2) The Saudi Kingdom can successfully intimidate British politicians and officials
As the US DOJ was investigating BAE, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched an investigation of its own. In December 2006, however, the SFO abruptly ended its probe, stating that “this decision has been taken following representations that have been made both to the attorney general and the director [of the SFO] concerning the need to safeguard national and international security.”
A judicial deview (the documents from which are accessible here) into the SFO’s decision revealed its main source. The SFO’s director, Robert Wardle, said in his witness statement that Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had spoken in meetings of potential “sanctions in respect of political-relations and counter-terrorism cooperation that would be imposed by Saudi Arabia if the investigation continued.” “Put shortly”, Wardle concluded, “I understood that the assessment of the government was that the Saudi Arabian government was extremely serious when it had given warnings to the UK about its withdrawal of cooperation… should the SFO investigation continue.”
Tony Blair clearly also took Saudi threats seriously, stating in June 2007 that the "investigation, if it had gone ahead, would have involved the most serious allegations in investigations being made into the Saudi royal family," and would not “have led anywhere except to the complete wreckage of a vital strategic relationship for our country.”
Although Blair’s attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, “was concerned that halting the investigation would send a bad message about the credibility of the law in this area, and look like giving in to threats”, the Prime Minister bluntly argued that “higher considerations were at stake.” The SFO itself subsequently managed to lose 32,000 pages of data and 81 audio tapes linked to the abortive probe.
3) The British arms industry has extensive political connections
Ambassador Cowper-Coles and Tony Blair were not the only people warning Goldsmith about the SFO’s investigation into the al-Yamamah deal. Documents released in the High Court on 14 February 2008 revealed that BAE, too, “wrote to the Attorney General on a ‘strictly private and confidential’ basis urging him to halt the Serious Fraud Office investigation.”
Five years later, the person at the centre of pressuring the SFO – Ambassador Cowper-Coles – was appointed “BAE's international business development director, focusing on the Middle East and south-east Asia.” According to the Guardian, “when he left the Foreign Office [in 2010], Cowper-Coles wrote to BAE… to ask about opportunities with the group, and was surprised to be offered a full-time job.”
To many, this case exemplifies the ease with which high-level public servants can transition to major arms companies, and vice versa. Indeed, in 2012, freedom of information requests by Guardian journalists indicated that “senior military officers and MoD officials had received approval for 3,572 jobs in arms companies since 1996.”
Beyond the military and the MoD, members of the House of Windsor have long been willing to do favours for the arms industry, while the Vice-Chair of the BBC Trust is also the Chairman of BAE.
4) British military equipment will be used
When it comes to arms sales, “the UK mainly flogs big-ticket stuff” like “fighter bombers, tanks and radar systems” and these weapons, unlike small arms such as AK rifles, often “remain unused and it can be argued that the real damage they do is in their commission and sale.”
Though this is to some extent true, Britain’s relatively silent but significant support for Saudi military intervention in Yemen suggests that “big-ticket” British equipment will indeed be used. For example, field research by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch into a September 23 strike on a Yemeni ceramics factory “identified the munition used as a PGM-500 ‘Hakim’ air-launched missile, supplied in the mid-1990s and manufactured by the UK firm Marconi Dynamics.” Amnesty and HRW suggest that “[t]he attack on the factory in the Sana’a governorate, which appeared to be producing only civilian goods”, and killed one person, “was in apparent violation of international humanitarian law”, and that “[t]his strike, using a British missile supplied in the 1990s, undermines the claim of ministers that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of UK military equipment is consistent with IHL, and that the UK monitors such compliance ‘very carefully.’”
Human rights organisations and the UN have produced ample evidence of Saudi war crimes in Yemen, including air strikes on schools and a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital. A comprehensive legal opinion issued by lawyers from Matrix Chambers additionally states that the UK government is likely to have had "actual knowledge... of the use by Saudi Arabia of weapons, including UK-supplied weapons, in attacks directed against civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international law" since May 2015. Despite this, the UK “has issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia” since bombing began in March, including “more than £1.75 billion worth of combat aircraft and bombs for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force.”
There is also video evidence suggesting that Saudi Arabia used UK-made armoured vehicles in its 2011 intervention in Bahrain, when its forces were sent in to help protect the Bahraini monarchy from pro-democracy protests.
Why does this all matter?
Leaving aside the moral questions of selling arms to a regime that both brutally suppresses its own people and is seriously implicated in war crimes abroad, a calculating pragmatist may retort that politics is politics, not a morality play. Nations act in their own self-interest: Russia and Iran unashamedly support the Assad regime in Syria; if we didn’t arm the Saudis, someone else probably would. Such arguments are not without a grain of truth, but often ignore the fact that Western officials themselves frequently question whether the Saudi monarchy can be trusted and whether the strategic relationship actually serves British and American interests.
“[D]onors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”, Hillary Clinton wrote in a 2009 memo to US diplomats, adding that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba], and other terrorist groups… which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources.”
Clinton’s memo was meant to be private, unlike U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter’s recent rebuke of what he described as the “so-called” anti-ISIS “coalition.” “Many of them are not doing enough, or are doing nothing at all,” he said in an interview with CNBC. “We need others to carry their weight; there should be no free riders.” In October 2014, General Jonathan Shaw, Britain's former assistant chief of the defence staff, accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of “ignit[ing] a time-bomb” by “funding global spread of radical Islam”, while a former British Ambassador to the U.S. and Germany has even suggested that Britain’s strategic interests now lie in closer relations with Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.
All of this begs the question: will another fifty years of arms deals clean up the mess?
Our journalism is always free to read but not free to produce. If you enjoy our material and would like to contribute you can do so here.