British arms in Saudi hands

[Tuesday]

Ah, corruption. The BBC has aired some of the British government’s dirty laundry. Sensing the weakness of the New Labour administration, journalists within the Beeb have revisited the dodgy dealings of BAE, the British state, and Saudi Arabia. Profiteering, bribery, and weapons of mass destruction… Here’s a story that exemplifies “British values”.

Broadcasting British Corruption
Last night, an edition of long-running current affairs series Panorama aired on BBC One. Nothing unusual there, you might suppose: it happens every week on Monday at 8:30pm, while the series is on. But this edition actually dealt with current affairs – namely, the Al-Yamamah arms deal signed in 1985. Yes, no one lost their temper with Scientologists this week. And the topic is embarrassing for the government.

The documentary revealed that the British Ministry of Defence was directly involved in paying bribes to foreign officials on behalf of a defence firm. Jane Corbin’s report was much anticipated: details of the scandal have appeared in the Guardian and the BBC’s Nick Robinson asked Prime Minister Blair about the matter at the G8 summit in Germany. Though protagonists have all protested their innocence, it’s not over yet.

Kickback and relax
The British arms manufacturer BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace, is accused of paying bribes totalling £1 billion to Prince Bandar in return for assistance in securing a £43 billion deal with Saudi Arabia. Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the United States and during his tenure he acquired the nickname Bandar Bush because of his closeness to the American political dynasty.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith is accused of covering up BAE’s corruption and helping to put an end to the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation in to the arms giant’s dealings in Saudi Arabia. Goldsmith called a halt to the probe in December 2006, when it appeared that the Swiss were about to disclose the banking records of Saudi royals.

Prior to this, the Attorney General had backed the inquiry, and the SFO is still investigating deals BAE made with Chile, the Czech Republic, Romania, South Africa, and Tanzania.

Call off the search
The official reason giving for putting an end to the SFO inquiry into BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia was that it was “not in the national interest”.

The implication was that were the SFO to dig up dirt on the Saudi royal family’s involvement in corruption, they would end their co-operation in counter-terrorism and would not purchase BAE’s new Eurofighter – costing jobs, and possibly even lives. Key to this would be Prince Bandar, who is now in charge of Saudi national security…

The OECD criticised the move, citing its Anti-Bribery Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, which states that diplomatic and economic interests are to be disregarded when investigating alleged corruption. The British government has long lectured poor countries on the need for a strong anti-corruption stance – in future, they will have the BAE case thrown back in their faces.

Ethics? Isn’t that a county in England?
BAE has laid off hundreds of its agents, many of whom are armed forces or work in the security industry. It was reported that the arms company had set up an independent ethics committee led by Lord Woolf, the former Chief Justice of England and Wales, to investigate the conduct of the company.

If true, this is a face-saving measure – and it is better for BAE that it investigates itself than going through the courts, after all. Supposedly, more famous worthies from the legal establishment will join Woolf.

It will be interesting to hear what an ethics committee of an arms company will say: the ethic central to capitalism is maximise profits. They could have asked Lord Woolf to chair a legality committee…

Signature tune
The British government signed the Al-Yamamah arms deal in 1985, and the “commissions” paid to Prince Bandar (and other members of his family) appear to have been written into the contract. The Saudis pay more than the weaponry is worth and skimming is built into the transaction. It’s nothing strange; in any other circumstance it would be called profit.

There’s more dirt to be dug up here: the son of Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister when the deal was signed, has long been linked to alleged corruption. Say no more. Mark Thatcher has been involved in shady business in the past, including a coup plot against an oil-rich African state.

The current British Prime Minister is rumoured to be about to fly to Saudi Arabia to sign a new arms deal; the revelations in Jane Corbin’s Panorama report mean that any visit would be awkward for Tony Blair and his successor. But then, Blair has a lot of dirty work to do for his on-off enemy and co-creator of New Labour, Gordon Brown – an unpopular EU treaty, for one. Blair will be putting his name to many things that Brown supports, but cannot be seen supporting.

“The dove of peace”
The justification for selling armaments to Saudi Arabia, a country with a pitiful human rights record and an absolute monarchy, is that if UK companies don’t, others will. Prince Bandar flew to France for talks with President Chirac: if not Britain, France. It is competition, either we profit or they profit; take your pick, they say.

This ignores the fact that the government has made bribing foreign officials a criminal offence. It is amusing to see Blair justify the MoD breaking laws that he introduced only five years ago; what was thought to have been criminalised continues unabated. It’s the same old story: if it benefits the rich to break the law, the law will not be enforced.

The government will stick to the anti-terror line: if we upset the Saudis they will cease co-operation in countering Islamic extremism and there might be another terrorist attack in the UK.

The rationale is: if you can’t convince the public, scare them. Unbelievably, Al-Yamamah means “the dove of peace”…

A word from our sponsor
I agree with the sentiment that if someone’s said it better before, you shouldn’t bother trying to emulate: you should just quote them.

So here’s Karl Marx, from Das Kapital:

“With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent will produce eagerness; 50 per cent positive audacity; 100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave trade have amply proved all that is stated.”

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