The most offensive thing I have read lately are the new “preliminary results” from the weapons company BAE Systems.
On page four, the firm gloats at how it won orders worth 3.4 billion pounds (5 billion euros) under the Saudi-British Defence Cooperation Programme last year. A separate contract worth 1.4 billion was awarded to BAE in May 2012 to support the “training requirements” of the Saudi air force by supplying it with warplanes.
Let us pause for a second. How did Saudi Arabia respond to that wonderful exercise in people‘s power known as the Arab Spring? In March 2011, it sent 1,200 troops across the causeway linking it to Bahrain. Many of the troops travelled in Tactica tanks, manufactured by BAE. They were used to destroy a protest camp at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital.
The Saudis have displayed a similar intolerance towards freedom of expression within their own borders. After about 300 people brave enough to attend demonstrations were arrested in early 2011, the Saudi interior ministry decreed that all protests were banned.
Disgracefully, the European Union responded to this crackdown on dissent by selling the Saudi royal family more arms. During 2011, Saudi Arabia was the single largest client for EU weapons companies, spending more than 4.2 billion euros.
These exports violate the EU’s own laws. Since 2008, the Union’s governments have been obliged to respect a legally-binding “code of conduct” on arms exports. The code explicitly states that governments must “exercise special caution and vigilance” in authorising weapons sales to countries where serious human rights abuses occur.
No such caution has been exercised in the case of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women are forbidden from working, travelling abroad and receiving some types of surgery without rewritten permission from their husbands or a male relative. It wasn’t until September 2011 that King Abdullah declared that women would be allowed to vote in local elections.
Executions more than tripled between 2010 and 2011. This year the Saudis have been beheading almost two people every week. They included Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek, who was only 17 at the time of her alleged crime. Her execution breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlaws executions of people convicted of committing an offence when they were under 18 years of age.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was “deeply dismayed” by Nafeek’s execution, according to a statement prepared by Ashton’s spindoctors. Yet Ashton has been silent about how BAE arms this most repressive of states. Her silence is shameful, though not surprising. Ashton’s mentor, Tony Blair, behaved as a salesman for BAE. When the British authorities gathered evidence that BAE had resorted to bribery in order to secure a 43 billion pounds arms deal from the Saudis, Blair ordered that the investigation be halted.
BAE now seems to be attempting a makeover. According to its website, a “business ethics” department has been established in BAE‘s Saudi offices. BAE‘s commitment to ethics did not last long. In February, it rejected calls for an enquiry into how Richard Evans, the company‘s former chairman, apparently acquired two penthouse apartments in London from offshore firms linked to the same arms deal that Blair was so eager to protect.
Saudi Arabia is, of course, a major ally to the US. Its attraction to George W. Bush was easy to explain: a fossil fuel merchant couldn‘t fail to be aroused by having close connections to a country that hosts nearly 20% of the world‘s proven oil reserves. Despite his promises of “change”, Barack Obama has maintained the Saudi royal family in a constant bear-hug. Those drone strikes that Obama has ordered in Yemen have been launched from a CIA base in Saudi Arabia.
During his first term in office, Obama appointed his erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. Clinton rarely missed an opportunity to defend women’s rights. Yet she was untroubled by doing business with Saudi Arabia. In 2010, the US clinched a $60 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia; according to the State Department, it was the biggest ever weapons deal with that country.
The ongoing atrocities in Syria seem to have given the West further pretexts for snuggling up to Saudi Arabia. Reports in the US press indicate that the Saudis have bought a large consignment of weapons from Croatia and have been sending these weapons to opposition forces in Syria since December. If these reports are accurate, questions must be asked about why the Saudi royal family brooks no opposition at home, yet supports opposition forces in other lands.
NATO, meanwhile, has been in discussions with the Saudi foreign ministry about forming a new “partnership”. This is logical from a narrow perspective: neighbouring countries in the Gulf have participated in NATO’s wars. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have sent troops to Afghanistan; Qatar and the UAE have provided warplanes used to bomb Libya.
But the embrace of Saudi Arabia has already had deadly consequences. Osama bin Laden, lest we forget, was a Saudi; so were most of the hijackers on 11 September 2001. The presence of US military bases in his country was one of bin Laden‘s chief grievances. Bin Laden is gone. The injustices that he invoked when recruiting young men to commit despicable deeds remain.
Selling weapons to the Saudis enriches a few arms dealers - and endangers the rest of us.