The first line of Margaret Thatcher’s defence against criticism over the notorious al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia was to stress her commitment to British industry, and therefore British jobs: she was “batting for Britain”. Tony Blair also appears to have been “batting for Britain”, as an investigation into the deal was, on his watch, discontinued due to alleged “security concerns”.
The idea of dropping investigations, however, has not been taken up in the USA, where an indictment has highlighted a number of improper payments to intermediaries (what might be more directly be called bribes). BAe Systems, the main beneficiary of the al-Yamamah deal, has made a plea bargain and will pay a fine of 400 million US Dollars, with revelations now suggesting that BAe’s top brass were implicated in acts of bribery.
This would be bad enough, but for the almost zealous pursuit of arms sales by the Blair Government, even after the brief suggestion that there might be an ethical dimension to their foreign policy. Small by comparison with the Saudi deals was the sale of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania, so the central flaw in this sale might have been missed: Tanzania had no need for such as system, as it had no air force. Moreover, a third of the 28 million pound cost went in bribes and kickbacks.
The deal was opposed by two cabinet ministers: Robin Cook, sadly no longer with us, and Clare Short, who is most certainly still around, and still opposed to what was done. Short has told how Blair “favoured all proposals for arms deals”.
Perhaps this, too, was God’s will. Fortunately the Saudis haven’t used most of their new toys in anger. Yet.