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Double standard democracy

The Al Yamahah arms deal cover up with a corrupt Middle East dictatorship illustrates the British double-standard on democracy says Andy Gregg

In September the Saudi Government announced that it will be buying 72 Eurofighters from BAE Systems for anything between £9-20 billion (depending on whether after-care, upkeep, spares and training are included). Ironically the deal is known as the Salam agreement after the Arabic word for peace. Now we can see why Blair spent so much of his dwindling political capital in December 2006 closing down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribes paid to Saudi Prince Bandar and others under the 1980s Al Yamahah (dove) agreement. The Saudis made it clear that without an immediate termination of the SFO investigation they would instead spend their money on French hardware.

At the same time in September that the Saudis were announcing their acceptance of the new deal, the British Government refused for a second time to allow a light to be shone into the cesspit of Saudi corruption and British Aerospace backhanders. The Government caved in to a Saudi threat of suspending the 'Salam' deal as well as all security and anti-terrorism cooperation if the SFO attempted to access records of the Swiss bank accounts of key members of the Saudi Royal Family to find out what had happened to millions of pounds of slush money from the earlier al Yamamah deal.

The Saudis have for many years been one of the UK arms trade's largest export markets. The British are able to get on with arming one of the most repressive regimes on earth with only French competition due to the continued pressure by the pro-Israeli lobby in the US not to sell its most sophisticated weaponry to an Arab state that might at some time find itself in conflict with Israel. This is what makes the Saudis such an important monopoly market for BAE. Both the Saudis and BAE will go to almost any lengths to bribe or subvert both the UK government and international law to maintain this cornucopia. George Monbiot has rightly described BAE as operating like a state within the UK state with effectively its own secret service and extensive and unprecedented lobbying access to Ministers and senior civil servants.

Ironically the Eurofighter hardware that the Saudis are spending such colossal sums on was designed well before the end of the Cold War and according to some observers is increasingly out of date. Susan Willett describes the Eurofighter as 'the perfect example of a well connected industry's ability to make redundant products and find a market for them.' The Eurofighter has only recently become operational nearly 25 years after it was conceived and at a time when the really smart money is going into stealth fighters such as the US F35 Lightning II and even more recently the F22Raptor.

This is likely to be the hardware that the Israelis will seek to develop themselves or buy off the shelf and it is likely that the US will soon consider maintaining this differential by selling such technology to them.

The recent deal with Saudi Arabia comes at a time when there are increasing signs of dangerous dissension within the ruling House of Saud and continuing repression of reformers, human rights and women campaigners. Saudi Arabia has serious economic problems despite (or because) of its reliance on massive oil exports. The country is currently carrying debts of over $700 billion, many of these incurred during the previous Gulf War. There is a very high population growth rate and large numbers of Saudi young people are unemployed. The country relies on foreign labour at both the skilled and unskilled ends of the labour market. The Saudi Government is also under constant threat from Islamist fundamentalists following the direction of Osama bin Laden, himself a scion of a well connected and super-rich Saudi family.

Until recently there was a state of complete denial about the increasing radicalisation of young people. There have been obvious signs of such extremism as far back as 1979 when a number of armed fundamentalists seized the holiest shrine in Islam during the annual Hajj pilgrimage and were only dislodged with the help of French special forces. During the 1990s a number of jihadist bombings throughout the kingdom were farcically blamed on Westerners allegedly fighting a turf war over the profits from illegal drinking dens. A number of UK citizens were imprisoned and tortured into signing false confessions – a situation that, characteristically successive British Governments did very little about.

This state of denial was literally blown apart when so many of the 9/11 highjackers turned out to be Saudi citizens. Over many years the Saudi ruling elite had used its support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation to effectively export this problem by encouraging many of its hot headed youngsters to sign up for war inside the more radical of the various Afghan mojaheddin factions. This unstable strategy has more recently blown back in their faces with the return of highly trained and radicalised jihadis, intent on challenging a US-backed regime that they see as corrupt and dissolute and 'Westernised'.

An even greater shock to Saudi society was Al Qaida's bombing of Riyadh in May 2003 and various other attempts at mass murder within the Kingdom itself. As a result of these attacks the Saudi secret police has finally carried out a crack-down on some al Qaida elements.

Characteristically at the same time it has also continued the clamp-down on progressive and reformist elements in Saudi society. The Saudi royal family still appears to believe that to retain the support of hard-line religious leaders (the Ulema) which it needs if it is to confront the more extreme jihadis, it has to buy them off by continuing to repress any progressive elements who call for more rights for women or other democratic reforms.

Recently open dissension and jockeying within the Royal family has started to erupt into the open. The sudden and surprising resignation of Prince Turki as the Ambassador to the US in December 2006 drew attention to the current rivalries and instability at the heart of the House of Saud. Turki's cousin Prince Bandar seems to be consolidating power but as he and other younger (third generation) princes like Turki jockey for power and influence there is still no sense that the increasingly geriatric grip on power by their fathers' and uncles' generation will be relaxed in a way that will not greatly increase insecurity and uncertainty in the next few years. Of course palace intrigue has always been a feature of the Saudi family but it has almost always been contained and denied for outside consumption. Prince Bandar is the national security advisor and the son of Crown Prince Sultan (the current heir apparent). Previously Bandar was a longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington and he is a 'family friend' of George Bush. He is now the leading Prince in the increasingly influential Sudeyri branch of the House of Saud named after the family name of their mother, who was the fifth wife of King Abd al Aziz, who ruled the Kingdom from 1932 to 1953. Since 1982 when King Fahd came to power, he and his full 'Sudeyri' brothers have occupied some of the most influential positions in Saudi society.

The bad blood between Turki and Bandar stems from the fact that Bandar seems to be the first of the 'Third Generation' to openly position himself to take power when the previous generation of Princes (who are nearly all in their 80s) lose their final grip on power. To do this he seems to be moving pre-emptively to challenge the positions of his (non-Sudeyri) cousins Prince Turki and Prince Saud al Faisal (currently Foreign Minister but thought to have serious health problems). It is suggested that Bandar is seeking to replace Faisal as Foreign Minster and that Turki also has designs on this position. One of the key strengths of Bandar is that, as the point man for the al Yamamah and later arms agreements, he is aware of where the backhanders and bungs went with all the advantages that this knowledge entails. These advantages are augmented by his close association with President Bush and other leading neo-Conservatives like Dick Cheney.

One of the key areas for disagreement amongst the Princes is about the dangers they perceive from Iran. Bandar's father, Crown Prince Sultan, is currently defence minister and he and his son (as well as some of his other full brothers) are said to have a more hard line on Iran then other Princes. Bandar's view (which it is suggested he has convinced King Abdullah to back) is that 'nothing short of military action would deter Iran from becoming the worlds' 10th nuclear power'(1). At the same time as taking the US and neo-conservative line on Iran, there is some evidence that Bandar also takes a rather less tough line on Israel then others in the Royal family. He is believed to be behind the Saudi peace plan for Israel and Palestine and to have secretly met with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert in September 2006. Of course his closeness to Bush and Cheney could easily lead to him being seen as a stooge of the Americans.

All this byzantine intrigue and plotting would mean little if Saudi Arabia were not so delicately perched on the edge of a precipice. Will the glacially slow attempts to reform satisfy the increasingly restless country? Currently there do seem to be discussions about allowing women to drive cars and King Abdullah himself is said to be sympathetic to this move. However religious hardliners are already lining up to condemn even this concession. There have recently also been some minor modernising changes to the judicial system, which have been welcomed by reformists who hope that these reforms may very gradually chip away at the conservative clerics who lead the current judiciary.

However, the current levels of corruption and the increasingly explosive demands of radicalised young people, influenced by the austere 'Wahhabi' form of Islam that the House of Saud has done so much to support, make it unlikely that any radical change will be in the direction of a more enlightened society that values human rights. A US or Israeli attack on Iran would set the whole Middle East on fire. There is a sizeable Shia minority in parts of Saudi Arabia and their support for Iran and potential to undermine an already tottering Saudi regime would make Prince Bandar's support for military action on Iraq a strategy that is fraught with danger.

1. Arnaud de Borchgrave “Analysis: Arabian Medicis”, UPI website Dec 2006