|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
SECRET TALKS to secure arms deals and slush funds to provide lavish gifts to Saudi princes. These are just two examples of doing business, New Labour style. In September, The Guardian newspaper reported a breakthrough in investigations by the Serious Fraud Office that aerospace company, BAE, runs a £60 million slush fund specifically to promote defence equipment contracts with the Saudi regime. Arrests were made on money-laundering charges (14 September). Apart from arms sales, BAE receives more than £1bn a year from Saudi Arabia for running much of the regime’s air force. Prince Turki bin Nasr, in charge of long-running arms contracts with BAE Systems (Britain’s biggest arms company), shipped a fleet of luxury cars out of London.
Behind-the-scenes talks have also involved Saudi pressure for the extradition from Britain of two ‘dissidents’, and for dropping the slush fund court action, in return for placing orders worth £40 billion in the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, in which BAE has a large stake. Mike Turner, BAE’s chief executive, seems to be very understanding: "They [Saudi leaders] don’t, rightly, like the fact that members of their royal family are being named in our press". (The Guardian, 27 September)
Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, backs the deal. His brother Charles, Lord Powell, is a Downing Street insider – he was Margaret Thatcher’s foreign affairs adviser and is a BAE consultant. Blair went to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on 2 July, his defence secretary stooge, John Reid, made a two-day visit three weeks later. Reid met with Prince Naif, the interior minister responsible for the secret police.
There are some contradictory pressures, however, on different government departments. The Foreign Office is uneasy because any Typhoon deal would include sending British technicians and their families to Saudi Arabia – on top of those already in place to service Tornado warplanes. These present targets for terrorism and increase the risk of attacks in Britain. One of the recurrent themes of al-Qa’ida propaganda is the presence of US and other foreign forces on ‘Islamic soil’, which is used to justify terrorist attacks.
The Saudi regime is pressuring Blair to extradite Mohammed al-Masari, who fled Saudi Arabia in 1994. Al-Masari is linked to a radio station which has supported attacks on British troops in Iraq. The request to expel Saad al-Faqih, who has been granted asylum, has created more controversy. Neither the Foreign Office nor security forces claim that he is a danger to Britain.
Saudi Arabia also wants British Airways to resume flights to the country which were postponed in March after a series of terrorist attacks.
Prince Naif previously had offered the release of British citizens falsely arrested (and tortured) for bombings – which turned out to be the work of al-Qa’ida – in exchange for the expulsion of al-Faqih. The Blair government did nothing to help them. Bill Sampson, one of those arrested, commented: "The British government was more concerned to maintain BAE’s contracts with the Saudi Arabians than to protect British citizens… He [Prince Naif] used us as a bargaining chip. It is clear that Faqih is non-violent and the most popular dissident opposing the Saudi regime". (The Guardian, 28 September) According to the same article, the government had agreed to expel al-Masari and al-Faqih. Sampson and the others detained are attempting to sue Saudi secret police in the British courts.
Apart from the Saudi scandal, the New Labour government is involved in an aggressive sales drive of weapons of mass destruction, as well as tools of repression. The biennial Defence Systems and Equipment international (DSEi) exhibition held in East London, mid-September, provided a great opportunity. Britain is established as the second-largest arms market worldwide, after the US. The war and occupation of Iraq enables companies to boast that their products are ‘battle-tested’. There were companies (for example, TAR Ideal, from Israel) specialising in leg irons and 300,000-volt stun guns, both banned for export under British law.
Organisers of the arms fair claimed that the companies were only advertising these barbaric tools of repression, not selling them. That made it OK. Alex Nicholl, DSEi director, even objected to the term ‘arms fair’: "People can’t just walk in off the street and buy weapons". But it’s not ordinary people we have to worry about. Rather, it is repressive regimes, such as Algeria, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, all invited to the show, which carry the greatest threat to working-class people.
The arms fair was organised by Spearhead, which is owned by the massive publishing group, Reed Elsevier. This earned an editorial rebuke from the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, which is published by Reed Elsevier. Apart from condemning the arms trade and its incompatibility with a medical journal, The Lancet made the point that poor countries waste billions of dollars on weaponry which could go to civilian use. In 2004, for example, 59% of arms sales went to ‘developing countries’ - $22 billion (£12bn). This money should be spent raising people out of poverty, providing healthcare, sanitation, accommodation, education, training and decent jobs.
The bill for policing this festival of destruction – including 1,000 police officers a day deployed on or around the site – and for providing junkets for state leaders has been passed onto the taxpayer. DSEi organisers were asked for a contribution but refused!
Denel, a South African company, makes and supplies cluster bombs (as do BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin of the US), which featured in its catalogues at the arms fair. These are not deemed illegal under so-called ‘international law’, but groups such as the Red Cross/Crescent and Human Rights Watch oppose them because of their indiscriminate nature. Denel markets a 155mm shell which disperses 42 drink-can-size bomblets over an area 200m by 200m. Many of the bomblets fail to explode and are subsequently detonated when people tread on them, or when children, attracted to their bright colours, pick them up. Paul Beaver, DSEi spokesman, was dismissive: "There are far worse weapons, you know". Unicef, the United Nations children’s organisation, reported that more than 1,000 children were injured by unexploded bombs after the official end of the Iraq war in 2003. British and US forces used 13,000 cluster bombs in Iraq in that year alone. (The Independent, 14 September)
There seems to be no end to BAE’s murky deals. It has recently come to light that it paid millions of dollars into the secret bank accounts of Chile’s former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean judge, Sergio Muñoz, has unearthed documents of payments totalling $2.1 million from 1997 to July 2004. These payments were to ‘facilitate’ arms and weapons system sales to Chile and other Latin American states. Pinochet was discovered to have held over 100 accounts in the names of family members, his lawyers and in false names. (The Guardian, 15 September)
These revelations show the endemic corruption within the arms trade, and which is replicated throughout the capitalist system. Everything is up for sale including, it seems, government asylum policy. Blair and his cronies are pursuing the same old methods of previous Tory and Labour administrations. It is a far cry from New Labour’s pronouncements that it would implement an ‘ethical foreign policy’, made when it came to power in 1997.
Billions of dollars go on research and development into the most efficient means of destroying people and property. That money and the skills of technicians and workers in the arms industry should go on research to provide medical treatment and nutrition to all people, and to tackle such massive global problems as environmental destruction. Such a shift of emphasis is not possible under the current capitalist economic system, based as it is on cut-throat competition in the drive for profits between corporations and the nation states on which they are based. It would require a system based on collective organisation and international cooperation: democratic socialism in which the working class owns, controls, manages and plans the economy.