Thursday, December 21, 2006

Not in the national interest

An unexpected Christmas card (of sorts) arrives from the Saudi Ambassador, whom I have never met. It made me think about the sudden decision by the Serious Fraud Office to abandon its two year investigation of British Aerospace's defence deal with Saudi Arabia. A glance at the Transparency International 'corruption world map' above - the redder the shade, the more corrupt the country - gives an indication of what the SFO might have found out about the way in which business is done in Saudi Arabia and why the Saudis were so keen for it to be swept under the Persian carpet that they threatened to cancel the contract, supposedly worth £40 billion, and stop sharing intelligence on Al Qaeda with Britain.

The decision to suspend the enquiry is unbelievably craven. Britain treats the Saudis far too well, and the excuse given, that it is important to 'safeguard national and international security' is astonishing given the malign influence Saudi-funded religious ideology plays throughout the world. And yet it is completely unsurprising. Britain has been the Saudis' ally since 1915. Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud had sprung to importance two years earlier when he captured the eastern, coastal, Al Hasa region of Arabia, bordering the Persian Gulf. The British needed his support when in 1914 they invaded southern Iraq to secure their oil supplies there. In 1915 they signed a treaty paying Ibn Saud a retainer. At that time Britain maintained friendly relations too with Sharif Husein in the Hijaz, which put the British government in an difficult position when fighting then broke out between the two sheikhs over land in central Arabia in 1918. Husein's awkwardness gave the British an excuse to withdraw their support, and Ibn Saud conquered Husein's kingdom of the Hijaz in 1925.

The alliance is all the odder in the present climate given the long-held British suspicion of the puritanical religious fundamentalism, Wahabbism, that the Saudis widely promote. This was already worrying the British in 1915. After the discovery of oil in the 1920s in Al Hasa, the Saudis have used their petrodollars to promote Wahabbism worldwide. One of the best ways to demonstrate the hypocrisy at the heart of this exercise - the dissolute lifestyles of many of those supporting this destabilising 'evangelism' - might have been exposed by the Serious Fraud Office's investigation. When Transparency International next report, Britain should be a darker shade of orange.

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