Grey Dove Down


Nobody who respects metaphor is going to talk about the camouflage surrounding the Anglo-Saudi ‘Al-Yamamah’ arms deal being ‘blown’ off. ‘Chipped away,’ ‘eroded,’ or perhaps ‘slowly rotting’ are the sort of words that come to mind. It has taken a long time.

All the same, there isn’t much cover left, and now the thing itself stands in the open, stinking prodigiously. Investigations published over the past few days by The Guardian newspaper and the BBC put the real character of Al-Yamamah beyond doubt: a mutual device enabling one of the world’s sleaziest monarchies (Saudi Arabia) and one of the world’s sleaziest corporations (British Aerospace) to prop up and enrich each other simultaneously.

And the Governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair didn’t just turn a blind eye they supervised the whole kickback process, and assisted in its administration.

There’s no need to repeat here the basic facts set out in massive detail on The Guardian website. But there’s some comment and analysis which ought to be borne in mind: first of all, that this is a remarkable piece of journalism, and should be an example to the trade in times when too many practitioners are inclined to despair.

It’s also a great relief to see the BBC showing signs of investigative vigour there was some reason to think Auntie might be a little cowed by the Blair Administration’s savagery when its WMD propaganda was exposed and Dr David Kelly driven to suicide. But Monday night’s Panorama documentary, though cluttered with un-germane aeronautical images, kept a steady nerve while relating the details of Saudi banking operations in Washington DC.

Prince Bandar

However the main credit must go to The Guardian‘s investigations editor, David Leigh, who has been following the devious trail of The Dove (‘Al-Yamamah’ in Arabic) for more than a decade.

This has meant enduring a steady barrage of disinformation much of it in personal terms from Government and corporate sources, plus sneers about ‘obsessional behaviour’ from those journalists whose principle is that the best story is the one that gets you home in time for tea. And of course, serious career threats, such as when the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken with quite obvious approval from John Major’s Downing Street sued The Guardian for libel, in 1995, attacking Leigh in the process.

It looked for some time like a near thing. But Aitken was caught out in a seemingly small lie and suddenly he was washed away on a torrent which he had generated himself.

It was in fact Leigh and his colleague Rob Evans who some months ago supplied the Serious Fraud Office with information about late-Roman ‘entertainment’ provided by BAE to various Saudi officials. This led to the investigation which the Blair Government spiked last year on ‘national security’ grounds. There’s not much doubt among journalists that deeply-angry SFO officers have found documentary means of doing Leigh and Evans a few favours in return.

The real significance of the story is that Britain’s defence apparatus an unlovely blend of official and corporate greed, operating in secret has reduced defence policy and procurement to a dangerous mess. When Al-Yamamah was first set up under Margaret Thatcher’s aegis, it was a way to rescue a deservedly failing British corporation by getting the oil-rich Saudis to buy a large number of useless aircraft which could not be unloaded on the RAF (or indeed any serious air force). One associated development was to enrich further a good many of the Saudi elite (such as Prince Bandar), thus increasing the basic instability of that top-heavy State.

BAE, working on the assumption that somewhere, somehow, the British Government will ensure that its financial appetite is slaked, has now brought the Eurofighter deal to crisis-point.

There is no question this time of the weapon being useless rather, it is probably good enough to have considerable impact on international strategic balances. But it is gigantically costly and, due to the utter failure of Western governments to discipline their arms suppliers, it is (along with the US Raptor and the French Rafale) a commodity in vast oversupply.

Thus, recourse to the Saudis as customer of last resort; ignoring the lunatic complication that they have to be paid to buy it, can’t reasonably use it, and will almost certainly pass on its technical secrets to the generals in Beijing who are making it increasingly clear that they would find effective air-supremacy fighters very useful if their Asian neighbours turn out uppity.

The case for a public inquiry is fairly obvious, but is unlikely to be pressed by any party other than the Liberal Democrats. In a rort of this scope, it is common to find the Government and Opposition occupying the same defensive fortifications, and hoping somehow to weather the siege.

At the moment, they are not doing well.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.