Monday, March 12, 2007
A few brief encounters with reality are called for. In the first instance, while no one believes for a second that the head of the SFO was somehow being gently persuaded by the Saudi ambassador and the Attorney-General, what people may not realise is that the AG, aside from being a member of the cabinet and the House of Lords and the Privy Council, and aside from being the highest legal authority in the land, is Robert Wardsley's direct employer. No ordinary political superior that is, but the office to which the Serious Fraud Office is accountable. This might have been given away when Lord Goldsmith threatened to close the SFO shortly after Wardsley caved in. Goldsmith, in turn, is employed by the Prime Minister, to whom he owes his peerage, and it is reported that when Goldsmith attempted to negotiate a plea-bargain for BAE Systems, Blair countermanded even that: the investigation would stop, full stop.
Secondly, there is a sneaky, ugly view coming from some quarters - obviously The Sun has been hammering away at this line - that of course one has to bribe the Arabs, that's simply the way things are done there, and anyway it isn't a real crime. (Not like tax evasion, eh?) Fraud, particularly of the scale that would involve the SFO, is deception for gain perpetrated in a global capitalist economy, in which the corruptible elements are states and individual units of capital. It is not something you have to do with Arabs: it is global. When it comes to arms trading, it is something you do to maintain political interests and leverage. I make this point because if you simply insist on the free market critique, which is that bribery is bad and wrong and encourages rent-seeking behaviour by state actors, you miss the political import of what is happening here. If the British government is preventing scrutiny of its long-standing relationship with the Saudi government, there are political reasons for doing so.
Bear in mind that the history of British capitalist interests bribing the Saudi regime is at least forty years old. It goes back to when the British state under Wilson's government decided that it would attempt to re-assert influence in the world by competing with the Americans in arms sales. One of the first things it did was to approve of an attempted arms deal with the Saudi government, and they entrusted a man named Stirling and some partners to effect the deal. Colonel David Stirling had recently won a guerilla war with SAS agents under his 'private' control (the mission was officially, clandestinely, backed) designed to repel Egypt from Yemen and protect British interests in Aden. Stirling was one of those colonial adventurers whose attempts to hold back the decline of the British empire involved him in direct mercenary work in every sphere of influence. As far as the Saudi deal was concerned, Stirling and his SAS men would run a fleet of high-tech defense aircrafts for the Saudi monarchy. The monarchy would be 'defended', and Britain would rake it in and establish itself in the global arms bazaar. Since they were in competition with the Americans, they had to buy the support of the Saudi government for the deal. It so happens that American firms were bribing the monarchy as well. You can see some of this discussed in Adam Curtis' documentary, 'The Mayfair Set', at the bottom of this post.
One weakness, one of Curtis' most persistent weaknesses in fact, is that he tends to take things at face value. So, the documentary earnestly tells us of the enormous power achieved by the Saudi monarchy in international finances and how it help bring Western states to their knees, forcing the Wilson government of 1974 to change policy on pain of withholding vital investments. This is for the tourists: the Saudi monarchy was defended by British mercenaries as it is today defended by American mercenaries. It has little international power beyond that which Western states permit it to exert. If King Fahd had thought for a second that he could blackmail Western states, they would have turfed him out. If oil capital was withheld, it was a US-inspired attempt to force the Wilson administration, elected on a programme of radical left-wing reforms, to roll back even its most modest proposals. And this also is the answer to the befuddled BBC reporter: Saudi Arabia's subterranean monarchy didn't force the British legal system to back down at all. It's an obscenity that I should like to illustrate with several obscenities.
This is not the first time that it looked like evidence of massive corruption involving massive arms deals to the Saudis would become public, only for the whole thing to be shut down dramatically. When the National Audit Office first looked into the Al-Yamamah deals, Paul Foot contacted the Labour politician Bob Sheldon, who had ordered its suppression. Sheldon told him: "there are too many jobs at stake here". He had worried about it, of course, but was able to assure Foot that nothing improper had been found. That bullshit about jobs is actually an official excuse, you know. And so on and on, the always excellent reasons for not revealing information that is in any case valueless because nothing is wrong, and all is well. Jonathan Aitken, earning his keep, has the cheek to insist that actually it's as well that nothing is revealed, because we don't to lose our relationship with the Saudis. He, of all people. The BBC politely reports that, not a mention of the word perjury.
Blair, for his part, has a more or less open love affair with the big counterrevolutionary dictatorship in the Middle East next to Iraq. Remember this classic exchange from Newsnight?:
How then can you publicly endorse a country which bans political parties, bans trade unions and uses institutional torture?
The country being?
Saudi Arabia? You called it a friend of the civilised world.
Yes, but it is also important to realise that if we want a secure progress in the Middle East, we should work with Saudi Arabia. I don't decide... Ethical foreign policy doesn't mean that you try to decide the government of every country of the world. You can't do that.
You called it a friend of the civilised world.
It is. In my view, what it is doing in respect of the Middle East now...
It chops people's arms off. It tortures people.
They have their culture, their way of life.
Hm - they? Let's be honest: the people who live in Saudi Arabia put up with a culture and a way of life that has been imposed on them for decades. It is not their way of life, it is a Western-defended kleptocracy supplied with most of its torture equipment by the United States, who are world class experts in the field in so many different senses. It is the vanguard of reaction in the Middle East and beyond, a pro-imperialist fixer in Lebanon and Palestine, a defender of capitalist interests, an enemy of radical Shi'ism and radical nationalism, a willing funder of movements to defend and advance ruling class interests everywhere, a mass purchaser of advanced technologies of destruction. That is why the British state needs its system of bribery and slush funds, and why no one must ever touch it.