BAE Systems Lands Oman Deal: Corruption and the British Economy

The news that Great Britain has agreed a £2.5bn deal to sell fighter jets to Oman has rightfully been lauded by the government as an important step in Britain’s economic recovery. The deal is set to create thousands of jobs in the UK alone, whilst at the same time protecting existing ones. Oman’s contract with BAE naturally draws parallels with the Al-Yamamah arms deal they have had in place with Saudi Arabia since the 1980s. If that deal is anything to go by, the negotiation of the sale to Oman is likely to have been rife with corruption.

Typhoon Fighter Jets are among the world's most sophisticated aircraft
Typhoon Fighter Jets are among the world’s most sophisticated aircraft

Recently, I wrote on this blog about the importance of David Cameron solidifying ties with the Saudi royal family so as not to jeopardise the Al-Yamamah deal, which has so far brought BAE an estimated £40bn and may do the same in the next twenty years. Cameron clearly succeeded, as the Saudi agreement to buy 72 Typhoon fighter jets a couple of days ago attests to. That being said, the Saudi deal, and now the Omani one, typifies the ongoing problems with the global arms trade.

Firstly, why such big contracts? Do states like Oman, securely ensconced on the Arabian Peninsula, really need to purchase 12 fighter jets? Do the Saudis need another 72 to bolster their already beefed-up air force? The answer is, of course, no. This phenomenon of needless overspending on defence is evident the world over. One need only look at the insane expenditure of the US Defence Department, which successive governments have been loath to trim despite an impending fiscal crisis, for proof of this fact. It is the accumulation of increasingly advanced weapons in increasing quantities for the sake of what?

Firstly, politics. Arms companies are inextricably linked to national governments. In theory, major arms deals can only be made on a bilateral basis between two states. Securing a major arms contract will therefore guarantee a government and their political party loyal patronage from the benefiting arms company, who in turn can act as important political lobbyists in the future. Additionally, major arms deals secure, and create, jobs. This is particularly noteworthy in the current financial climate and in a country like Britain whose manufacturing sector is virtually dead, to the detestation of millions of workers.

Secondly, there are the opportunities provided for personal gain. The Al-Yamamah arms deal is perhaps the most corrupt and fraudulent in history. Billions of pounds have been channeled from the Saudi and British governments and BAE Systems towards well-placed middle-men who help ‘put the deals together’. The expenses are grotesque, illegal and unnecessary. Dodgy offshore accounts, complicit government bureaucrats willing to cover-up the fraud and bankers happy to turn a blind eye allowed a perpetual cycle of illicit payments. A ‘slush fund’ was created whereby Saudi officials with connections to the royal family, and thus influence over the decision of whether to conclude any potential arms deal, were provided with virtually unlimited resources to live a life of indulgence.

Al-Yamamah's biggest beneficiary: Prince Bandar bin Sultan has made over $1bn negotiating the deals
Al-Yamamah’s biggest beneficiary: Prince Bandar bin Sultan has made over $1bn negotiating the deals

Whilst BAE’s role in this corruption ultimately landed it with a £400m fine from the US Department of Justice, such practices are likely to have taken place in the negotiating of the Omani deal. Whilst the economic and political windfalls from such a deal are obvious, and some people may argue the enrichment of middle-men has little effect on their lives, the reality of such deals is far starker.

For a start, the increasing militarisation of the world’s states is not a guarantee to security. Rather, it precipitates a series of regional arms races which, as any neorealist will tell you, can lead to a security dilemma and ultimately war. With the Cold War long ended, demilitarisation should be the name of the game. However, the proliferation of weapons has been startlingly rapid in the new century and it has led to some highly undesirable owners of high-tech munitions. Terrorist groups, insurgents and paramilitary organisations are increasingly likely to be able to attain sophisticated weaponry when states irresponsibly seek to bolster their stocks at every available opportunity. Weapons proliferation is likely to increase the potency of terrorists rather than improve national security.

Additionally, the vast sums of money spent on armaments could surely be better used in improving the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. Indeed, it is the perceived corruption of governments that leads to popular uprisings around the globe. And how often does that lead the world’s richer powers – who dominate the global arms trade – into undesirable action? In a perverse way, the developed world has created many of its own problems through its insatiable armaments commitments.

The majority of heavy weapons belonging to the Syrian Army derive from Russia
The majority of heavy weapons belonging to the Syrian Army derive from Russia

The question comes down to this: is economic gain all-conquering? When most modern-day elections are decided by the economy it probably is. Therefore, we should expect such deals as the Omani jet contract to continue, bringing with them all the hidden dangers and hypocrisies nobody wants you to know about.

For an excellent history of the global arms trade I recommend Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World.

A Distasteful Legacy: British Colonialism and the Sudanese Crises

Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to implement joint security arrangements, including a demilitarised border zone, in the latest attempts to diffuse tensions between the world’s newest state and its northern neighbour. Whilst an agreement in principle has been made, neither side has made a commitment to ending one of Africa’s most serious security dilemmas.

For several decades, whilst South Sudan and Sudan were still united as one country, regional conflict was a persistent reality along what is now the border between the two. The Darfur Crisis, and ethnic and tribal conflict in the South Kordofan region, raged. Worryingly, both internal conflicts still simmer today with frequent reports of attacks on innocent civilians and generals wanted for war crimes. Such outrages cannot be stopped without cross-border cooperation. Unfortunately, both states accuse the other of exacerbating each security threat.

Attacks on civilian settlements on both sides is a regular occurrence
Attacks on civilian settlements on both sides is a regular occurrence

To what extent are the British responsible for today’s troubles across Sudan? Between the 1820s and the 1860s, the Egyptian dynasty of Muhammad Ali Pasha gradually took control of much of present-day Sudan, the inhabitants of which shared many cultural and religious traditions with the Egyptians. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the economic opportunities that offered invited the world’s foremost colonial power, Great Britain, to take virtual control of Egypt and Sudan through the appointment of a favourable puppet ruler. The early seeds of Anglicisation were sown.

However, the Mahdist War broke out in 1881 scuppering British plans. With colonial forces predominantly stationed in the Egyptian strongholds of Cairo and Alexandria, a Sudanese rebel force led by Muhammad Ibn Abdalla (the Mahdi) took control of Khartoum and inflicted a series of embarrassing defeats on the British. After a drawn-out process of smaller skirmishes, the British eventually defeated the Sudanese rebels at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, ending the Mahdist War and re-establishing Anglo-Egyptian control over Sudan.

The Mahdist War pitted tribal warriors against the strength of the British Empire
The Mahdist War pitted tribal warriors against the strength of the British Empire

As a means of exerting greater political and economic control, the British imperialists began a process of divide-and-rule in Sudan whereby ethnic and tribal differences were exacerbated to prevent a united opposition force similar to the Mahdists. This involved the Christianisation of South Sudan and the promotion of pro-Egyptian Islamic Arabs in the north of the country. Of course, this led to severe tension and heightened already existing tribal differences. These tensions persisted throughout Sudan’s years of unity and continue into the dual state era. Christianity and Animist beliefs dominate in South Sudan today, putting the state at odds with the strictly Islamic north. It is hard to see this problem existing without the interference of Britain in the 19th century.

The religious divide throughout the former Sudan is clear to see
The religious divide throughout the former Sudan is clear to see

Darfur, meanwhile, had historically been an autonomous region within which existed several tribal groups. This existence abruptly ended during WWI when British forces, afraid Darfur would come under the influence of the Ottomans, invaded the region and incorporated it into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Rather than pursuing development in Darfur, the British neglected its people, focusing resources on Khartoum and the centre of the country. A politically and economically independent region had become financially dependent and politically isolated in one foul swoop setting it on a path of resentment and conflict for years to come.

To blame all of Sudan’s ills on Britain would be unfair. Other factors must be considered for the ongoing crises; the meddling of the Egyptians, who first invaded Sudanese territory; the ruthless and corrupt regime of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted for war crimes; drought and famine; and the inevitable tribal complexities that plague nearly all African countries, particularly those as vast as the Sudanese states.

Despite all the contributing factors, the legacy of the British imperial force is still felt throughout Sudan and South Sudan. The creation of a religious divide; the unequal development pursued in different provinces; the resettlement of tribal entities. All of these selfish acts, borne out of imperial greed and a sense of superiority, are a stain on Britain’s colonial record which is by no means all bad.

By the time of the Sudanese independence from Britain in 1956 much damage had already been done
By the time of the Sudanese independence from Britain in 1956 much damage had already been done

We must hope that the security agreement comes to fruition for great difficulties seem to lie ahead. Militant Islamists threaten to tear apart the South Kordofan region; the Abyei province of the same state must decide whether to part with Sudan or join its southern neighbour; disputes over the region’s oil revenues persist. Without a bilateral agreement of the sincerest conviction, and the ability of the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments to first ensure stability within their own states, the perpetual crises will spiral devastatingly onwards.