Blair defends Saudi probe ruling
December 15, 2006 8:58 PM   Subscribe

So much for Democracy, Tony Blair has hit back at claims a corruption probe into a Saudi arms deal with BAE Systems was dropped after commercial and political pressure.
posted by zouhair (40 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Blair is definitely going to have to step down now -- sometime in the next six months or so.
posted by dhartung at 9:04 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not sure what this has got to do with democracy. It seems perfectly sensible to drop an investigation into 20-year old events to safeguard thousands of jobs and billions of pounds (the previous BAE contract with Saudi Arabia had earned more than £40bn over 20 years).

Of course, to avoid falling foul of international law Blair has to say that it was to protect our relationship with Saudi Arabia for the 'war on terror' rather than to avoid losing the new Al-Yamamah contract. But, either way, it seems like a good decision. Losing the contract to the French (with the Rafale, instead of the Eurofighter) would be particularly galling — especially as it's highly unlikely that the French are less corrupt than Britain.
posted by matthewr at 9:10 PM on December 15, 2006

Sounds to me like he's just doing the right thing for his country. Where's the problem?
posted by IronLizard at 9:12 PM on December 15, 2006

What does this have to do with democracy? A British firm bribes the Saudis. Wow. That really threatens British democracy.

This is the real world. The British need the Saudi to cooperate on terrorism. They need the thousands of jobs this contract would create. What's going to happen if they pursue this probe? Are the Saudis going to clean up their act? Or is it just going to hurt Britain?
posted by Dasein at 9:17 PM on December 15, 2006

A British firm bribes the Saudis.

Not just that, but it took place 20 years ago.

The Telegraph reports that Britain could face an inquiry by the OECD with regard to the Anti-Bribery Convention because of stopping the SFO investigation, but (in my uninformed opinion) it seems unlikely that this will have any real consequences. The 'alibi' for dropping the SFO investigation is that it's in Britain's strategic interest to be able to co-operate with the Saudis, especially on counter-terrorism. This is not only highly plausible, but also very hard to disprove — and probably true.
posted by matthewr at 9:27 PM on December 15, 2006

I think it would be nice if the government could just come out with the truth and state what everyone knows - that sometimes greasing Saudi palms is essential to do business over there - rather than trying to defend dropping the investigation on "national security concerns."
posted by uk_giffo at 9:29 PM on December 15, 2006

It threatens democracy because the ruling party is picking and choosing which laws to enforce, which rather defeats the purpose of having laws written, and makes the government into a caste that exists above laws.
posted by stammer at 9:34 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, uk_giffo, but we signed the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention saying we wouldn't do this sort of thing. The Convention presumably can't apply retrospectively to any 1980s bribery, but states that the SFO investigation that was cancelled should not have been "influenced by considerations of national economic interest".

In this case, it seems like some dissembling, however transparent, was necessary.
posted by matthewr at 9:38 PM on December 15, 2006

The ruling party? This isn't a partisan thing. Any responsible government would make the same decision.
posted by Dasein at 9:39 PM on December 15, 2006

Ok then, so, maybe UK should STOP giving patronizing advices to other countries.
posted by zouhair at 9:44 PM on December 15, 2006

I'm not sure we do go around "giving patronizing advices to other countries".

But as the eleventh least corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International (Times) — ahead of the US, France, Germany and Japan — Britain is surely in a position to dispense anti-corruption advice.
posted by matthewr at 10:02 PM on December 15, 2006

It threatens democracy because the ruling party is picking and choosing which laws to enforce, which rather defeats the purpose of having laws written, and makes the government into a caste that exists above laws.

So rigid adherence, despite severe drawbacks is the answer? I think, though I could be wrong, the purpose of a democracy is to elect representatives that you think would handle such a situation correctly. Not necessarily to the letter of the law.
posted by IronLizard at 11:07 PM on December 15, 2006

BAE managed a good PR campaign by playing up the potential loss of the contract in term of revenue (£40bn over 20, years which is true) and job loss (50,000 jobs, which is not). 50,000 workers represent the total number of people working on the Eurofighter project. The airplane has more than 600 orders (not including Saudi Arabia) coming from the UK, Spain, Germany,... The loss of the contract (72 airplanes), while certainly not good for BEA finances, would not have caused many layoffs.
posted by McSly at 11:37 PM on December 15, 2006

Yes, the government should adhere to the law. That's what "rule of law" means.
posted by stammer at 11:41 PM on December 15, 2006

Yes, the government should adhere to the law. That's what "rule of law" means.

Maybe it seems like a good idea and all, but 'rule of law' and Democracy don't have the same definition.
posted by IronLizard at 11:49 PM on December 15, 2006

So acting too "friendly" and against the law has nothing to do with making people of those countries upset about UK and has nothing to do with root of terrorism?
posted by zouhair at 11:56 PM on December 15, 2006

Yes, the government should adhere to the law.

In this case, I take it you mean the OECD's Anti-Bribery Convention, which forbids the government from cancelling SFO investigations purely because they could harm the national economic interest. Blair dodged this by claiming the investigation was stopped for strategic reasons — to avoid damaging counter-terrorist co-operation with the Saudis. Clearly that's not the 'whole truth' in this case, so the UK has probably violated the spirit of the Convention, but not the letter. The OECD isn't able (as far as I can tell) to impose any enforceable penalties for this.

If the government was going around breaking national law then I'd be more inclined to agree with you, but violating the spirit of an unenforceable international convention seems like an acceptable price to pay in return for safeguarding the new BAE contract.
posted by matthewr at 12:01 AM on December 16, 2006

McSly, the loss to BAE, and Britain, wouldn't just be the 72-aircraft contract.

The first Al Yamamah contract in the 80s was just for 72 Tornadoes, but it led to far more than just the planes. The Saudis need to buy British weapons, training and expertise as well, which supports the entire British arms industry, not just BAE. The BBC quoted a defence industry executive saying "No one is going to win any Saudi business until this SFO investigation ends." A Saudi boycott of the entire UK defence industry, which was what was threatened, would be disastrous.

Also, the Eurofighter hasn't a single significant export contract yet, with South Korea and Singapore rejecting it. The Saudi contract is a large vote of confidence, which will encourage other countries to opt for BAE.
posted by matthewr at 12:11 AM on December 16, 2006

A Saudi boycott of the entire UK defence industry, which was what was threatened, would be disastrous.

Because we don't want our death factories grinding to a halt. What keeps mankind alive is the death he delivers to others from the skies.

(And the manufacturing of threats to justify the existence of trillion dollar arms industries, which is about all the economies of the US or the UK have going for them.)
posted by bukharin at 12:20 AM on December 16, 2006

Well, bukharin, I'm not particularly comfortable defending the arms industry as a whole. Of course we'd all be better without guns, bombs etc. But the international arms industry is a fact of life and I don't expect it's going to shrink in the foreseeable future.

In this case, it's not as if a British refusal to sell Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia would have reduced the Saudis' ability to "deliver death to others from the skies" — they could have bought Rafales from France. Given that, we may as well do what's best for British jobs and companies. And alienating a powerful pro-Western regime in the Middle East, and a major supplier of oil, doesn't exactly have 'good idea' written over it.

I wouldn't want to sound completely defeatist about everything, but Britain has spent the last half-century or so merrily exporting anything to anyone while turning a blind eye to the consequences for anyone not fortunate enough to be born in this sceptred isle. The last person to try and do something about this was Robin Cook, who attempted to introduce "an ethical dimension" to foreign policy — for this, he was rapidly demoted. So since I don't see British arms exports reducing anytime soon, we may as well get on with creating jobs and making as much money as possible.
posted by matthewr at 12:45 AM on December 16, 2006

I think cash-for-peerages and the (literal, financial) bankruptcy of the Labour party is far more likely to bring Blair down than this is.

It is ironic, though, that this was another of those things they were always getting upset about in opposition but have point-blank refused to do anything about in government.
posted by reklaw at 1:50 AM on December 16, 2006

he's just doing the right thing for his country

the opium trade made a shitload of money for Queen Victoria, too.
posted by matteo at 1:52 AM on December 16, 2006

You're really funny, whining about the risk of losing the almighty guns contracts and when thousands and thousands of people got layed off every year it's not a big deal, hypocrits
posted by zouhair at 1:59 AM on December 16, 2006

This article sums it up.
posted by matthewr at 3:02 AM on December 16, 2006

so zouhair, you think people should care about everything or nothing? Then you're a hypocrite, for caring about thousands and thousands of people getting 'layed off' every year and not this.
posted by jacalata at 3:11 AM on December 16, 2006

My favourite part of this is Blair arguing that preventing the sale of sophisticated fighter aircraft to a fundamentalist Muslim country would hurt national security.
posted by Ritchie at 4:32 AM on December 16, 2006

I wonder how my fellow Brits who are okay with this would feel if France had beaten us to a huge contract with the Saudis, it turned out that corruption had played a part, and the investigation into it had been dropped by the political authorities there.

Would it still be a case of "good on them, it's in their economc interest" or "that's what we elect democratic leaders to do"? Do we now have any grounds to criticise other countries if and when a similar scenario happens in the future?

BTW According to Newsnight, Bribery is still illegal under UK law if the person bribed is not a UK citizen and the bribery does not take place in the UK. That's why this is a scandal: the government disregarded the rule of law because the price was right.

MatthewR seems to argue that because we're in general not corrupt, we still have some sort of moral high ground on the corruption issue. Does this excuse work for other crimes? E.g. "Okay, I stole that car, drove it around and set fire to it, but most of the time I'm not joyriding, so I'm not a hypocrite for damning joyriders"?
posted by infobomb at 5:24 AM on December 16, 2006

Why should we care? I really don't understand this one. What does it matter if a Saudi prince gets bunged a few million quid as part of getting a contract? I can understand it would be a bad thing if, as the result of bribery, the British Government chose an inferior product or bought an unnecessary service - or even ran the risk of doing so. But I can't for the life of me see why Britain should care at all whether bribery causes a foreign government to make a poor purchasing decision (which noone seems to be suggesting in this case even). I would have thought that, given this deal strengthens Britain's national security and provides UK jobs, the bribery was positively beneficial.

There is an issue about whether our Government should be able to overrule the criminal justice procedure so easily - but I really cannot see why Britain should are who its companies bribe.
posted by prentiz at 5:40 AM on December 16, 2006

should care who its companies bribe...
posted by prentiz at 5:47 AM on December 16, 2006

The objectionable thing is that the Saudi Arabian government can blackmail the British government into halting the probe.

On a side point, can anyone tell me why the Saudis need all this military hardware? When was the last time they fought a war?
posted by Ugandan Discussions at 8:13 AM on December 16, 2006

I wonder if, say, a link to Saudi were to arise in a terrorism investigation ... would it too be quietly shoved to one side, in the nation's economic national security interest? Just wondering what would be OK and what wouldn't ...
posted by kaemaril at 10:45 AM on December 16, 2006

Maybe it seems like a good idea and all, but 'rule of law' and Democracy don't have the same definition.

Democracy without the rule of law is not democracy...
posted by criticalbill at 10:59 AM on December 16, 2006


my point was that UK do not give a flying fuck about those that are layed off from other industries than those from military ones, just because guns make good money for the rich and not the workers.

And I found it outrageous that you find excuses for such acts, I think even the illusion of "democracy" that lived for some times is going to an end and then someone or God help us.

posted by zouhair at 11:10 AM on December 16, 2006

I'm not sure where all of this 'rule of law' stuff is coming from. Every day, the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to drop prosecutions because they're costing the taxpayer more than the likely benefit, or they're against the public interest in some other way. There's nothing wrong with this; it's what the DPP is there to do. The Crown is not compelled to prosecute in every single case where a crime has been committed. Of course this means that some people who commit crimes avoid being prosecuted — this is the way it is, always has been and always will be. The DPP is analogous, constitutionally, in this case to the SFO.

Of course BAE probably broke various bribery laws in the 1980s. But there's nothing illegal about deciding to discontinue an investigation into the 1980s bribery that would cost lots of taxpayers' money, be unlikely to result in a successful outcome, and be against the public interest.

The only relevant 'law' here is the OECD's non-enforceable Anti-Bribery Convention, which stipulates that the UK can't cancel this kind of investigation for national economic interests, which is why the government is claiming it's being cancelled for national strategic reasons. Does anybody here care at all about the OECD convention?

I should clarify my reply to zouhair's accusation that the UK "giv[es] patronizing advices to other countries" about corruption. First, I don't think the UK does give patronising advice. Second, if we did, we'd be perfectly entitled to do so given we're one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

I don't think it's got much to do with claiming any moral high ground, though. Britain's foreign policy is, and always been, guided by the principle of self-interest, moderated by very occasional (and often reluctant) bouts of morality (e.g. abolishing the slave trade; establishing democratic black rule in colonies as a condition of independence).

Of course if the situation were to be reversed and France were on the verge of gaining this huge Saudi contract, we'd be pretty annoyed about the whole thing. But I don't think anybody plays international politics according to the 'do as you would be done by' principle — it's a race for money and jobs and power, not for the moral high ground. The moral high ground doesn't keep Britons employed and exports strong.
posted by matthewr at 11:51 AM on December 16, 2006

The SFO itself, of course, isn't best pleased about being 'influenced' by the Attorney-General to cease its investigation.
posted by matthewr at 12:00 PM on December 16, 2006

We (Britain and the US) must maintain a delicate balance in Saudi Arabia: they must be corrupt enough to pump all that oil and sell it to us at prices lower than they could achieve, and without real thought for their own future, against the interests of their own populace considered as a whole, and even their own class and children, yet not so corrupt they are vulnerable to overthrow from a combination of popular anger and their own incompetence.

The rise of Wahhabism and Bin Laden show how far, how nearly disastrously far, we have erred toward too much corruption, sowing the seeds for an Iran-style reigious fundamentalist revolution, which could then be expected to destablize other Sunni-dominated states.
posted by jamjam at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2006

If they want to suggest that the arms trade is worthy of propping up, then they should at least attempt to regulate it. I am pretty sure that it is not good value for the British taxpayer quite apart from the dubious ethics involved.
posted by asok at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2006

And now, time for the politically incorrect realities part of our show....

Having lived in Saudi Arabia, interacted with candid Saudi elites, the simple fact is that there's plenty of corruption there.

However companies work it--as a BBC report relates, BAE documented it as "Accommodation services and Support for Overseas visitors with a total charged of "£987,365"--the reality is that it's part of the deal... there and elsewhere in the region and in the world. Don't get me started about doing business in Africa....

If people want to say, "Maybe so, and maybe a French, American or Japanese company is willing to do that, but British companies shouldn't," the reality, however wrong it might be, is that such is how business is done. If people think BAE and other companies British or otherwise haven't done this before, aren't doing it now and won't do it again, they're naive.

Much as this case seems an extreme example and handled indelicately, bet your boots that money has been channeled to people through things in budgets like establishing training and cultural-understanding programs that don't really exist.

Beyond that, every company with operations over there hires Saudis to meet the requirements for "Saudization"--hiring more Saudis--and in most cases, they are do-nothing jobs. In most cases, the Saudis hired by foreign countries do not really have jobs to do even bother to show up and sit at a desk. In one case, a Saudi man did occasionally have to show up and sign documents. Getting ahold of him and getting him to stop by and sign papers was no small challenge, much less getting him to show up at an agreed-upon time or on an agreed-upon date... and that was taken as utterly normal.

Unfortunate as it may be, if any company wants to toe a hard line about these sorts of things, they are going to do little if any international business.
posted by ambient2 at 10:44 PM on December 16, 2006

So, to sum it up: The arms trade exists, it's not going away and it's good for the economy, you shouldn't take bribes but that's how things are done, if you stopped trading with the Saudis they'd just get their death devices elsewhere, you can violate the law if enforcing the law threatens the arms industry which is vital to our national security as well as our economy, ergo, "meh". I see.

You know, you look back at the darkest days of history, and you wonder how the peoples of those countries could be complicit or simply silent in the face of the worst crime of all: war and the destruction of civilizations, cultures, families, women, children, men. How thinking, feeling people, many of whom are probably even very generous and kind in their relations with others, could look at what their rulers have wrought and shrug. But this thread is illuminating.
posted by bukharin at 1:14 AM on December 17, 2006

To what bukharin says, I must add that a generous portion of those bribes is taken by shady intermediaries and often finds its way back to organised crime and/or political campaigns in our countries. So, it's a danger for democracy, yes.

And for those of you harping about France, I must add that, bribe-prone as French weapons-makers may be, the Napoleonic code at least has the advantage that the French government would have a lot more trouble stopping an independent-minded investigating magistrate, than the British government had closing this investigation. As these folks learned to their dismay...
posted by Skeptic at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2006

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