“I’m sure you can find something nice to write about Saudi Arabia” said the Deputy Editor, “just make sure you don’t upset them”. It was 1986 and The Times was running a Saudi Arabia special report, a multi page pull out. I had recently broken a story about one of Mrs Thatcher’s senior ministers and had also written a full page (The Times was still broadsheet in those days) on the diamond war in Angola. It was made clear that the trip to Saudi Arabia was a reward for that.
I spent a whirlwind ten days being chauffeured and flown around the country from ancient ports to new cities halfway to completion and visits to ministry after ministry to be given glossy brochures on future plans for the country. The pattern was always the same – I would be formally welcomed by a Saudi minister, drink coffee with him and exchange smiles and pleasantries and then handed over to an American or British official seconded to the kingdom to draw up and implement future plans for the country. I paid a visit to the British Ambassador, Sir Stephen Egerton, who told me emphatically not to write anything – ANYTHING – negative about the Saudi Royal family or the country. One incident gave me an insight into the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud likes to think of itself as imbued with Wahabi Islam’s strict puritanical values . Archaeologists at Riyadh had discovered a historic palace which was far from being a place of Islamic austerity. It turned out to be a place of luxury, a palace with a hareem suggesting a less than Islamic lifestyle. After I left I was told the archeaologist was sacked and the site had been bulldozed. When my report was published many changes had been made. At the pre-Murdoch Times the journalist would be shown the final version. Changes were made and I was not allowed to dispute them.
Why is Saudi Arabia so important to the UK? It’s called oil. In 1980 Iran and Iraq went to war over their border but they both continued to pump oil throughout their eight year war. A few years later an American diplomat who had seen the secret papers on that war told me later that the CIA fed both sides with information and disinformation to ensure that the war continued and neither side got the upper hand. Thousands went on dying on the battlefields and both countries were weakened but desperate to keep pumping oil to pay for armaments. Had they made peace they could have re-established the oil cartel which had pushed up the oil price in the 1960s.
I went to Saudi Arabia again in 1991 to cover the first Gulf War. In 1990 President Saddam Hussein of Iraq became exasperated with his Arab neighbours, particularly the Saudis and Kuwaitis, for failing to acknowledge the cost Iraq had paid to stop Shia Iran dominating the Sunni Arab world. Iraq’s economy was virtually bankrupt so Saddam decided to invade Kuwait and seize their assets. He saw the Iran Iraq war as a battle he was fighting on behalf of all Arab states and he expected Arab states such as Kuwait and the Gulf States to help rebuild Iraq’s economy and ensure the Gulf was Arab dominated. His economy was in dire straights after the inconclusive war with Iran. Saddam had apparently been promised financial support from Arab states for that war but non was forthcoming. Seizing Kuwait was his way of demanding – and taking – compensation. In the New World Order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West ruled supreme. They would not allow an invasion and the seizure of an independent nation state. The low oil price was a further motive. The price jumped from $21 a barrel in July to $46 in October.
I was based on Saudi Arabia’s northern border and stayed long enough to see the arrogance of the Saudis towards their poorer Arab allies who had come to help them. Based on the Saudi Kuwait border I met troops from Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Oman, United Arab Emirates and other Arab armies who – with intense pressure from the United States and Britain – had been sent to free Kuwait. Most of the Arab armies’ equipment was Russian but the Saudis had British and American tanks and weapons. When the time came, the Americans, British and French swept through the lines of the Arab armies and charged into Kuwait. The bulk of the fighting was done by the Americans and British. The Arab armies dealt with the prisoners and secured captured bases and, as soon as strategic locations were secured the American, British and French troops pulled out and handed over to the Arab armies. This war seemed to reinforce the sanctity of nation states and establish a new world order. But what really changed?
To this day Britain is fearful of any act that might disrupt its lucrative relationship with Saudi Arabia. Hence the intense protocol organised by the Foreign Office for this week’s visit for Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He will no doubt be looking at the UK’s defence industry. Socially he is said to be modernising the country but that will take a very long time and may meet conservative resistance. Mecca, the city of the Prophet Mohammed, is in Saudi and it is the duty of all Muslims to make the Haj – the holy journey to tomb of the Prophet Mohamed at Mecca. Tens of thousands of Muslims from all over the world make the Haj. But are all the pilgrims equal before Allah? Some Africans I have met who have made the Haj complain that they are treated differently from other pilgrims.
Next month Britain will be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which will discuss political values such as democracy, freedom of speech and other fundamental principles of governance. The government owned BAE Systems and its previous incarnation British Aerospace have repeatedly been accused of ignoring our national principles and standards of behaviour. It has been proved guilty of bribery in its business dealings with Saudi Arabia. A few years ago the company had to pay £288 Million in fines imposed because of false accounting and bribery and in 2010 the country’s National Audit Office was forced to abandon investigations into BAE after it admitted bribery. Our values and laws are light years away from the fundamentalist values of Wahabi Islam which Saudi Arabia stands for. It permits the death penalty for murder but also for rape, adultery and homosexual acts and “spreading false stories”. Islamic law – like our own – condemns theft and bribery, but somehow, when it comes to selling arms, successive British governments seem loose sight of those values and principles.