Prince Charles unhappy promoting arms industry in Middle East

Prince Charles unhappy promoting arms industry in Middle East
Analysis: The heir to the UK throne - who enjoys very close relations with Gulf monarchies, in particular Saudi Arabia - no longer wants to help sell weapons, according to a new biography.
5 min read
03 February, 2015
Prince Charles enjoys a laugh and dance with Saudi princes when not talking business [Getty]
The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, "doesn't like being used to market weaponry" in the Middle East, says the author Catherine Mayer in her new biography of the prince.

The timing of the revelation is difficult for Prince Charles, as he prepares to embark on a Middle East tour - in which he is expected to meet King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other regional leaders.

The Sunni Gulf monarchies, and in particular Saudi Arabia, are major customers of the UK weapons industry and the British royal family have strong historical relations with their royal Saudi counterparts.

Prince Charles is understood to have the confidence of the upper echelons of power across the region.

Clinching the deal

Last year, Saudi Arabia finally agreed to a multi-billion dollar purchase from BAE Systems, a British arms company, of 72 Typhoon fighter jets.

The deal was agreed the day after Prince Charles donned traditional bedouin clothes in Riyadh and danced, sword aloft, with princes from the House of Saud. 

The Prince's aids staunchly deny that the deal came up in conversation during the trip but The Times newspaper, which enjoys very good connections in the defence and political establishment, quotes sources in the UK government as saying he travelled to Saudi Arabia at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and was briefed in advance.

"There is a long history of members of the royal family supporting the promotion of the UK arms trade in the Middle East - and especially the Gulf," Professor Neil Cooper at Bradford University's Peace Studies department told al Araby al Jadeed.

"It is accepted as part and parcel of the brief."

The Typhoon sale was a particularly important victory for BAE and the UK arms industry. Prime Minister David Cameron made two previous visits to the kingdom to try and clinch the deal but was unsuccessful.

The Saudi approval for the huge purchase came on the eve of the release of BAE's otherwise disappointing results for 2014.
     The decision to stop the investigation was clearly on the back of a very high degree of lobbying from the Saudis.
- Neil Cooper, Bradford University

"The Typhoon deal provided some well needed good news on an otherwise bleak prospect. It was a big factor in keeping BAE's share prices up," explained the Campaign Against Arm Trade's Adam Smith.

The Typhoon - also known as the Eurofighter - was 30 years in the making, billions of pounds over budget and, prior to the Saudi procurement, woefully lacking buyers.

Muddied waters

Previous Saudi-UK arm deals have been mired with allegations of corrution.

In 1985, Margaret Thatcher negotiated the al-Yamameh arms contract that ensured a series of major weapons deals to paid for with 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day for the UK government.

This agreement has formed the cornerstone of UK-Saudi arms trading ever since but came under investigation from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for purported bribes paid by BAE systems to a number of key Saudi princes.   

In 2006, Tony Blair's government quashed investigations into the £43 billion contract for fear of the damage it would do to the cooperation between the two allies.

"The decision to stop the investigation was clearly on the back of a very high degree of lobbying from the Saudis including the threat to turn off intelligence cooperation," explained Cooper.

A regional affair

Saudi Arabia is the biggest prize for the UK arms industry - but the smaller, neighbouring Sunni Gulf states are also key targets.

Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are all on the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation priority markets list; a hit-list of captive markets for the UK arms industry.
     The logic to spending such huge amounts on weapons is to secure diplomatic and security alliances
- Neil Cooper, Bradford University

Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has procured more than £5.5 billion ($8.3 billion) in UK arms, Oman around £900 million ($1.4 billion), the UAE just under £300 million ($455 million), Kuwait over £80 million ($121 million), Bahrain around £30 million ($45 million) and Qatar just over £26 million ($39 million).

"The global markets are changing with the US and other big players importing less. The Middle East, and especially the Gulf, is a growing market with lots of money to spend on arms," said CAAT's Smith.

The UK civil service is heavily involved in the promotion of UK manufacturers - including weapons manufacturers - in the region.

For Saudi Arabia alone, the UK Ministry of Defence is understood to have 240 civil servants and military personnel working to support the contracts through the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Programme (MODSAP) and the Saudi Arabia National Guard Communication Project (SANGCOM). 

For the recipient countries, the benefits of investing in such expensive arms systems extend beyond the realms of defence and security into politics and diplomacy.

"A big part of the logic to spending such huge amounts on these weapons is to to secure commitments by cementing diplomatic and security alliances. It's about much more than just hardware," said Bradford University's Professor Cooper.

Opening doors

The degree of influence royals such as Prince Charles have over arms deals in the region is unclear. Ultimately, their dealings are done under the strictest secrecy.
     Royal family support is the icing on the cake, a very big cake.
- Neil Cooper, Bradford University

The Times quoted a number of arms industry chiefs saying that it was "ludicrous" and "misguded" to think that Prince Charles helps in securing contracts for British companies.

However, the access and gravitas the royal family have is widely accepted as being beneficial to UK trade in the Gulf. 

"This kind of royal involvement is part of the edifice of arms trading in the Middle East," said Professor Cooper. "Royal family support is the icing on the cake, a very big cake."

Another son of the Queen, Prince Andrew, held the post of Britain's special representative for trade and investment - which involved frequent visits to the region to promote, among other industries, UK arms manufacturers.

In 2011, a palace spokesperson, when describing Andrew's role, said: "Middle East potentates like meeting princes" adding that as a son of the queen he "opens doors" allowing difficulties to be overcome so "contracts can be signed".

Prince Charles, who reportedly enjoys better relations than his brother throughout the Arab world, is continuing his trips to the region - but he may now be less likely to be seen rubbing shoulders at arms fairs or enjoying a sword dance on the eve of major arms deals' signings.

Charles: The Heart of a King is being serialised in The Times newspaper.