Labour ministers gave a £17
million package of arms as a “gift” to Saudi Arabia as part of
the UK’s “Al Yamamah” defence deal.
The revelation of the “gift” – disclosed in a private letter, dating from 1999, released under the freedom of information act (FOIA) – comes as Britain secured a further phase of Al Yamamah in which Saudi Arabia last week agreed to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoons made by a consortium led by BAE Systems.
And it demonstrates the extent to which the Lab-our government has been willing to go to smooth the British-Saudi relationship.
The letter from the then defence secretary, George (now Lord) Robertson, to David Davis, chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee at the time, reveals the “gift” that included 100 precision-guided missiles worth between £10 million and £15 million.
This would, he writes, “place the Saudis in a much better position than they are now, with a full stock of more modern weapons.”
The disclosure of this use of taxpayers’ money in-creases pressure on the government to release two unpublished reports by the national audit office (NAO) on the role of the ministry of defence (MoD) in the supply of Tornado aircraft and other equipment to Saudi Arabia under Al Yamamah. The existence of the second NAO report has also only recently been revealed by FOIA.
The multi-billion pound Al Yamamah agreement, the first phase of which was agreed by Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1985, has long been embroiled in bribery allegations.
Robertson wrote to Davis in a letter of February 1999, “on a strictly personal basis”, to explain why Britain was “gifting” the £17m arms package. He explained that it was a replacement for the JP233 weapon system, which includes anti-personnel mines, but which Britain was no longer able to support.
In the letter, which has passages redacted in the version released under FOIA, Robertson says that the Landmines Act 1998, together with Britain’s commitment to the Ottawa convention that underpinned it, “means that from March 1, 1999 we will be unable to support the JP233 weapon system which we have supplied to Saudi Arabia under the Al Yamamah programme.”
He continues: “I am prepared to offer, unless there is an indisputable parliamentary objection, and subject to US export clearances… a package under which we would remove and destroy their JP233s, gift 100 Paveway 3 weapons from RAF stock (100 being equivalent in value to the remaining life the Saudis could expect from their JP233s) and undertake necessary modifications to RSAF [Royal Saudi Air Force] aircraft to make them compatible with Paveway 3 and retraining – all at UK expense.
“The package will cost between £15 million - £17 million.”
“The Saudis have already told us informally that they will accept our offer, if it is presented formally.”
“Against this background, it is important that we press ahead quickly, preferably with the minimum of fuss, and make our formal offer before the Landmines Act comes into force on March 1, 1999.”
A “loose minute” setting out the proposals for ministers’ agreement was prepared by the MoD a month earlier. Under a section headed, “Presentational issues”, it says: “We should seek to avoid a public airing of these issues although a defensive line has been produced in the event of questions.”
The minute reveals that the gift of 100 precision-guided missiles was especially difficult for the British government because the Royal Air Force had a shortage of such weapons.
It says: “Operation Desert Fox [a US and UK bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998] has prompted a lessons-learnt exercise on the RAF's requirement for precision-guided missiles (PGM). Although this is not yet complete, it is already becoming clear that the currently established requirement for PGMs (Paveway 2 and Paveway 3) is insufficient.
“A small surplus of Paveway 3 is greatly outweigh-ed by the overall PGM shortfall.”
“The possibility of PGMs being required for further action in both the Middle East and the Balkans is very real. RAF advice is that the gift of Paveway 3 would significantly increase the risk to RAF operational capability at a time when that capability is likely to be increasingly in demand, and on a more substantial scale than hitherto.”
The minute puts the value of the “gift” package at up to £22 million. But is says that the UK government, in order to comply with its international obligations on landmines and other anti-personnel munitions, must make the offer to secure an agree-ment from Saudi Arabia. “That is the weakness of our position,” it says.
It adds: “In considering this issue, ministers will wish to bear in mind not only our publicly state legal obligations under the Ottawa convention, [sub-clause redacted] and hence the defence needs of Saudi Arabia. This is one aspect of our consider-able strategic interest in the continued security of the Gulf. Equally, we have no wish to take any action which could cast doubt in Saudi minds over the UK’s reliability as one of the Kingdom’s foremost defence allies or as a supplier of defence equipment.”
The then chief secretary to the Treasury, Alan Milburn, agreed to the package in January after Roberston wrote to him setting out the background.
Another version of this article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
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