April 04, 2020
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Gunning For Oil

Between armaments and human rights, Britain chooses the first

Gunning For Oil
The British government's decision to deport Saudi Arabian dissident Mohammed al Mas'ari—under pres-sure from the Saudi royal family and the British armaments industry—sends out a clear message: all the loud talk of promotion of human rights and democracy abroad can be conveniently ignored when British commercial interests are at stake. Her Majesty's government—which rarely lets go of an opportunity in international fora to underscore its commitment to human rights and ignores the demands by economically weaker nations to curb the activities of their dissidents on British soil, citing its democratic traditions—has had no pangs of conscience in brazenly promoting the interest of its armaments industry.

Mas'ari, a professor of Physics in Saudi Arabia, was jailed in 1993 for dissidence but fled to Yemen and thereafter to Britain where he sought political asylum. While his application was under consideration, Mas'ari—through his organisation, the Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights—campaigned against corruption and the denial of democratic rights in Saudi Arabia. As leaked correspondence between the British armaments industry and the government and other reports suggest, the Saudi rulers were incensed and started denying British firms armaments contracts.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, who had apparently disposed of Mas'ari's request for political asylum just before leaving for India, made no bones about the fact that the rights of political refugees had to be weighed against British economic interests. The Saudis—who over the last decade have bought over £20 billion of British exports, essentially arms, and whose deal with British Aerospace (BAe) is currently worth £2 billion a year—had made it clear to the British arms manufacturers that unless Mas'ari's activities were curbed, they should not expect to get much business from the oil-rich nation.

Mas'ari—who has appealed against the decision—told Outlook that he will not go to the Caribbean island of Dominica, as per the deportation order by the British government. Mas'ari, instead, is trying to seek asylum in Germany or Japan.

This episode has also highlighted the unsavoury aspects of the British-Saudi Arabian relationship and the nexus between the British government and the arms industry. The 1985 'Al Yamamah' arms deal, worth over £ 2 billion a year to British Aerospace (BAe), whereby Saudi Arabia gives Britain a certain fixed amount of oil—currently estimated at 600,000 barrels a day—as payment for its purchases from Britain, seems to form the core of the alliance. The marketing effort on the British end is coordinated by the Defence Ministry's Defence Export Sales Organisation and is run by a former BAe executive. The other major player is the defence firm, Vickers.

The close links between the British government and the arms industry all too obvious. Sir Colin Chandler, the chief executive of Vickers, is a former head of arms exports at the Defence Ministry. The company's director for international relations, David Hastie, too is a former Defence Ministry official. An internal memo by Chandler to Hastie, published The Guardian , and which has not been refuted, describes in detail Chandler's discussions with the chief executive of BAe, Dick Evans, the easy going relationship they have with those in high places, and the selective leaking of British intelligence reports on the Middle East to win their favour. Evans, according to this letter, mentioned anxiety in the CIA, "and their counterparts in this country" about the impact of Mas'ari's cam paign against the Saudi royal family.

The letter also mentions that "there are plenty of other people in Mas'ari's organisation to take his place should an attempt be made to stifle him personally". The reference to "stifling" has prompted Mas'ari's supporters to suggest that alternatives, much more serious than mere deportation, were being discussed in the British arms industry circles. There are also reports that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia personally raised the subject of Mas'ari's activities in the UK with British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rif kind during the latter's visit to Saudi Arabia last September, which set the ball rolling for Mas'ari's deportation orders in the first week of January this year.

Mas'ari points out that the British government's decision to deport him has obvious implications for dissidents from other countries based in the UK such as the Pakistani MQM leader Altaf Hussain and oth-ers from Punjab (India). Such dissidents, however, shrug off the implications of the Mas'ari case for themselves. A senior MQM leader and former minister in the Sindh government, M.A. Jalil felt that he saw no comparison between Mas'ari's case and the continued stay of MQM leaders in the UK

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