Saudi Arabia has signed a provisional agreement with the British Government to buy 48 of the UK’s Typhoon fighter jets. If finalised, the deal struck on the final day of the visit from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would be a major boost for BAE Systems – which employs some 35,000 people in Britain.
But with the Saudi regime embroiled in a bloody bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed large numbers of civilians and precipitated a humanitarian crisis, the deal will anger anti-war campaigners.
Announcing the deal after a meeting with the Crown Prince, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said it had “opened a new chapter in our two countries’ historic relationship”. The cabinet minister went on: “We have taken a vital step towards finalising another order for Typhoon jets that will increase security in the Middle East and boost British industry and jobs in our unrivalled aerospace sector.”
In October, BAE announced 1,400 job cuts in its aerospace division across five sites over the next three years, partly due to a slowdown in Typhoon production – so the new deal, potentially worth some £10bn, will significantly boost the firm’s prospects.
BAE CEO Charles Woodburn said the “memorandum of intent” is a step towards a full contract for the planes, with the company having signed a £5bn deal to provide 24 jets to Qatar in December.
He added: “We are committed to supporting the kingdom as it modernises the Saudi armed forces and develops key industrial capabilities critical to the delivery of Vision 2030.”
Vision 2030 is the country-wide reform programme that Prince Salman has been credited with pushing through, which has also seen his supporters hailing him as a social reformer who has, for example, empowered women to a degree not before seen in the kingdom. But activists point to the country’s bombing of Yemen as a sign that Saudi is not a country the UK should be dealing with.
UK government statistics show that since the bombardment of Yemen began in 2015, the UK has already licensed £4.6bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including £2.7bn worth of licences for aircraft, helicopters and drones and a further £1.9bn worth for grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures.
The new deal will see Saudi forces able to deploy the fighters – seen as the most advanced swing-role combat aircraft currently available – which have a top speech of more than 1,500mph and carry a formidable array of weapons for both ground and air combat.
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “If agreed, this shameful deal will be celebrated in the palaces of Riyadh and by the arms companies who will profit from it, but it will mean even greater destruction for the people of Yemen.
“For decades now, successive UK governments have enjoyed a toxic and damaging relationship with the Saudi regime. By rolling out the red carpet for the Crown Prince, Theresa May has shown how low she will sink to maintain it.”
According to the United Nations and other sources, from March 2015 to December 2017, between 9,000 and 14,000 people have been killed in Yemen, with more than 5,000 of them thought to be civilians.
Giving a speech in Scotland today ahead of the announcement, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We have demanded Theresa May’s Government uses the visit this week of Saudi Arabia’s ruler Mohammad bin Salman to halt British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while its devastating bombing of Yemen continues and demand an immediate ceasefire.
“A humanitarian disaster is now taking place in Yemen as a direct result of the Saudi-led bombing and blockade. Millions face starvation and hundreds of thousands of children have cholera while thousands of civilians have been killed.”
Saudi Arabia is the main player in a coalition supporting the Yemeni government against the Houthis in a campaign that has raged since 2015.
Ahead of his visit, the Crown Prince signalled the importance of the UK-Saudi Arabia relationship to security, saying both countries would be “much safer if you have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia”.
While Ms May’s spokesman has underlined that she “raised our deep concerns at the humanitarian situation in Yemen”, the Prime Minister has also been keen to boost business ties with the Gulf state, agreeing a joint goal to achieve £65bn of mutual trade and investment in coming years – something Ms May has called a “vote of confidence” in Britain as it leaves the EU.
The London Stock Exchange is also currently pushing for the Saudi Aramco oil company to be listed in the capital, in what has been described as the biggest flotation in history.
The Crown Prince was treated to a private dinner with the Prime Minister at Chequers on Thursday night and has also met with the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge during his visit.