Crown prince and defence minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman was in the UK last week for meetings with Prime Minister Theresa May. The visit was intended to “usher in a new era in bilateral relations,” according to a government statement.
Bin Salman is the first in line to the Saudi throne, and would be ushered in as absolute ruler were the king to keel over tomorrow. A far younger man at 32 than his predecessors, Mohammed bin Salman already welds a vast amount of influence over the direction of the kingdom, especially its foreign policy.
He is being pushed as the de facto leader of the country. He is also being propagandised as a “reformer” that we must support if we want any kind of real change in what is portrayed as a hopelessly conservative country.
But all this is a cruel lie.
He has been the architect of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous leading role in fuelling and instigating the war in Yemen, and of ramping up Saudi involvement in Syria – arming some of the most extremist violent anti-government militias in the country.
The kingdom’s human rights record is horrific as ever, with the death penalty being carried out, according to Amnesty International, “for a range of crimes, including drug offences or for conduct that under international standards should not be criminalized, such as ‘sorcery’ and ‘adultery.’ Many defendants were sentenced to death after unfair trials by courts that convicted them without adequately investigating allegations of coerced ‘confessions,’ including under torture.”
Another story which should have gotten more attention last week was the long-running one about the allegedly corrupt al-Yamamah bargain between Saudi Arabia and Britain.
This massive, £43bn arms deal involves the purchase of weapons from British firm BAE Systems. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan (a former ambassador to the US so close to President George W. Bush he was often known as “Bandar bin Bush”) is alleged to have taken a massive bribe – an eye-watering £1bn in secret payments from BAE.
The deal stank to high heaven, but when he was prime minister, Tony Blair quashed any investigation, claiming it would not be in the “national interest.”
But the stench of corruption was so pungent the deal triggered a US Department of Justice investigation.
Last week Clayton Swisher (the head of Al Jazeera investigations, currently on sabbatical) broke a story in The Guardian exposing a secret memo exposing how a Saudi lobbyist in the US watered down the DoJ investigation.
The memo’s author “wrote that the investigators had been intending to identify Bandar ‘anonymously but unmistakably as the recipient of $2bn in “corrupt bribes” from BAE’.”
The newspaper continued that the memo’s author added that “the settlement would no longer refer to the ‘corrupt payments’ that had allegedly been funnelled to Bandar via the Riggs Bank.”
The memo boasted of achieving “a huge ‘sea change’ and reversal of the DoJ’s intended plan, and the direct result of our hard and successful work on the behalf of [Prince Bandar] and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the last four years. We respectfully suggest that no other lawyers in America could have gotten this result”
It was fitting for Swisher to expose this. His unit last year produced The Lobby, the most ground breaking investigation into the pro-Israel lobby in the UK since Peter Oborne’s film in 2009.
He currently seems to be in a battle to get the follow-up film – on the US Israel lobby – broadcast at all. Predictably, the subjects of the film are trying to get it quashed.
The documentary – if the UK edition was anything to go by – will show that while the Israel lobby is still influential and extremely well-funded, its power is on the wane. The Israel lobby is battling historical trends – an ultimately futile effort. It lost Labour Party voters a long time ago. In the US it is losing Democratic voters and young Jews.
And it is slowly losing the power of one of its most successful strategies. As one of those filmed in the documentary will reportedly say, “Anti-semitism as a smear is not what is used to be.”
The details Swisher exposed about the BAE arms deal show the Saudi lobby has influence too. This is also fitting in a way, because the Saudis and the Israelis are increasingly open about their alliance in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.