When political leaders from around the world gather at the UN to consider the Millennium Development Goals, there will be plenty of rhetoric about commitments to reduce poverty, hunger and disease. But the real commitment of the powerful players is certainly not to “pro-poor” policies, as we are daily reminded.
Providing a reality-check on international priorities, the Wall Street Journal announced on September 15 that US aviation firms will be selling $60 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia for advanced fighter jets and military helicopters. The paper reported that there is also a $30 billion package for naval ships in the pipeline and another large contract for ballistic missile defense under discussion. The Saudis will obtain 84 new F-15 fighters, along with dozens of Apache, Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters – one of the biggest arms deals of all time. Struck in the midst of an economic crisis, the deal has been hyped in Washington as a “major job creator,” a source of economic stimulus, and an important gesture to a friendly ally.
Oil for arms – that is the essence of the arrangement -- with hefty profits on both ends of the deal. At a time when governments are slashing their budgets and tens of millions are unemployed, this is one of the sickening “solutions” that are being offered, to promote economic recovery.
Such deals inevitably touch off local arms races and prestige purchases. The Israelis will be buying from the same companies an even more advanced and long-range fighter, the F-35. The oil-rich Emirates are on their own arms-buying spree. And we can imagine that the Iranians, fearful of this flood of new weapons in the neighborhood, will be desperately hustling for additional means of defense.
The arms trade is definitely about wealth promotion, not poverty alleviation. First and foremost, the great arms deals enrich the company shareholders. The deals also involve massive corruption that enriches political and military figures. Consider, the last great Saudi arms contract, the Al-Yamanah deal, worth £40 billion, struck with UK arms giant BAE. The company, keen to sell its advanced Tornado fighter aircraft, doled out millions to members of the Saudi royal family, notably Prince Turki Bin Nasser, Commander and senior procurement officer of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Using fake offshore accounts and secret Swiss bank arrangements, BAE showered Prince Turki and his family with luxurious travel and expensive playthings - even a gold-plated Rolls Royce.
Sir Dick Evans, BAE chief executive, had earlier assured the House of Commons that his firm was “in complete compliance” with strict anti-corruption rules. But the UK Serious Fraud Office smelled malfeasance and began an investigation. Suddenly, on orders from Downing Street, the whole enterprise of investigation was shut down in late 2006. Prime Minister Blair had determined that the investigation was contrary to the country’s “strategic interest!” The Saudi royals were relieved.
Of course, Washington will insist that it has more robust rules, that everything is on the up-and-up, that oversight is working well with the new arms deal. But no credible evidence leads to such a conclusion.
As for the world’s poor, they will have to wait their turn. After the arms bills and the slush funds have been paid, the banks bailed out and the wars waged, perhaps something will be left over for the Millennium Development Goals.