/ 10 March 2005

Brits staff Saudi air force

Almost a third of the British government’s arms sales machine is dedicated to selling to a single regime —Saudi Arabia.

A United Kingdom Ministry of Defence publication circulated to defence firms and obtained by The Guardian shows the extent of Saudi dependence on Britain to run its air force.

According to the document, no fewer than 161 of the department’s 600 officials work for the ”Saudi Armed Forces Project”.

British ministers on Wednesday addressed a closed annual conference of the Defence Export Services Organisation (Deso), the UK government department that sells British weapons around the world.

Outside the meeting a group of anti-arms sales protesters gathered. They want Deso closed down, but have always been denied information about the secretive department’s workings.

The team is headed by Air Vice-Marshal John Thompson, based in central London. He has a place on Deso’s main board, headed by Alan Garwood, a former executive of Britain’s biggest arms company, British Aerospace (BAe).

Stationed on the ground in Riyadh are two senior military men, Air Commodore Ray Hodgson and Air Commodore John Chandler. They are the British team commander and logistics chief respectively.

The two Royal Air Force (RAF) officers head a squad of 54 British officials who are permanently based in Saudi Arabia.

The files show that they are distributed between the capital, Riyadh, a navy base at Jubail, and three big Saudi air bases at Dhahran, Khamis and Tabuk.

These figures do not include the significant number of RAF air crew who are seconded to the Saudis to fly the Tornados and Hawks that Britain has sold to Riyadh under its longstanding Al Yamamah arms contract.

The Deso officials are there to supervise the training and technical support that keeps the Saudi air force flying. Their other task is to supervise the payments of £1-billion a year that Saudi Arabia makes to BAe in return for spares and maintenance.

The Deso teams range from a small unit at Tabuk in the north, near Israel, with a squadron leader handling training and a warrant officer in charge of supply, to a large team in the capital, where Group Captain Nick Watson is in charge of flight operations and a civil servant, John Radcliffe, heads the finance department.

At Jubail, on the Gulf, a navy Captain, Grenville Johnson, superintends the Saudi fleet of Vosper minehunters at the head of a naval team of eight.

A senior Deso official, Michael Salkeld, is also stationed at the British embassy in Riyadh to promote further arms sales.

A team of 81 officials work at Deso’s headquarters, next to Centrepoint in London’s West End, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, headed by the commercial director, Stephen Pollard, and the deputy director in charge of contracts, John Davis.

Deso officials are also stationed at air bases around the UK, organising training and back-up for the Saudis.

One team is based at RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire, where the Tornado warplanes of the type purchased by the Saudis are maintained.

Others are at RAF Marham in Norfolk, RAF Stafford and the electronic warfare unit at RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire.

The department also has a Saudi liaison team posted to BAe’s factory at Samlesbury in Lancashire. The UK Defence Ministry says that all these British officials are paid for by the Saudi regime, who hand over an undisclosed fee to Whitehall in return for what is, in effect, the hire of an entire air force.

Deso originally refused The Guardian’s UK Freedom of Information Act request for an unexpurgated copy of its staff directory, which is supplied as a glossy brochure to all British arms firms.

However, the newspaper has subsequently obtained a leaked copy.

Deso says it seeks to conceal the identity of all its staff on the grounds that they could be intimidated. It also refused to divulge which government ministers would address its annual symposium for arms manufacturers this week.

Beccie D’Cunha, a spokeswoman for the British-based Campaign against the Arms Trade, said: ”We are an intrinsically peaceful organisation — there is no question that we would ever attack or harass Deso staff.”

She claimed: ”Saudi Arabia is an autocratic, corrupt regime in an unstable area. The use of so many [British] civil servants to promote arms to the Saudi regime is completely unethical.” — Â