With Saudi Arabia taking an active role in regional conflicts, light must now be reveal Australia’s hidden arms deals with the Kingdom.
So here we are with a difficult question again: is it better to be a good global citizen or to make lots of money (jobs, jobs, jobs)? This is a dilemma the Europeans are struggling with at the moment, and frankly, I think we should too. Let me explain. In 2015, Saudi Arabia was the second-biggest weapons importer in the world. It bought seven percent of the world’s arms – more than China (4.7 percent, 3.6 percent in Australia or even the US with 2.9 percent). The Saudis spent 10.4 percent of their GDP on military equipment, against 3.5 percent in the US and 1.8 percent in Australia. As a share of all its government spending, it was the biggest in the world with 25.9 percent (Australia 4.8 percent, USA 9.5 percent). Saudi Arabia has always been in the market for arms, but never this many. An additional problem, according to Tobias Borch from the Strategy and Security Institute in the UK, is that where the country did not actually use these weapons in the past, it does now. It supplies weapons to anti-Assad fighters in Syria, to the El-Sisi regime in Egypt and to parties in Lebanon, as well as using them to bomb Yemen, for instance. Until recently, Western nations who supplied weapons to Saudi Arabia could say they did this to “stabilise” the region. That argument no longer holds water, because the Saudi’s are now playing an active, and very violent, part – and they are using Western-bought weapons to do so.
Last week, the Dutch parliament voted in favour of a bill asking the government to implement a strict weapons embargo against Saudi Arabia. The parliamentarians gave a number of good reasons for this: 7,000 people dead in Yemen as a result of Saudi bombings and executions; a wave of political executions in Saudi Arabia itself. These were, they said, human rights violations, and that was enough reason to stop the 1.46 million US dollars’ worth of Dutch arms exports to the Middle-Eastern country. This makes the Dutch the first to stop exporting weapons to the Saudi’s for an indefinite amount of time. In January, the Germans also voted for an embargo, but this one was temporary. Also, it was violated almost straight away by the German Defence Ministry itself, which started exporting patrol boats to the Saudi navy only weeks after the decision. Its argument was that the boats were for defence, not attack, and so technically were not “weapons.” Certainly an interesting way of looking at it (and making money while still pretending to be ethically and morally “good”). The actions of the Dutch and the Germans follow a motion carried by the European Parliament last month, which called for a bloc-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. The Netherlands is the temporary President of the EU during the first six months of 2016, and apparently it has felt it necessary to set an example. The Dutch like setting examples and telling other countries what they do wrong, especially if it doesn’t cost them a lot of money. The Netherlands is the world’s tenth-biggest global exporter of weapons, but Saudi Arabia is not high on its client list. This is different for other countries: for the US, the Saudis are their biggest purchasers. Between 2010 and 2015 they sold 111 billion dollars’ worth of arms to the country, and the US State Department has just approved a 1.29 billion dollar smart bomb deal. Late last year, the US sold air defence missiles (5.4 billion) and combat ships (11.25 billion) to Saudi Arabia. The Europeans are making good money too: France $4.7B, the UK $3.8B and even the Belgians made $1.3B in 2014.
Last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told UN members that “we need states (…) to set an example (…) in controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international law.” He did not mention Saudi Arabia and everybody pretended they didn’t understand what he was talking about. Like the motion accepted by the European Parliament, it was full of good intentions but unlikely to be listened to, let alone implemented. Saudi Arabia is God’s gift to the military industrial complex and while everybody is making money, nobody cares about human rights or some dead people in Yemen or anywhere else. Of course, there are arms embargoes: the UN lists 14 countries it does not want its members to trade arms with; the EU 23. Although Syria and Lebanon are on both those lists, Saudi Arabia is not. The fact that Saudi Arabia supplies weapons to combatants in Syria and Lebanon seems enough to start asking questions, but not to actually do something. World peace is a nice idea, but making money is, of course, much better.
So where does Australia stand in all of this? The short answer is that nobody outside of the Defence Department really knows. This is the information we do have: according to the World Bank, Australia exported 104 million US dollars’ worth of arms in 2014. That was chicken feed compared to what it imported, though: $842 million dollars of weapons, an enormous rise since 2010, when we imported $167.7 million. This has put our country at number five of the top 10 global importers of weapons. Most of those weapons we buy from the US; almost 10 percent of American weapons exports goes to us. Personally, I wonder why we invest all of that money. Australia has never been and will never be able to militarily defend itself. It has 24 million people and 36,000 kilometres of mainland and 24,000 kilometres of island coastline; do the maths. We protect ourselves, rationally I think, by trading with our neighbours. It is the same solution the Europeans came up with after WWII: if you are economically interdependent, war is much further away than if you arm yourself against the others. But that is an ideological sideline.
Looking beyond Australia’s imports: how much weaponry does Australia export to Saudi Arabia? The answer is: who knows? In 2010, Senator Scott Ludlam asked to see the export approvals for Defence but received no buyer or seller information. We know Saudi Arabia is a customer, but there are no figures. Partly, this is because Australia’s military manufacturing sector has become increasingly privatised. In the past, there was something called Australian Defence Industries, a Government agency, but that was bought by the French-based Thales Group not that long ago. Australia also participates in US firm, Raytheon, the fifth-largest global arms dealer, and UK’s BAE Systems, coming in at number three. What they export, for how much money and to whom is considered “commercial confidence,” meaning that there is hardly any public or even parliamentary scrutiny. The Australian Government itself is secretive too. Most Western nations send annual reports of their Defence spending to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – the resource of global security. Australia stopped giving out that information in 2005. Knowledge is a great thing. Once you know something, you can make up your mind about its value or otherwise. If you don’t, you can’t. Informing your citizens on what you are up to is at the core of a democracy. So what does that tell us about Australia?