Lords of War: The British Monarchy And The Arms Trade

Prince Harry’s memoir Spare provoked an avalanche of commentary. Newsrooms, who rarely questioned London and Washington’s occupation of Afghanistan in the first place, suddenly find it objectionable that an unpopular prince should confess to killing dozens of Taliban fighters. However, the Royal family’s overt or implicit collaboration with the arms trade—a business responsible for destroying an incalculable number of lives—is met with silence instead of outrage.

“The British are really rather good at making certain kinds of weapons”, said King Charles at a Dubai arms bazaar years ago—and the Royal Family is still very talented at charming potential buyers. This ignoble story is too easily forgotten, ignored, or downplayed and must be confronted.

In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II played a key role in turning the idyllic Chagos Islands into an arms depot for the US military. Anthropologist David Vine showed that Washington, desperate to maintain a foothold in the Indian Ocean during the Cold War, convinced allies in London to expel Chagossians from their homes. British officials fearing a backlash at the United Nations and from the public at home used a secretive Order in Council, an ancient royal decree which allows the monarch to pass laws without parliamentary scrutiny or approval, to separate the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and to create a new colony called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The US and UK proceeded to banish all 1,500-2000 islanders between 1968 and 1973 before erecting an enormous army base in Diego Garcia.

Chagossians ended up living in slums in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Marie Rita Elysée Bancoult, among many others, never recovered from this ordeal. Her husband and three sons died due to abject poverty, despair, alcoholism, and drug abuse: “My life has been buried…it’s as if I was pulled from my paradise to put me in hell.” Meanwhile, Diego Garcia’s lagoons are filled with fleets of skyscraper-sized frigates and cargo ships replete with enough tanks, helicopters, and high-tech weaponry to stage month-long invasions. Bombers based on the islands spearheaded the Bush Administration’s illegal war on Iraq—another calamity which displaced and killed thousands of civilians.

Queen Elizabeth’s nephew-in-law, businessman Sir Angus Ogilvy, is also worth mentioning. In the early sixties, Ogilvy helped appoint notorious tycoon Roland “Tiny” Rowland to the Lonrho company’s management board. Finance Professor Chibuike Uche says Rowland spent years bribing rebel groups, ministers, and heads of state throughout a decolonising Africa and transformed Lonrho into one of the most successful conglomerates on the continent. Authorities in London were very well informed about Rowland’s fraudulent methods, such as bypassing economic sanctions imposed on apartheid Rhodesia, but looked the other way to protect British interests.

Lonrho subsidiaries were also allegedly involved in the arms trade. Private Eye reported in 1987 that a South African company manufactured explosives, ammunition, and air and ground weaponry, destined to be sold to Iran in return for oil. According to journalist Madelaine Drohan, Rowland paid brutal RENAMO insurgents 500,000 dollars a month in the early eighties to stay away from his prized pipeline in Mozambique. RENAMO terrorists, covertly armed and funded by Pretoria, massacred hundreds of women, children, teachers, and healthcare workers in order to destabilise Mozambique’s Soviet-leaning government. Whether Ogilvy, and by extension the Royal family, ever profited from Rowland’s shadowy dealings is unknown.

Former African National Congress (ANC) parliamentarian Andrew Feinstein added that in the late nineties, the Royal Family “was involved in trying to persuade South Africa to buy BAE’s Hawk jets, despite the air force not wanting the planes that cost two and a half times the price of their preferred aircraft.” Feinstein resigned from parliament in protest after ANC colleagues scuppered his investigation into this multi-billion-rand arms deal tainted by corruption allegations. Top ANC cadres supposedly received millions in bribes. Some ANC politicians, while buying luxury cars, dining in the finest restaurants, and enjoying expensive holidays abroad, claimed that drugs needed to treat countless South Africans dying of HIV/AIDS were too costly. The “Strategic Defense Package” deal exposed the festering rot at the heart of the ANC and marked the beginning of the party’s descent into moral, but clearly not financial, bankruptcy.

Prince Andrew has proven to be an enthusiastic advocate for the arms trade as well. In 2002, The Guardian reported that the Duke of York was spotted at a SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference) arms fair in Jordan, mingling with British army personnel and employees of the British Defense Manufacturers Association, an organisation which lobbies on behalf of British weapon firms. UK troops oversaw the handover of Challenger tanks to Jordan—the same month King Abdullah’s regime shut down a major civil society group, according to political scientist Jillian Schwedler.

Though the press portrays Prince Andrew as a blundering liability, a Buckingham Palace spokesman explained why the Duke of York is so useful to the arms industry: “He brings immeasurable value in smoothing the path for British companies…because of who he is.” Royal prestige and clout open doors, especially among the Gulf dictatorships’ princely and status-conscious elites. In April 2013, for example, Prince Andrew hosted a lavish state visit for President Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE’s absolutist ruler. Journalist Phil Miller says this visit came at a time when London was eager to secure an arms deal worth billions of pounds with the UAE.

Moreover, The New Statesman published in 2007 a photo of Prince William shaking hands with two of Indonesia’s most senior generals in Windsor—a meeting which raised many eyebrows. Jakarta was looking to “build defence relations” with London and perhaps, once again, a royal seal of approval sweetened whatever deal occurred behind the scenes. Human rights activists were quick to remind the public that an indicted war criminal renowned for his atrocities in East Timor, Colonel Burhanuddin Siagian, served as military commander in occupied West Papua at the time. It is quite revealing that tribal leader Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence advocate, had to write a letter in 2011 urging Prince Andrew not to sell British-made jets used to bomb opposition groups and civilians, as noted in The Times. This strongly implies that London helped Jakarta wage genocidal counter-insurgency operations against Indonesia’s restive Melanesian minority.

Yet King Charles III is by far the most influential salesman in the Windsor family. Journalists Mark Curtis and Phil Miller amply demonstrated how “Charles of Arabia” promoted approximately 14.5 billion worth of British arm exports to eight repressive monarchies for a decade following the Arab Spring. Despots in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman, unwilling to surrender power to pro-democracy movements or religious minorities, orchestrated a vicious and region-wide counter-revolution. The British arms industry backed this feudal reaction to a hilt.

Charles visited Oman in March 2013 to “promote Britain’s diplomatic, commercial interests”, which involved convincing Muscat to purchase twelve Typhoon and eight Hawk jets from BAE Systems. Although Charles goes to considerable lengths to burnish his image as an admirer of Islamic heritage, he is seemingly unaware that the Omani Sultanate has spent years eradicating cultural and linguistic remnants of the Shihuh tribe in Musandam. Political analyst Catherine Perez-Shakdam says Shihuh villages are routinely emptied, demolished, and replaced with military infrastructure.

In addition, Charles’ alliance with a Saudi monarchy committing apocalyptic crimes in Yemen cannot be overlooked. A few days before visiting Oman in 2013, Charles celebrated the 50th anniversary of the British Military Mission in Riyadh. This occasion coincided with BAE’s attempts to sell Typhoon jets to the Kingdom. Five years later, Charles held a dinner for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman at Clarence House. BAE again inched closer to selling 48 Typhoons to Riyadh a few days after the meeting. Oxfam recently concluded that the UK fuels “a pattern of violence against civilians” in Yemen. Coalition forces used British and American arms in a quarter of the 1,700 attacks on Yemeni non-combatants last year, although the death toll- 87 killed over a fourteen month period- is likely to be a gross underestimate.

Overall, Prince Harry’s body count in Afghanistan pales in comparison to the mountains of innocents slaughtered across the globe due in part to his family’s cheerleading for the murder industry. Making amends for his heinous record will be very difficult indeed. For starters, the Royal Family should not only cease any affiliation with the arms trade; it should avoid or boycott events bankrolled by arms manufacturers. Michelle Fahy, a researcher at the Medical Association for Prevention of War, observed that corporate sponsor lists for the Invictus Games (a sports tournament for wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans!) often include five of the world’s largest weapon manufacturers. If a royal ever had the audacity to call out this revolting hypocrisy, significant progress could be made in drawing public attention towards the arm trade’s insidious and shady practices.

Finally, Prince Harry might consider helping the victims of Britain’s imperial misadventures. There are many causes to choose from. British and American munitions, filled with depleted uranium, contaminated water supplies in Iraqi cities to such an extent that congenital malformation rates exceed that of Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s after nuclear detonations, according to journalist Dahr Jamail. As a result, thousands of Iraqi mothers give birth to children without organs, eyes, mouths, ears, or limbs and anecdotal evidence suggests cancer hasn’t spared a single Iraqi household since the First Gulf War began thirty years ago. Lobbying on their behalf would represent a truly noble break from royal family tradition.


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