Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, has moved towards completing an order worth billions of pounds from Saudi Arabia for the purchase of 48 Typhoon fighter jets.
The announcement came at the end of a three-day visit to the UK by the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although the order could help save jobs, the proposed contract was immediately denounced by arms campaigners concerned about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen.
The UK signed a memorandum of intent with the Saudis. The BAE chief executive, Charles Woodburn, described the news as “a positive step towards agreeing a contract for our valued partner, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We are committed to supporting the kingdom as it modernises the Saudi armed forces.”
Sales of the Typhoon have been slowing and BAE announced 1,400 job cuts in October. The prospect of a Saudi deal provides a boost, coming on top of a £5bn order from Qatar for 24 Typhoons.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been dogged by scandal since allegations of illicit payments to land the al-Yamamah contract – Britain’s biggest arms deal, worth £43bn – surfaced soon after it was sealed in 1985. Both the UK’s Serious Fraud Office and the US justice department investigated.
Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said that since the bombardment of Yemen began in 2015, the UK has licensed arms worth £4.6bn to Saudi Arabia even before the latest proposed deal.
“If agreed, this shameful deal will be celebrated in the palaces of Riyadh and by the arms companies who will profit from it but it will mean even greater destruction for the people of Yemen,” Smith said.
The Typhoon could be the last “British” combat plane. Given the costs involved, the Ministry of Defence may find it cheaper in the future to buy planes from the US or elsewhere.
BAE Systems says it employs about 5,000 people on the Typhoon programme.
The Serious Fraud Office brought its investigation into the al-Yamamah deal to a premature close in 2006 when the then prime minister, Tony Blair, intervened to say its continuation would harm UK security after the Saudis threatened to stop sharing intelligence on terrorism.