The UK government is coming under fire for having deployed air defence troops to Saudi Arabia some months ago without gaining consent from parliament. The mission has been under the radar since February and is thought to be costing the British army around $1 million (840,000 UK pounds) of taxpayers’ money.
The revelations were first reported in a local newspaper, The News, in the southern port city of Portsmouth before being picked up last week by a national paper, The Independent.
Opposition Labour Party shadow Armed Forces Minister Stephen Morgan, also the MP for Portsmouth South, told the local paper that “this is a serious issue of parliamentary transparency and scrutiny. This is not a covert deployment, but the government has shared precious little and not made any formal public announcement of it to the House. The government must do better, and I will be urgently seeking further clarity on this.”
The only official mention of an operation in Saudi Arabia by the UK government was buried within the British Ministry of Defence’s 220-page annual report for 2019/20, where it said that “the deployment of Giraffe radars to Riyadh in February 2020 will help Saudi Arabia better track and identify objects in its airspace.”
There was no mention of a troop deployment.
But gunners from the UK’s 16th Royal Artillery Regiment armed with the Rapier missile-defence system and the more powerful Sky Sabre system were sent to Riyadh to man the radar systems.
The team has a permanent presence on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic and plays a major role in protecting key targets from air attack. News of the Regiment’s latest mission in the Middle East only came to light during a parliamentary question by Scottish National Party (SNP) Defence Spokesman Martin Dockerty.
A UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson told The Independent that “following the attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities on 14 September 2019, we have worked with the Saudi Ministry of Defence and wider international partners to consider how to strengthen the defence of its critical economic infrastructure from aerial threats.”
He confirmed that the deployment had included an advanced military radar system to help detect drone strikes, but would not be drawn on “exact timescales or the numbers of personnel involved due to operational security”. Later, UK Defence Minister James Heappey confirmed in written correspondence with the paper that “UK defence personnel have accompanied the deployment of Giraffe radars to Riyadh.”
The issue has given rise to debate beyond the government and parliament as there is ongoing legal action in the British courts to reinstate a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia that ended this summer.
Until July, UK ministers had been blocked by the country’s Court of Appeal from signing off on military exports to Saudi Arabia because of concerns that Saudi forces were committing war crimes in their conflict with Iran-backed Houthi rebels based in neighbouring Yemen.
UK ministers discarded the ban in July after judging that the 500 alleged war crimes “amounted only to possible breaches of international humanitarian law and were isolated incidents.”
When the news broke of the arms sales and troop deployment, campaigners in the UK attacked the government, saying that “the episode was symptomatic of the toxic relationship between the government and the oil-rich autocracy” of Saudi Arabia.
Layla Moran, the opposition Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesperson, was quoted as criticising the Conservative Party government of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying that “the reports that the government have secretly been deploying troops to Saudi Arabia are shocking… Not only is this government selling the Saudi government arms to use in Yemen, but deploying troops to defend Saudi oil fields reveals just how absent this government’s moral compass truly is.”
Military cooperation between the UK and Saudi Arabia has long been a matter of debate in Britain, especially since the multi-billion-pound Al-Yamama project late in the last century, which drew a lengthy investigation into alleged bribes and corruption.
More recently, UK ministers said the country’s armed forces had provided at least 42 training modules for Saudi forces since 2018, including in air warfare, officer training and electronic warfare. According to a recent investigation by the Declassified UK website, British personnel are stationed across 15 sites in Saudi Arabia.
After the attack on Saudi oil facilities last autumn, blamed on Iran, which led to stopping production at almost half of the Kingdom’s oil-production facilities, the Saudi have been diversifying their defences and are no longer merely depending on American-supplied resources.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump’s reaction to the attack was not up to Saudi expectations, and British radar systems and accompanying troops are now helping more to foil Houthi drones and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia, a British security expert told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The British deployment came just weeks after US drones assassinated Iranian commander Qassem Al-Suleimani in Iraq on 3 January this year.
When asked if British troops were part of preparations to defend against possible Iranian reprisals for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran last month, the analyst said that “I guess they have lots of military toys to protect themselves.”
Opposition parties in the UK and liberal activists have been emboldened in attacking the UK government’s military cooperation with countries in the Middle East because a new administration will be assuming power in Washington on 20 January.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly