Selling to the Sultan

Sultan Qaboos, the Anglophile tyrant of Oman, has come to the aid of Britain's struggling arms industry with a $4 billion order for 20 military aircraft. British prime minister David Cameron (seen enthusing about the deal during a visit to Oman in the video above) says it will support thousands of jobs in the UK.

In the Guardian, Dan Milmo writes: "Britain's largest defence contractor and manufacturing employer [BAE] is targeting growth markets such as the Middle East as part of a strategic imperative that has become even more urgent in the wake of the failure to agree a £25bn merger with EADS, the owner of aerospace company Airbus". 

In contrast to the British prime minister's excitement, coverage of the deal by Omani media has been extremely sketchy. The Times of Oman describes it as "part of the Royal care and attention accorded by His Majesty to enhance the capabilities of the Royal Air Force of Oman" but doesn't say how many aircraft are involved or how much they will cost. 

The Oman Tribune talks about buying a "fleet" of fighter jets and the Oman Daily Observer talks about a "squadron" though, again, neither paper mentions the exact number of aircraft or their cost.

This certainly reflects the general lack of transparency in Oman's governance, but the extent of the Sultan's military relations with the west is also something he prefers to keep from the Omani public as much as possible.

Qaboos, who once served in the British army and seized the throne of Oman from his father with British support in 1970, maintains warm and close relations with the British military. Hedonated sports pavilions bearing his name to his old military college, Sandhurst, and the RAF officers' college, Cranwell.

The US, meanwhile, operates an air base at Thumrait in Oman and in one of the WikiLeaks documents the Sultan was quoted as saying privately: "I must say that as long as [the US] is on the horizon, we have nothing to fear." In 2010, however, the Sultan was infuriated when the New York Times reported (correctly) that Oman had been approached by the US about a possible installation of Patriot missiles.

The US embassy later noted: "Oman's security strategy of keeping a low public profile in general has been threatened by the attention brought by the NYT article, and the [government of Oman] is working to manage the message for the public."

Regarding the deal with Britain, although all the Omani reports highlight the merits of Typhoon fighter jets – "latest avionics", "unique aerodynamic design", etc – it's difficult to believe the cosy relationship between Britain and the sultan played no part in the decision to purchase them.

Also, treating Middle Eastern autocrats as a "strategic" growth market for arms sales, as BAE seems to be doing, doesn't look like a particularly brilliant idea at a time when the autocrats' future is increasingly uncertain. 

While sales of warplanes are often justified on the grounds that they form part of a country's national defence, the example of Syria shows they can also be used by a regime against its own population.

It's also worth noting that deliveries of the aircraft to Oman will not start until 2017. Whether Qaboos will still be ruling the country by then is anyone's guess.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2012.