Rule of law or realpolitik? The UK's decision to drop a probe into a Saudi arms deal will only further muddy the waters of a murky trade

For those who tend to the jaded view of politicians and the political process, the decision by the UK's Serious Fraud Office to drop its probe into the Al Yamamah Saudi arms contract will do little to dispel their cynicism. Despite the SFO's protests that the move had nothing to do with commercial or national economic interests, but rather the "need to safeguard national and international security", few will see them as mutually exclusive.

Look at the facts: a long-running investigation into allegations of corrupt practices, denied by BAE Systems, but which, if proven, could have led to jail sentences for those involved, has been halted. Why? Because Riyadh threatened to cancel a UK-brokered deal to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoons, and the UK government's senior legal adviser said that, in this instance, the "wider public interest" took precedence over the "rule of law".

Real-world pragmatism perhaps, but many will feel that, in those few words, the cherished supremacy and transparency of the British legal system has gone up in smoke. In other words, it is okay to break the rules as long as it is in the country's interests. It is the 007 defence. Who cares which baddies are dispatched by Bond's Walther PPK and how: so long as Britons can sleep more soundly in their beds as a result.

The decision has caused outrage among investors. One fund management giant, F&C, said it undermined London's standing as a global financial capital.

The SFO's decision must also be resulting in an outbreak of Gallic smugness. For years, Paris's ends-justifying-the-means attitude to foreign arms sales left those on the other side of the Channel feeling morally superior. No more. The UK is now, it seems, prepared to swim in the ethically murky waters of "national interest" as not only France, but Russia, China and other arms exporters with few scruples about playing by the rulebook.

But is this all grossly unfair? After all, the arms trade is nothing like a free market. Companies like BAE Systems may no longer be nationalised extensions of the government but publicly traded businesses, with the same shareholder rules as banks and supermarkets. But every defence export is approved by government and has strategic benefit for the nation as well as commercial value for the manufacturer. Sophisticated equipment is only sold to countries that the UK can trust to use it in the wider interests of British security.

And as a bulwark against the violent Islamist threat in the Middle East and the world's biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia ranks pretty highly in the UK's list of friends.

But let's get back to realpolitik. Had the Saudis decided to shun Typhoons, they would have opted for US or - whisper it - French fighters instead. Operating equipment built and maintained by the UK's closest allies should not make Britons any less safe. But it would be a blow to the country's aerospace industry.

Pretending anything otherwise is what is most disingenuous.

Source: Flight International