"Saudi Arabia is probably the most corrupt country on the planet and that corruption goes to the very top of the Saudi royal family".
BBC Two's House of Saud:A Family at War was an extensively researched, almost surgically critical, gripping, and absolutely masterful analysis of how the House of Saud have amassed untold wealth and corrupted that country and what that means for both the region and the world. It doesn't let Saudi's international allies (chiefly the UK and the US) off the hook either. It was a truly international crime drama that took in locations as disparate as India, Malaysia, Bulgaria, and Monaco and it was an excellent, important, and, at times, chilling, watch. The fact that the Saudi Arabian government refused to respond to the programme makers and didn't allow filming in their kingdom speaks volumes about how much they hate, and how little they permit, criticism of any kind.
The story begins far away from the yachts, sports cars, and palaces of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in snowy Osve in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovinia. Osve has been claimed to operate as a training ground for ISIS and, sure enough, the black jihadi flag of Islamic State flies above the village. Locals have travelled out to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS.
The famously tolerant muslims of Bosnia have, historically, worshipped at the 450 year old Ali Pasha Mosque in Sarajevo but in the same city stands a much newer mosque whose imams disseminate a much more 'radical' message. The King Fahd Mosque is Bosnia's largest and is one of 120 mosques in Bosnia that Saudi Arabia have helped fund and build.
During the Bosnian war of the 1990s it's claimed that the Saudi Arabians were diverting charity money donated for Islamic education towards buying weapons and funding the Bosnian mujahideen, foreign Muslim volunteers who fought on the Bosniak side on that conflict. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, former King of Saudi Arabia and Head of the House of Saud since 2015, has been implicated in this funding regularly - as well as similar rerouting of money to Afghan fighters.
Now Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, King Salman's son, has taken over the reins of power and the Crown Prince has vowed to put an end to terrorist funding but is this just a smokescreen, PR, covering up what is essentially a power grab intended only to result in less freedom for the ordinary people of Saudi Arabia and more power for Saudi's rulers? The evidence given over three hours certainly makes a strong case for this.
But first we're taken on a brief history lesson. It's no surprise that the Kingdom chose to divert billions of dollars of charity money towards 'freedom fighters' when you understand that Saudi Arabia, much like the less successful ISIS, was created as a jihadi project in the first place.
Wahhabism, the doctrine and movement that informs the House of Saud, preaches a return to 7c radical Islam, a return to the times of Muhammad himself, and, as such, has been the petri-dish for both Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 plane hijackers were Saudis and two of the pilots were Bosnians who'd been radicalised in their country's Saudi Arabian sponsored mosques.
While the US bombed Iraq in retaliation, Saudi Arabia escaped any serious international repercussions and back in the Kingdom the death of nearly 3,000 people at the hands of their citizens in a foreign country didn't appear to warrant any reform. In fact it wasn't until Al-Qaeda struck on Saudi soil in 2004, killing 22 people in the oil rich Persian Gulf city of Khobar, that the Saudis started to share intelligence with foreign governments, at the same time introducing some "very very limited" reforms.
Attacks across the globe, of course, continued. India has the world's third largest Muslim population but some of the local interpretations of the religion, Sufism particularly, have not been met with a positive reaction from the Saudi backed ultraconservatives who operate in the subcontinent. The Mumbai attacks of 2008 left over 160 people dead and were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terror group who've been the beneficiaries of Saudi funding.
Zakir Naik is a prominent Islamic preacher who operates out of Mumbai. He wears a shirt and tie and lectures in English rather than Urdu or Arabic but this shouldn't confuse you into thinking he's a moderate. He's anything but. He's on record as saying that "Every muslim SHOULD be a terrorist" and that message gets out to quite an audience. His television station, ironically named Peace TV, has a global reach of 200,000,000 viewers, he's set up schools, and his 'teachings' have inspired terrorists in London, Glasgow, the US, and Bangladesh.
Naik promotes that view that beating one's wife 'gently' or 'lightly' is permitted. He also says muslims have the right to have sex with their female slaves so he promotes rape as well as wife beating. You'll be unsurprised to learn that his views on homosexuality are equally unpleasant. He believes gay people are sinful and mentally ill due to watching pornography and the only way to deal with them is the death penalty.
Both the Indian and Bangladeshi governments have banned Naik's Peace TV from broadcasting and he has been denied entry to the UK and Canada but Saudi Arabia opted for a different approach, they extended citizenship to Naik thus validating his views for ever larger sections of the Islamic world.
Predictably, India's banning of Peace TV has led to conspiracy theories sprouting up. Many Indian muslims believe that the Hindu nationalists of the Indian government are lying about Naik and other similar 'preachers' in order to discredit them.
So why do the UK (and other Western governments) sit so tight with a Saudi regime that sponsors terrorism in so many different places and ways? Many reasons. One of the most simple to understand is IS's threat to wipe out the House of Saud, to bite the hand that fed them right off essentially. There is also, of course, oil. But a third reason is that as the custodian of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina the House of Saud are determined to counter Iran, and Shia's, 'heretical' influence.
When the Syrian uprising started in 2011, Saudi Arabia saw this as a chance to get rid of their mortal enemy Iran's number one ally and proxy, Bashar al-Assad. With 400,000 now dead and one million homeless due to that conflict it's safe to say things didn't go quite that smoothly.
Assad has, quite correctly, been portrayed as a villain in the conflict yet Saudi Arabia's funding of the Islamic groups fighting in Syria has drawn less criticism. Arsenal JSCo, a Bulgarian firm, are known to have built Soviet designed anti-tank weapons and to have sold them to Saudi Arabia. These have turned up on the battlefields of Syria suggesting that the Saudis have been buying arms on the black market.
The programme goes further in saying that, across the Balkans, the Saudi government have spent billions of Euros on weapons that their own forces would not be able to use without contravening international laws. Either they're using them illegally or they're selling them illegally. It seems that the weapons get from Saudi Arabia to Syria via intermediaries operating in Jordan. When Islamic State was at its most potent in 2014 those Saudi weapons (and Saudi cash) started falling into the hands of ISIS. The Saudis pointed the finger at Qatar and continued to deny involvement.
When Crown Prince bin Salman took over as Defence Minister (just a small part of his portfolio) in 2015 the US praised his overtures as regards cutting down on illegal arms deals (Trump made his first foreign trip here, you can see footage of him dancing awkwardly with a load of Saudi princes and their swords) and made funding terrorism punishable by death but neither the money nor the weapons have stopped making their way to extremists around the world. This kind of behaviour may well be, strictly speaking, illegal in Saudi Arabia but many Wahhabis still support extremism and the most vocal, and powerful, of its proponents can be found in the huge Saudi royal family.
Trump's not their only friend in the West. Yemen, 2017:A brutal war personally conducted by Crown Prince bin Salman is being backed by both the UK and the USA. Saudi Arabia says Yemeni Shia rebels are backed by Iran and a proxy sectarian conflict has burned out of control. As ever religion, corruption, and high murder rates go hand in hand.
The same year in Riyadh, in November, five hundred people, including eleven princes, are seized and kept captive in a five star hotel that operates as a very gilded prison. It seems like some of the money that's gone into running that prison/hotel may've come from Malaysia. Certainly money's gone missing from Malaysia.
1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) is a strategic development company wholly owned by the Malaysian government who a lot of people in Kuala Lumpur aren't very happy about. 1MDB's deal with the Saudis begins on a grand yacht stationed in the harbour of Monte Carlo. It belongs to Prince Turki bin Abdullah of the House of Saud and on the yacht we can find Najib Razak, the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, and his family being 'entertained' by Prince Turki.
The entertainment must've been good ($700,000,000 good apparently) because Razak was inspired to invest heavily in a Saudi petrochemical deal that resulted in billions of dollars (or ringgits) of Malay money disappearing and plunging the country in to debt. Razak, himself, was okay though as, at the same time, huge amounts of money started to appear in his account, transferred by Prince Turki. Why did Razak make such an obviously corrupt move?
In the investigation that followed the dodgy deal jets, Monet paintings, and Beverly Hills properties were seized. Money had even been found to have made its way into the funding of Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, a film, that, with no little irony, was intended as a satire on rampant capitalism and corruption. The FBI investigations are ongoing and Razak, still in power in Malaysia, denies any wrongdoing.
The House of Saud controls 20% of the planet's oil reserves but the riches this brings in still aren't enough, the greedy princes still want more. A long term corruption investigator is interviewed and he says he has never seen a single transaction with Saudi Arabia that didn't involve massive bribes, and often those bribes come from the UK government.
In fact Whitehall has been Saudi Arabia's most reliable source of illicit funds for fifty years now. If some (certainly not all) were conflicted about offering Saudi Arabia bribes to get their business that appears no longer to be the case. 'Commissions' are now normal practice when securing arms deals and King Abdullah did very well out of this.
Abdullah wanted the UK to supply the weaponry to modernise the Saudi Arabian army but, of course, it came at a cost to the UK. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron have all been implicit in deals to pass over millions, billions even, of pounds to the Saudis so that we can get arms deal and they can kill Yemeni people and fund training camps for Islamists so that they can kill us. Sounds harsh? Well, that's how bent (and dangerous) the whole thing is.
People like Ian Foxley who've gotten close to doing something to bring it to the public attention and hopefully stop it have been spied on and threatened with arrest. Some bribes are just too big to fail it seems. When Foxley started to stick his nose in to just exactly what 'procurements' meant on invoices from SA to the UK he was removed from his job and he now works as a cleaner. Whisteblowing may be the morally correct thing to do but it'll very likely cost you your house, your marriage, and your livelihood.
As well as procurements and commissions another euphemism for bribes is 'brought in services' and Peter Austin was the Brit who served as the man who eased the passage for these brought in services, he was crucial in making the system of bribes work. He owns a private island in the Caribbean. An inquiry launched by the Serious Fraud Office in 2012 is ongoing and has so far not charged a single person.
It's a long way from 1960s Saudi Arabia when King Faisal replaced King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, his brother from one of Ibn Saud's many wives (Ibn Saud had approximately one hundred children, it seems they lost count). Faisal was seen as a honest man who drove around the desert handing out gold coins to the destitute but he held absolute power at a time the petrodollars were starting to flood into the country.
Saudi Arabia hadn't just been behind the west, but about one thousand years behind it. Faisal created ministries for the needed modernisation and installed his brothers as ministry heads where they stayed, in many cases for fifty years, and expanded their own individual power bases. At the Ministry of Defence they knew Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Minister of Defense and Aviation from 1963 to 2011, to be the most corrupt of all Saudi princes.
On his watch rake-offs went from 7% to 10% to 15% and UK civil servants warned they'd continue to grow. But with thousands of job in the UK arms industry at stake there was no appetite for restraint. When Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State for Defence he signed off a £43,000,000,000 (43 billion) deal for weaponry with Prince Sultan. As part of that deal the UK promised the Saudis that the rake-off, the corruption, would be kept secret.
Emboldened, and wanting to enjoy the freedoms they don't allow their own citizens, many of these Saudi princes began to arrive in London, the new playground for the international jetset. Amongst those pushing around briefcases full of $100 bills was one Prince Turki bin Nasser Al Saud. At one point it was estimated that Prince Turki was getting through £2,000,000 a month. He owned an estate in LA and even operated a private 747 jet to cart the princess's shopping round in.
He, like Prince Sultan, was getting rake offs from Heseltine's bent deal with BAE. BAE, with the full knowledge and approval of both the British and the Saudi government, were funding Turki's lavish lifestyle. From the £43 billion that Heseltine agreed in this, the Al-Yamamah arms deal, more than £6 billion was in 'commissions'. It's gone down as "the most corrupt transaction in commercial history".
The Saudis paid their bit in oil rather than cash but as the price of oil is not fixed the bloody Bank of England was able to build up a slush fund, again extending into the billions. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan was given a private jet, in the colours of his favourite American football team the Dallas Cowboys, as a birthday gift. UK taxpayers paid the maintenance costs on it.
Lots more money was disappearing from the vaults of the Bank of England and reappearing in offshore accounts in Switzerland but, as the noose tightened on this outrageous display of greed and corruption, the Saudis played their get out of jail free card. They threatened to, or hinted that they would, withdraw all help on counter terrorism.
Tony Blair personally signed off a letter saying that the investigation into BAE should be abandoned and the enquiry was, indeed, shut down in the UK. The Americans tried to pick up where the Serious Fraud Office left off but the British government refused to share data, claiming it was 'state secrets'. BAE eventually admitted criminal actions and though BAE were fined $400,000,000 nobody ever faced justice for the world's most corrupt transaction. The whistleblower was the only individual to suffer.
In 2001 Prince Bandar suggested that corruption was simply 'human nature' and had begun with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He said the House of Saud is enriching itself in exactly the same way the House of Windsor once did and it's a fair riposte.
The current richest man in Saudi Arabia, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, owns shares in Facebook and Twitter and was often seen hobnobbing with Michael Jackson before he died. Prince Al-Waleed did very well out of an arms deal with the Dutch firm Ballast Nedam.
In the Riyadh Ritz Carlton crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed those that found themselves gilded captives included Prince Al-Waleed and both Prince Turkis mentioned above (yes, the names get confusing). Amongst allegations of torture, four hundred bank accounts are frozen. Yet by putting the spotlight on the other princes the Crown Prince has inadvertently turned it, also, on to himself, his huge yacht, his French chateau, and his gold leaf fountain.
Whilst the other princes are finally being made accountable the Crown Prince remains unaccountable. Cynics, or realists, would say this isn't about cracking down on corruption at all. But, just like Putin in Russia, this is a de facto coup by the most corrupt of the corrupt all the time posing as an anti-corruption measure. It's how politics works all over the world now.
There's another way the Saudis are a bit like the current lot in charge of Russia too. A strangely close, if often ambiguous, relationship with Donald Trump. The third episode of House of Saud:A Family at War begins with The Donald awkwardly dancing with a load of rich Saudis.
The king styles himself as the custodian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Saud citizens are taught that hypocrisy and unislamic acts are the greatest sins but a former bodyguard of one Saudi prince describes girls, high class prostitutes, being shipped in to serve Saudi princes.
The princes are ashamed and paranoid about this getting out so the girls are paid in the tens of thousands plus given Bulgari and Rolex jewellery and old school Nokia phones (so they can't take any photos, no evidence this ever happened). The girls are also spied on and have to report in as if they had some kind of curfew.
Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasser Al Saud is a horny homosexual Saudi prince with extreme temper issues. In 2010 he was caught on CCTV attacking his manservant, Bandar Abdulaziz, in a hotel lift in London. Three weeks later Bandar was found dead in the Prince's hotel room. It came up that Bandar regularly took, and accepted, a beating.
Prince Saud tried, but failed, to take diplomatic immunity. He admitted to the murder but denied a homosexual relationship with Bandar because, in his twisted morality, homosexuality was a greater sin than murder. Prince Saud was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Old Bailey. He served three years before a convenient exchange deal saw him return to Saudi Arabia to, supposedly, serve the rest of his time in a Saudi jail. He got away with it, pretty much.
Approximately two thirds of the population of Saudi Arabia are under thirty years old and they're beginning to question just how much power the house of Saud have over the country and what they're doing with it. We hear from Saudi women living in exile in the USA and the UK. Including Dina who, in 2017, when trying to escape an arranged marriage had her passport taken away and was detained in Manila before being sent back to Riyadh where she was kept prisoner in SA by her own family. Eventually she escaped and fled to America. Another, this time nameless, exiled woman says she can't return to SA because if she does her family will force her into slavery.
It's the house of Saud who are allowing this to happen and it's other countries inaction, or complicit behaviour, that allows it too. But now oil prices are starting to drop and the Saudi economy is flatlining change could be afoot. But would it be for the better?
Crown Prince Mohammad launched his Vision 2030 project in an attempt, supposedly, to modernise the Saudi economy. A decree was issued in 2017 giving Saudi women the right to drive, the very last country in the world to do so. Cinemas have opened, women have been allowed to enter sports stadia, and have been permitted to carry out basic administrative tasks without the presence of a male guardian.
Yet still a mandatory dress code exists, women can't leave the country without male permission, and their court testimony is adjudged to be worth only half that of a man. When the Arab Spring saw social media explode in Saudi Arabia it looked, briefly, like the government would not be able to control what their people said. But it soon turned out that the SA government was using an Italian company called Hacking Team to provide mass surveillance on its population by the use of implants in smart phones etc; People ended up in serious trouble for their tweets though unlike in China and Turkey Twitter wasn't shut down.
It's believed the SA government makes uses of propaganda bots to post up to 100,000 tweets per day. It's so prevalent in the country that estimates suggest that at least 50% of Internet users in Saudi Arabia aren't real people and are there only to provide "hashtag poisoning". Pushing real stories down the pecking order by flooding social media with pro-government stories, true or false.
Atheism is considered terrorism in SA law and terrorism is punishable by death. It's a punishment that's carried out pretty often. Up to forty-seven people were executed in a single day including political opponents and a senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr, on trumped up charges.
Crown Prince Mohammad's 'reforms' haven't improved human rights, it's fair to say, but have, potentially, made them worse by creating a raft of new crimes which include 'insulting the King' and contacting Amnesty International. The latter again being considered a terrorist crime and thus punishable, like atheism, by death.
Seventeen year old Mustava was arrested, tortured, forced to sign a confession, and sentenced to death for attending a pro-democracy demonstration and for overseeing a Facebook page on it.
As these mass executions increase under the rule of the Crown Prince, the USA and the UK are inactive, terrified that SA will 'go' to Russia or China. Better to see Saudi Arabia as a 'flawed friend'. If that's sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending not to hear the music then inviting Saudi Arabia on to the UN Human Rights Counsel is absolute insanity.
Saudi Arabia now has the right to veto sanctions or action. They were put on this counsel at the same time as they were advertising for more people to behead their prisoners, often for actions that aren't even considered crimes in most other countries. It completely undermines the counsel, the UN, and the entire concept of human rights.
It's been handy for the house of Saud though who've been able to use it to block investigations into what they're doing in Yemen. Things like bombing a funeral in Sana'a killing 140 people. A drop in the ocean compared to the 10,000 civilians who have already died in Yemen (where both starvation and cholera are also rife) during this hugely under reported conflict so far.
Everywhere you look when it comes to Saudi Arabia there is death. The programme makers had called on some well informed, and high profile, talking heads for this show. From CIA officers and directors and LSE professors through to widows of 9/11 victims and members of Sufi cultural organisations. They'd managed to get hold of stunning, and rare, pictures of the aftermath of those 9/11 attacks and equally disturbing images of caged women being driven around Syria's rubble strewn streets in the back of vans to be used as human shields.
It's odd to hear Donald Trump saying extremism should be driven out and it's even odder to find yourself agreeing with something that comes out of Trump's mouth (even if his hypocrisy knows no bounds, if you don't like extremists don't dance with them) but the evidence presented was overwhelming and it's evidence that none of us will even be surprised (shocked maybe, but not surprised) about. It seems as long as it's got oil, Saudi Arabia and the house of Saud can do whatever it wants. Kill its own people, kill people in neighbouring countries, fund terrorism to kill people in far away countries, and all we do is keep throwing more money in their direction. It really is time to stop it. At the very least we should stop funding Saudi Arabia, stop bribing Saudi Arabia, and stop arming Saudi Arabia.
What a great, if often sickeningly sad and infuriating, programme. The sort of thing the BBC should be doing.