Sensitive discussions by British government ministers about Saudi Arabia which likely involve controversial arms deals have been censored from a series of newly declassified files, raising more questions about oversight of one of the UK’s deepest alliances.- Lawanson

By Shola Lawanson

The cabinet minutes from 1996, released under Britain’s declassification rules, contain details of weekly meetings held by then-prime minister John Major and his Conservative ministers. Saudi Arabia was discussed on three separate occasions that year, according to the cabinet agendas.

However, the minutes of these discussions have all been redacted and remain censored, in the latest sign that British officials want to keep secret details of their relationship with the authoritarian Saudi regime.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle told Declassified UK: “The fact that even now the British public can’t see the level of cooperation between our country and Saudi Arabia shows that the British authorities must be worried that the full truth would disturb many sensible patriotic Brits.”

Russell-Moyle, who has sat on parliament’s arms export committee, added: “It is time that this relationship be exposed and ended whilst the Saudi Arabian coalition continue to bomb and destroy the Yemen, harbour international terrorism and destabilise the Middle East.”

The UK cabinet minutes concerning Saudi Arabia have been stamped with a message stating they are temporarily retained “under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act”.

This is a legal instrument allowing Britain’s Lord Chancellor—currently the Conservative justice minister Robert Buckland QC—to censor government documents “for a special reason”. The provision can be used in cases where declassification will “create a real risk of prejudice to national security.”

Prime minister John Major, home secretary Michael Howard, health secretary Stephen Dorrell and Welsh secretary William Hague were present at all three cabinet meetings, which took place on 14 March, 16 April and 4 July 1996. Deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and defence secretary Michael Portillo were also present at the first and third meetings when Saudi Arabia was discussed.

UK cabinet minutes from 1985 about Saudi Arabia have already been published without redactions.

“As a result of this sale,” Heseltine told the cabinet, “the United Kingdom would play a central role in Saudi Arabia’s defence for 20 years ahead”. He added that the deal meant Saudi Arabia had “departed in an important way from its reliance on the United States for the supply of arms.”

The UK’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been shrouded in secrecy, with many aspects of it kept from the public. Declassified UK recently found that the UK military has a training team in Saudi Arabia that is embedded in the Saudi armed forces and is believed to report to Saudi commanders. 

Declassified UK also found that a classified £2-billion British military communications project in Saudi Arabia employs ten times more people than the government has admitted.  Declassified UK contacted the UK Cabinet Office, Sir John Major, Lord Hague, Portillo and Dorrell for comment, but received no responses. Lord Heseltine declined to comment, while Lord Howard said he has “no recollection of these discussions and is, therefore, unable to help”.

Courtesy of Phil Miller is staff reporter for Declassified 

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