The lords of war

2011-12-10 13:12

Prostitutes, cocaine, diamonds – it’s not easy being an arms dealer Former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein became a public sensation (and public enemy of the ANC) when he wrote After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC.

In that book, he introduced us to the murky world of the arms trade through the controversial arms deal that, if it and history are anything to go by, was expensive, unnecessary and corrupt.

Feinstein has since relocated to the UK, where he spent the past decade researching the global arms industry. It appears that the South African purchase is small compared to what has been going on on a global scale since the late 1800s.

The industry is, by its very nature, corrupt and Feinstein reveals high-level officials who used to be on the payrolls of arms companies signing off sales of weapons to countries that either don’t need them, or countries that are forbidden by UN conventions from buying weapons because they are crippled by internecine conflict.

We have powerful governments (US, UK, France, Italy, Sweden) flouting international agreements to further enrich their arms companies, bribing other governments, taking kick-backs and funding dodgy (if not downright evil) middlemen while protecting – even saving – them from prosecution, if required.

Feinstein begins with Basil Zaharoff, “godfather of the modern BAE (British Aerospace) . . . Known variously as ‘the super-salesman of death’, ‘the mystery man of Europe’, ‘the Monte Cristo of our time’, Zaharoff was the world’s first flamboyant, larger-than-life arms dealer, providing the template for those who followed him”.

He then introduces Saudi Prince Bandar – son of Prince Sultan, Saudi defence minister, crown prince and heir-apparent to the throne. Bandar rises from being an ineffective pilot to being the most powerful and corrupt arms broker, by pushing through the biggest arms deal in history, Al Yamamah.
He is instrumental in facilitating the close relationship that Saudi Arabia has with the US and it was through him that Mark Thatcher received millions of pounds for “carrying his mother’s handbag” – by using his access to No 10 Downing Street – to pave the way for BAE (who are also implicated in the SA arms deal) to get parliament’s permission to sell weapons to the desert kingdom. The deal came to be known as ‘who’s ya mama’ after Thatcher’s connection to Al Yamamah.

The book continues, unveiling deals and shady characters at an alarming rate. We meet Charles Taylor’s agent, Leonid Minin, who gets
caught in a hotel room in Europe with prostitutes, cocaine, uncut diamonds and thousands of documents detailing his transactions – while celebrating the success of those transactions. He is not arrested for dealing in weapons, but for the drugs. A lot of the material in The Shadow World comes from those documents, which Feinstein got access to through a journalist who was able to obtain them from the police.

Another curious character is a Viennese count, Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, who received third-party payments from BAE to the tune of more than £19 million for helping the company to sell arms to Eastern Europe through his connections. His wife was a minister in the Austrian government.

Feinstein was able to get him to talk by sharing anecdotes about his own mother who was a Holocaust survivor from Vienna.

Mensdorff-Pouilly denies ever having taken a bribe but investigations by the British government’s Serious Fraud Office into BAE’s dealings
with him show a different picture.

The Hollywood movie Lord of War is based on Viktor Bout “the merchant of death”, a Russian who was finally convicted last month for “conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and other weapons to government informants during a US sting operation” after eluding arrest for a number of years.

(If you are interested in an in-depth, detailed reading of his arrest go to Bout features prominently in Feinstein’s book.

The South African arms deal is described in detail, in a chapter titled Things Fall Apart – with help from BAE, as is the shocking Tanzanian arms deal which implicates that country’s central bank governor and the attorney-general.

The irony of pacifist Sweden’s protection of SAAB (and Alfred Nobel, who founded the peace prize and invented dynamite) also gets a mention.

The Shadow World is thoroughly researched and dramatically written, which is no surprise considering the content. It paints a devastating picture of a global industry that thrives on power, greed and destruction.

It is possibly the most definitive book on the arms trade ever written.

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