As Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic crisis worsens, SA remains silent – because of the Denel deal, critics claim
Saudi Arabia may pay a heavy diplomatic and financial price for the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. International criticism of the Saudi government has been steadily amplifying, with threats of sanctions from the US and calls from European nations for a full investigation into Khashoggi’s fate. From South Africa, however, there has been silence – raising questions about whether potential Saudi investment in state arms company Denel could be playing a role.
On 2 October 2018, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in order to obtain the forms he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. He has not been seen since.
Khashoggi is now presumed dead, with suspicions growing that his disappearance is linked to the 59-year-old journalist’s outspoken criticism of Saudi Arabia as a correspondent for the Washington Post.
“Khashoggi, say Turkish officials, was tortured, then killed and his body smuggled out of the consulate, all under the nose of local agencies.”
Saudi officials have strongly denied any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, but these denials have failed to quell a mounting international chorus calling for a full inquiry and punitive consequences for Riyadh if the results are damning.
The foreign ministers of the UK, Germany and France demanded “a complete and detailed response” from the Saudi government late last week, while US president Donald Trump has threatened “severe punishment” against the Middle Eastern kingdom.
The private sector has also taken a strong line against Saudi Arabia in response to the Khashoggi news, with a boycott planned for an upcoming Saudi investment conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert”.
On Sunday, the first working day of the Saudi week, the Saudi stock exchange was reported to have suffered its worst losses in years over the row – while a strongly-worded statement from the kingdom hinted that it might raise oil prices if “any action” was taken against it with regards to sanctions.
From South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), however, there has been silence on the issue.
Questions put to Dirco by Daily Maverick on Monday as to whether South Africa intended to make any statement on the matter went unanswered. No Dirco press briefings are scheduled within the next few days.
South Africa’s failure to join other states in applying pressure to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s disappearance will inevitably re-open the debate over whether South Africa’s foreign policy is straying from the human rights-focused direction stressed by former president Nelson Mandela as a priority.
But there’s another factor at play. The timing in this instance will also invite speculation about whether potential Saudi investment in state arms company Denel could be influencing South Africa’s approach.
In early October it was reported that the Saudi Arabian Military Industries firm, launched by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, was in talks to buy a stake in Denel. Foreign Affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu subsequently confirmed that this was the case, but said that the proposal had yet to be considered by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee.
African Defence Review director Darren Olivier explained to Daily Maverick that the proposed Denel deal would form part of Saudi Arabia’s push to expand its defence procurement in terms of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 programme aimed at industrialising the Saudi economy.
Olivier says that the immediate investment of at least R10-billion into Denel would solve the ailing defence company’s cash crisis, inject crucial research and development funding, and might provide further income in royalty from sales of systems to the Saudi military. Saving Denel could effectively mean saving the South African National Defence Force.
“You can see why the deal is so attractive for the state,” Olivier said.
But he adds that the additional implications of the deal amount to “a severe ethical and diplomatic entanglement” for South Africa.
“On top of the moral questions, this would place South Africa squarely in the Saudi sphere of influence with regard to the Middle East and may constrain its ability to act neutrally in the region,” Olivier says.
From this perspective, South Africa’s current silence over the Khashoggi matter could be seen as a precursor to even greater constraints if the Denel deal goes through.
Open Secrets director Hennie van Vuuren says Saudi Arabia’s defence spending has to be seen in the context of the kingdom’s ongoing involvement in the civil war in Yemen.
An estimated 10,000 people have been killed and millions displaced over the past three years as a result of a Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. The UN warned on Sunday that if airstrikes did not cease, Yemen could face the worst famine in 100 years – while international charity Save The Children has previously suggested that the conflict’s most intense brunt is being experienced by children.
If the Saudi deal with Denel goes through, says Van Vuuren, “the South African government would become complicit in these crimes because we know how these weapons are likely to be utilised: against civilians”.
The fact that Denel is a state-owned company means that questions of morality regarding its sale should be even more acute, Van Vuuren suggests.
“This is an institution brought up with public funds; paid for by blood money during apartheid,” he says.
“This is a public good, and I think the public should have far more say over who it gets sold to.”
Van Vuuren also questions what “other strings” might be attached to a multibillion-rand Saudi investment in Denel.
“Quite clearly the door to this [deal] was opened by the administration of Jacob Zuma,” he says.
“Is Cyril Ramaphosa willing to close the door in the interests of human rights?”
Thus far there has been every indication that the relationship between Ramaphosa’s administration and Saudi Arabia is likely to be warm. Ramaphosa has already paid a state visit to the Middle Eastern kingdom, hailed by Dirco as fruitful and aimed at “solidifying the strong South Africa-Saudi Arabia bilateral relations in all fields”.
If the Denel deal goes through, South Africa will be far from the only global player with a complex relationship to manage with Saudi Arabia.
All the Western nations currently calling for repercussions over the Khashoggi matter have questionable military ties with Saudi Arabia.
As the Telegraph noted this week: “Saudi Arabia is the world’s number one buyer of American weapons and the recipient of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of British arms, most of which are understood to be used in the war in Yemen. France and Germany also sell arms to Riyadh.” DM