LONDON — Britain and Saudi Arabia are about to sign off on the appointment of a senior Royal Air Force officer to head up the team that will oversee the implementation of billions of pounds of defense export orders from the gulf kingdom.
The move comes at a time of strained relations between the two countries.
Air Vice Marshal Ian Morrison, former director of air capability at Air Command, is expected to be officially named director-general of the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Project (MODSAP) in the next few days. Morrison’s replacement began his new job last week.
Morrison replaces Air Vice Marshal Sean Bell, who unexpectedly departed the post in September 2011, after just seven months in the job. Sources at the time said Bell’s departure was due to “personality clashes.”
The U.K. Ministry of Defence declined to comment.
Howard Wheeldon, the policy director at British aerospace and defense trade lobby group ADS, and an expert on U.K.-Saudi defense relations, said the appointment of a senior British Air Force officer is crucial to the continuing success of the alliance.
“A key strength in the [British-Saudi] effort is the longstanding relationship between the RAF and Royal Saudi Air Force,” Wheeldon said.
MODSAP is funded by the Saudi government but staffed by about 200 British military and civil personnel spread across nearly a dozen locations in both countries. The organization fulfills British government obligations covering the supply of defense equipment and services to the Saudi armed forces.
Relations were soured between the two countries in September, when the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee announced that it would conduct a review of the U.K.’s relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Bahrain. The announcement brought an unusually tough response from Riyadh.
The BBC quoted Saudi officials as saying they were “insulted” by the inquiry, and intended to “re-evaluate their country’s historic relations with Britain.”
The inquiry will consider how the U.K. balances its various interests in the two Arabian Gulf states in trade, defense, security, human rights and counterterrorism. The actions of Saudi dissidents in the U.K. and other issues have also recently strained relations between the longtime allies.
Senior British government officials are expected to visit Saudi Arabia this month, in part to smooth relations between the two sides.
In a Nov. 2 speech to the Royal United Services Institute’s Air Power conference here, Wheeldon said it is time for British Prime Minister David Cameron to visit Saudi Arabia again as part of a relationship-building effort. Cameron visited Saudi Arabia for a day this year in an effort to bolster ties between the two countries.
Wheeldon said he found the decision by the parliamentary committee untimely and unfortunate.
“We should take care not to insult a nation that we have worked so successfully and closely with over a great many years. ... It is time we learned to put national interest ahead of political correctness,” he said.
British defense sales to the kingdom are counted in the tens of billions of pounds. They include the supply and support of Tornado, Typhoon and Hawk combat jets, mine-hunting vessels, armored vehicles, missiles and small arms.
Saudi Arabia is Britain’s largest customer for defense equipment and a critically important part of the British export effort. The gulf nation accounts for up to 35 percent of the U.K.’s 5 billion pound ($8.1 billion) annual defense equipment and services sales effort overseas.
The exact value of the defense relationship has never been disclosed, although in an entry on the LinkedIn professional networking site, Bell says MODSAP has an annual budget of 4 billion pounds.
Business As Usual
Any standoff between the two sides could affect a number of potential defense deals being negotiated, one analyst said. BAE Systems, Britain’s largest defense company, said in October it had 7 billion pounds of pending deals under negotiation with the Saudis.
BAE said that as far as it was concerned, it’s business as usual with the Saudis.
“We continue to provide extensive support to our Saudi customer in addressing [its] operational requirements. Our relationship is an enduring one, extending over many decades, based on a shared understanding between our two nations,” a company spokeswoman said. “Against this background, a range of contract negotiations are continuing, and our previous guidance in this regard remains unchanged.”
The British-based defense contractor was recently awarded a deal to supply a new version of the Hawk trainer jet and other aircraft as part of a 1.6 billion pound training package.
BAE, anxious for a big contract success after its failed merger attempt with European aerospace giant EADS last month, said in a statement in mid-October that weapons, Eurofighter Typhoon capability enhancement, support and training deals were among the programs under discussion with the Saudis.
“Negotiations with the customer continue in respect of the Typhoon Salam program for the next five years of support, the construction of maintenance and upgrade facilities in-Kingdom and for capability enhancement,” BAE said.
“Negotiations also continue on the Saudi British Defence Co-operation program for the next five years of support, including additional awards associated with the training environment and weapons procurement. These negotiations cover contracts worth in excess of 7 billion pounds,” the statement said.
Pricing negotiations continue with the Saudis over changes to a deal to supply 72 Typhoon fighter jets to Riyadh.
The final 48 aircraft were intended to be assembled in-country, but they are being built at the BAE production line at Wharton in northwestern England.