The news that Prince Andrew will step back from Royal duties is unlikely to provoke feelings of sorrow or regret for most British citizens – but for despots, dictatorships and arms dealers around the world it will be a sad day. They have lost one of their most high profile and influential supporters.
Prince Andrew has always been a worldly man so it surprised few when, in 2001, he was appointed as the Special Representative for International Trade and Investment for the UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), a predecessor of the Department for International Trade. During his controversial tenure he generated scandal after scandal, before resigning from the honorary role in 2011 following revelations about his closeness to Jeffrey Epstein and Saif Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.
It was a role he’d clearly enjoyed – which is perhaps one reason why, after stepping down, Andrew continued making regular state visits on behalf of UKTI in the months that followed his resignation.
Arms and weapons were a particular area of interest for the Prince; wherever he went, arms deals would seem follow. In 2009-10 he made a series of trips to Yemen which were immediately followed by arms sales. In 2010, he attended the Farnborough International arms fair, a major showcase for the UK arms industry. While there he met with senior representatives from Jordan, Malaysian and Indian Defence ministries.
The prince’s intensely relaxed attitude to the arms industry was evident in what he thought was a private conversation with the US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and a group of American and Canadian businessmen in 2008. In a cable from the US embassy to Washington – which, unfortunately for prince Andrew, ended up on Wikileaks – the ambassador recounted: “He railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the ‘idiocy’ of almost scuttling the al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia.” His outburst was in reference to a Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations of corruption in a major arms deal between the UK Government, BAE Systems and the Saudi Arabian authorities.
His value to traders came from his connections and his ability to appeal to Gulf monarchs in particular. As one Royal spokesperson put it, speaking to the Guardian: “Middle East potentates like meeting princes. He comes in as the son of the Queen and that opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. He can raise problems with a crown prince and four or five weeks later we discover that the difficulties have been overcome and the contract can be signed.”
The Middle East has always been a key region for the prince. Part of this may be because of his personal relationships, but another reason is strategic. As the same loose-lipped Royal spokesperson explained to the Guardian, with a tone that some may consider paternalistic and borderline-colonialist, “We don't send him to developed countries like France and Sweden, where a member of the royal family would not make a difference, but in developing countries, or the far east, a prince can get in because of who he is.”
Since his resignation from UKTI, the Prince has worked hard to maintain these relationships. In 2014, he visited Bahrain for Great British Week, a tasteless and tacky sales event with a strong military focus. Later that year he was criticised for hosting the King of Bahrain at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, a favour he repeated in 2019.
Last year he hit the headlines again for a speech at an event in Abu Dhabi in which he highlighted his enthusiasm for building a stronger partnership and boosting business with Saudi Arabia and the wider region. The speech made no reference to human rights or the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi that had happened only weeks prior.
It is not just the Middle East where he has developed strong relationships. Throughout his time at UKTI, the rulers in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tunisia were also very welcoming. In 2014 the Prince made his 12thvisit to Azerbaijan, in what was considered a sign of public support at a time when the authorities were intensifying their crackdown on free speech and dissent. These images will have provided a great deal of propaganda value for his hosts and be regarded as a clear rejection by pro-democracy campaigners.
Unfortunately, the role of the Monarchy in supporting the arms industry is a shameful and longstanding one, and not unique to Prince Andrew - even if he has provided a particularly sycophantic and grotesque history of photo-ops and friendship for those that have been accused of torture, state murder and other terrible abuses.
Surely one matter on which both royalists and republicans can agree is that it would always be inappropriate for a member of a royal household to use their soft power to support authoritarian regimes for the benefit of a business deal.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade