An American friend has written in an incredulous tone to ask why Britain has seen fit to offer Saudi Aramco, the world’s richest oil company, a two billion dollar loan guarantee.
It is a valid and sensible question. I wish I had a valid and sensible answer.
Aramco is said to be worth between one and three trillion dollars. Not short of a few bob, then, as they say in these parts. Nor, for that matter, is the Saudi Arabian government. Why then does Her Majesty’s government feel it is necessary to extend such largesse to a company that does not need it?
The answer to that question, apparently, is that Aramco is considering a public offering of shares, and the London Stock Exchange is vying with other markets, notably New York and Hong Kong, to secure the Aramco listing. HM Treasury denies that the one has anything to do with the other, but then, to quote an infamous lady in a famous trial, “it would, wouldn’t it”.
A further clue may be in the financial conduct of the Financial Conduct Authority – a title in danger of becoming oxymoronic – which apparently is considering relaxing the listing rules for ‘premium’ companies considering a London listing. This, it says, is not being discussed with Aramco in mind. Pull the other leg, I say.
Many investment institutions in the City of London, already concerned about an outflow of jobs to Europe, are justifiably aghast that standards might be compromised for so blatant a reason. London’s pre-eminence as a financial centre was earned because, unlike some other place, London always played by the rules and strictly enforced them.
The sad fact is, though, that there are few depths to which Britain will not sink to curry favour with the Saudis. It was ever thus. Saudi Arabia has purchased a great deal of military kit from Britain in the past, as well as other stuff, and the hope in Whitehall – not to mention Regent Street and Knightsbridge – is that the Saudi buying spree will continue.
Never mind that the Saudi government, as medieval in its traditions as any religion-based ruling caste as has ever been, cruelly ignores the rights of its citizens and consistently stirs up trouble in the Middle East – or that the country is presently mired in a corruption scandal that has reached the highest levels of Saudi’s ruling elite. The first two have never bothered Britain, so the third was never likely to be of any consequence.
The un-stated but generally understood argument from HMG is that Britain needs all the mercantile friends it can get, what with that the Europeans so upset with us for leaving their club. In which context, with the Brexit talks deadlocked, and perhaps fatally, what is a few billion dollars here or there in the search for new partners.
Principles are the first things to go overboard when the ship of state is foundering and survival is at stake.
These, sadly, are the times in which we in Britain now find ourselves living.