From 9/11 to BAE, the Saudis have turned the purchase of political power into a fine art
If Saudi Arabia continues to escape unscathed for its role in the alleged bribery of BAE Systems, it won't be the first time that the Saudis' enormous political power has tipped the scales of justice. Several years ago no less an authority than Prince Bandar, the Saudi national security adviser who reportedly received £1bn in the BAE scandal, blithely confided to an American television reporter that the House of Saud may have stolen tens of billions of dollars from the kingdom it ruled. "If you tell me that building this whole country ... we misused or got corrupted with fifty billion, I'll tell you, 'Yes' ... So what?" Bandar said. "We did not invent corruption."
The House of Saud has turned the purchase of political influence into a fine art. In the 70s, young Saudi billionaires such as Salem bin Laden, the half-brother of Osama, and Khalid bin Mahfouz, a banker, made their way to Texas and, directly and indirectly, entered a variety of business relationships with politicians on the way up. "[The Saudis] wanted to build up relationships with key people at the same time they had return on investments," said Nawaf Obaid, an oil analyst close to the House of Saud. Ultimately, these ties led to business deals with, among others, George W Bush, his father, and James Baker, the elder Bush's secretary of state.
Often the value of such strategic political alliances trumped the bottom line. That certainly was the case in the 80s, when Saudi money bailed out a troubled Texas oil company called Harken Energy. Because Harken was loaded with debt and had drilled one dry hole after another, it was a particularly unlikely investment for the oil-rich Saudis. But one of its investors and directors was a 42-year-old businessman named George Bush, whose father was then the vice-president of the United States.
The value of these ties could be seen most dramatically in the events that took place immediately after the attacks of 9/11. When it became clear that no fewer than 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Prince Bandar, then ambassador to the US, took to the airwaves and assured the world that the Saudis were America's staunchest allies. The Saudis flooded the market with oil, dropping the price from $28 a barrel to $22. And, on September 13 - at a time when private aviation was still locked down in the aftermath of 9/11 - a small private plane began picking up members of the Saudi royal family.
The 9/11 attacks constituted the worst crime in the history of the US. But ultimately at least 140 Saudis, including two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, were evacuated without having gone through a formal interrogation. In addition, the Saudi role in financing radical Islam somehow escaped being a central focus of the war on terror. As a result, it is safe to say that Britain does not have a monopoly on what the high court referred to as "the impotence of the law".
It is difficult to disagree with last week's ruling of the high court that a perversion of justice took place when the Serious Fraud Office bowed to Saudi threats to withhold information about potential terrorist attacks. But it is also important to acknowledge the political realities of today. Terrorist threats aside, in the past seven years the price of oil has increased by a factor of five to $110 a barrel - and the west must compete with an increasingly energy-dependent and ascendant China for fuel.
Moreover, because one of the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war has been the rise of Iran, the west is now in a position where it has to lean on the Saudis to win support for its policy of isolating Iran. As a result, the Saudis have a stronger hand than ever.
· Craig Unger is the author of House of Bush, House of Saud