Arms and the prince

Unfortunately the royal family has form when it comes to schmoozing dictators and thugs

There are no prizes for guessing that standing on the left of the photo is the chap who will, in the absence of the revolution, one day be king - Prince William.

The two chaps on the right happen to be among the most senior generals in the Indonesian military, and the photo has caused a stir among MPs and human rights groups. The meeting is seen as being, at best, clumsy and inappropriate. Nonetheless it left one Indonesian human rights activist asking of the royal family: "Have they become lobbyists for the UK arms industry?"

The Ministry of Defence has been forced to disclose details of the meeting in response to a Freedom of Information request. The meeting with Air Chief Marshal Djoko Suyanto and Rear Admiral Didik Heru Purnomo took place in February this year in the hall of the Household Cavalry Regiment's officers' mess in Windsor.

According to the MoD, the Indonesian chief of defence forces was paying "a call" on the British Chief of Defence Staff to "build defence relations" and, "as is customary when hosting foreign representatives, a visit to a military unit was organised". Thus, it just so happened that the unit they went to visit was the Household Cavalry. It also just so happened that Prince William was the orderly officer of the day.

According to the MoD, "This was purely a chance encounter." Clarence House played the meeting down even further, saying that the prince happened to be introduced to the generals as "they passed each other in a corridor".

Unfortunately the royal family has form when it comes to schmoozing dictators and thugs, so the Palace line has not placated Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood and chairman of the quadripartite select committee on strategic export controls, who said that as "arms deals with Indonesia have been incredibly controversial in recent years it is totally inappropriate that William should be seen to have any involvement".

The impact of a handshake cannot be avoided, especially as the photos are being used as PR on the Indonesian embassy's website. The MoD claims that Prince William was "not present in a royal capacity". However, Symon Hill from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) calls the claim "bizarre", given that "whatever he does is seen as having royal approval".

Berry insists it is "not the kind of thing the royal family should be touching with a bargepole".

The current Indonesian military commander in occupied West Papua is Colonel Burhanuddin Siagian, an indicted war criminal charged with crimes against humanity for his activities in East Timor. Rather than see him face justice and put him on trial, the Indonesian military moved him to West Papua.

For more than a decade there has been widespread condemnation of UK arms sales to Indonesia. In 1996, Quaker activists used hammers to disable a Hawk jet aircraft destined for Indonesia. And there was outrage when Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy collapsed after Labour approved the sale of the aircraft in 1997.

At their height from 1997 to 2000, UK arms sales to Indonesia were worth roughly £100m a year, but by 2004 this dropped to £1m. The fall is due partly to the availability of much cheaper Russian equipment. But it is also a response to British public reaction to the regime's brutality in the final stages of the regime's presence in East Timor, and to the ongoing, vicious occupation of West Papua.

However, efforts are under way to revive the trade. The Defence Export Services Organisation exists to promote UK arms sales abroad and works out of the MoD. At a symposium this year the DESO's then head, Alan Garwood, said that in Indonesia the UK arms industry was "a resurgent brand". Although Indonesia had been "off our Christmas-card list for many years", it was back on, he said. Ten years ago Indonesia was "second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of its value to the UK defence industry", he also said.

It is apt that the Saudis should come into this equation, given the timing of the recent state visit by King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch. The Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia was dropped, after pressure from Tony Blair, in December 2006.

The Saudis signed a deal worth billions for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, made by a consortium of which BAE Systems is a lead partner, in September 2007. The Queen wined and dined the Saudi king in October 2007.

"I am sure that the vast majority of British people do not want the royal family to be endorsing, even inadvertently, the arms trade, especially to vicious regimes," says Symon Hill from CAAT. "It is vital that everyone representing the UK learns to distinguish between arms companies' profits and the British public interest."

But it is unlikely that Prince William will have a chance encounter with anyone voicing that opinion.

Mark Thomas performs "More Adventures in Serious Organised Crime" at The Venue, London WC2, from 1-15 December (except 9 December). For more information tel: 0870 264 3333.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future