So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.
This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.
Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.
Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.
in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.
Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.
The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.
Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?
Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.
Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?
Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?
NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.
NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.
Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.