Huffington Post, 22 August 2016

British wars abroad have two enemies. First, the official enemy, portrayed as a monster whom we always battle with noble intentions. But second is the enemy within – us, the public. The danger posed by the public is that we may stop elites doing what they want, hence we are subject to state ‘information operations’ to convey messages and obscure facts, usually via compliant media organisations. Current British policy in Syria, which is having the effect of prolonging the terrible war by supporting forces fighting the regime, involves outright lying by ministers at a level similar to that over Iraq in 2002-3.

The British government is waging ‘information warfare’ by funding media operations for some Syrian rebel groups. The Ministry of Defence is hiring contractors to produce videos, photos, radio broadcasts and social media posts branded with the logos of rebel groups, to ‘effectively run a press office for opposition fighters’. Materials are being circulated in the Arabic broadcast media and posted online with no indication of British government involvement.
But a key strand of government propaganda over Syria is often simply lying to parliament and the public. In July 2015, Defence Minister Earl Howe told Parliament that the government ‘would seek further Parliamentary approval before UK aircraft conducted air strikes in Syria’. This was untrue – British aircraft were already secretly striking Islamic State targets in Syria as was revealed by human rights organisation Reprieve six days after Howe’s statement. These air strikes, conducted by pilots embedded with US and Canadian forces, began months before Parliament voted in favour of them in December 2015.
The government also confirmed that neither Parliament nor the public should even be told of such operations. After Reprieve revealed the British role, the government told Parliament: ‘Ministers authorise the embedding of UK personnel on deployment with host forces. It has been long-standing practice not to announce such deployments’.

Also in June 2015, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs that the UK had ‘begun’ training Syrian forces in bases outside Syria. In fact, this programme started three years earlier. The Guardian had earlier reported that UK intelligence teams were giving Syrian army officers ‘logistical and other advice’ at bases in Jordan in a US-led programme begun in 2012. The report noted that while the government denied providing direct military training to the rebels, special forces were training the Jordanian military.

In September 2014, David Cameron said in a speech at the United Nations in New York that the UK would not deploy troops in Syria because ‘I don’t believe this threat of Islamist extremism will best be solved by Western ground troops directly trying to pacify or reconstruct Middle Eastern or African countries’. Yet within a year British Special Forces were ‘mounting hit and run raids against Islamic State deep inside eastern Syria dressed as insurgent fighters’. SAS units dressed in black and flying Islamic State flags were being tasked with destroying IS equipment and munitions which insurgents constantly move to avoid coalition air strikes. British special forces now ‘frequently cross into Syria to assist the New Syrian Army’ from their base in Jordan.
Another issue is whether Britain has been supplying arms to the Syrian opposition. In July 2015, Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood told Parliament that ‘the UK does not provide lethal assistance to anyone in Syria’. Yet over two years earlier, it was reported that Britain had participated in ‘a massive airlift of arms to Syrian rebels from Croatia’, an operation led by the US and allegedly funded by Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported later that year that a joint programme involving British, Saudi and US intelligence had sent weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria.

American journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about an arms ‘rat line’ authorised in early 2012 that funnelled weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. MI6 supported this operation while funding came from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to Hersh, who added that ‘many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida’.

Are any government statements on Syria believable? The government has consistently told Parliament it has no evidence that any UK air strikes in Syria or Iraq have resulted in civilian casualties. Yet Britain has conducted nearly 1,000 air strikes in these two countries since 2014 while the NGO, Airwars, estimates that there have been 1,568 civilian casualties from coalition bombing, mainly by the US, though it does not calculate how many of any of these are due to UK operations.
Should we take seriously the government claim that it wants to see an end to the war brokered by the UN? The government says that ‘UN-led negotiations remain the best opportunity to end the conflict through political transition away from Assad to an inclusive government’. Yet UK and US policy has in practice opposed such negotiated deals. As prominent analyst Avi Shlaim has documented, Western insistence that Syrian president Assad must first step down sabotaged first Kofi Annan’s and then Lakhdar Brahimi’s UN efforts to set up a peace deal.
British policy in Syria, by stepping up support to opposition forces, is having the effect of prolonging the war while doing nothing to stop Assad’s constant brutal attacks on civilians. It strongly appears as if Britain wants neither side to win or lose – it cannot now afford for Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers to claim victory by keeping the regime in power, but neither does it want to see Islamic State and other jihadists, which dominate the opposition, take control of a post-Assad Syria. So Britain is playing with fire, seeing the people of the region as it always has – as expendable unpeople in its geopolitical games.

Published in the Huffington Post, 11 August 2016

Mark Curtis

Outside significant mainstream media coverage, Britain is stepping up its support for the dictatorships in the Arabian Gulf and its ability to conduct military interventions in the Middle East. The strategy is illustrated in Whitehall’s long-standing but ignored special relationship Whitehall with Oman, the secretive, oil-rich Gulf state run by a despot installed in a British coup as long ago as 1970.

Oman is a British client state welcoming major British intelligence and military operations whose principal economic asset – oil – is controlled by Anglo-Dutch company, Shell. Files leaked by Edward Snowden show that Britain has a network of three GCHQ spy bases in Oman – codenamed ‘Timpani’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Clarinet’ – which tap in to various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Arabian Gulf. These bases intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic, which information is then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States.

The British government announced in March this year that it is developing a large new military base – described as a ‘strategic port’ – at the Duqm Port complex in central Oman. This will house the two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers being built for the Royal Navy, and other navy ships, with the aim clearly being to better project power in the region. The base is described as enabling a ‘permanent’ British naval presence in the area. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said that the port ‘will offer an airport with a 4km runway close to a port large enough for a Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers to manoeuvre and will also be connected to other Gulf countries by the Gulf Rail Project’.

The new Omani base will sit alongside another new intervention platform in the region – the British military base being built at Mina Salman port in Bahrain, another long-standing British ally ruled by a brutally repressive state. Bahrain already houses the largest permanent detachment of the Royal Navy outside the UK as part of the ‘Combined Maritime Force’, which includes the US Navy 5th Fleet in Manama. Together, these bases will provide the UK with its largest military intervention capability in the region since the late 1960s, when some bases in the region were closed.

British leaders claim these bases will provide security and stability for the region. The reality is that their most strategic significance, aside from being able to conduct military strikes, is in guarding oil routes – Oman plays an important role in overseeing the passage of international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 30 per cent of globally bound oil passes every day. The British oil stake in Oman is already huge: Shell has a 34 per cent interest (alongside the government’s 60 per cent) in the Petroleum Development Corporation which manages the country’s oil.

Oman is described by the government as ‘a longstanding British ally… with shared interests across diplomatic, economic and security matters’. The UK and Omani armed forces regularly train together and this May, the two countries signed a new military Memorandum of Understanding in which Britain’s armed forces plan to deploy 45 training teams to Oman in 2016. As part of this relationship, Oman naturally buys a lot of British weapons – most recently, a £2.5 billion deal agreed in 2013 to purchase 20 Typhoon and Hawk aircraft following a visit by David Cameron. ‘The Typhoon fighter jet performed outstandingly in Libya’, the government’s press release at the time stated, referring to the British military intervention in that country that helped to plunge it into anarchy and civil war.

In recent years British defence secretaries, members of the Royal Family, Lord Mayors of London and heads of military and oil companies have all been streaming into Oman, with practically no attention paid whatsoever by the 24 hour British media. They routinely deliver extreme apologias for the nature of the Omani regime, and especially its leader, Sultan Qaboos. In February 2014, for example, then Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi, delivering a speech in Muscat, praised ‘the Sultan’s wise leadership’ while Chris Breeze, the Oman country chairman of has noted the ‘Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s clear and inspirational vision for Oman’.

By contrast, Khalfan al-Badwawi, an Omani human rights campaigner who fled the country in 2013 after being repeatedly detained by police, recently told Middle East Eye that the high level of British military and diplomatic assistance for the Omani government was ‘a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship’.

Whilst Oman’s repression is not as far-reaching or brutal as that in other UK-backed regimes in the region – notably Bahrain and Egypt – it remains serious and deep. According to Human Rights Watch:

Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment. Some detainees arrested since 2011 have allegedly reported that security forces tortured or otherwise ill-treated them.

An especially odious feature of Oman’s political system is that all public gatherings require advance official approval while the authorities arrest and prosecute participants in unapproved gatherings.

Sultan Qaboos is well and truly Britain’s man in the Gulf. One of the longest serving dictators in the world, he was installed in power in a British-organised coup in 1970. British declassified files show that British military advisers in Oman, including the SAS, organised the overthrow of Qaboos’ father. Qaboos served in the British army and attended the army training college at Sandhurst and the RAF officers’ college at Cranwell.

By retaining faith in repressive pro-Western leaders in the region, backing them to the hilt, supplying them with arms and using their territory to militarily intervene in the region, Britain is continuing its long standing Middle East policy, backed by the US. With the region on fire virtually everywhere from Libya to Afghanistan, it is as though British leaders simply want to repeat all the counter-productive and immoral episodes of the past while simply stirring up even more war and instability in these areas. In fact, this view seems about right, judged by current policies. It really is time that British journalists find out where Oman is on the map and highlight what their country is actually doing there.

Huffington Post, 5 August 2016

For over 30 years, Western countries such as the US and UK, and international bodies like the World Bank and IMF, have told African governments to cut their tax rates to attract foreign investment. The result of this policy is now clear and is not pretty – governments in Africa are giving away vast amounts of badly needed revenues to foreign corporations in tax incentives. The extent of this drain of resources is staggering: it challenges the idea that Africa is poor at all.

Tax incentives are exemptions given to companies from paying taxes such as corporate income taxes, VAT or import duties. In Africa, governments often award them to specific companies in special deals negotiated in secret and which are never made public. Companies operating in Export Processing Zones typically pay no taxes on profits for 10 years or more. Major beneficiaries of tax incentives are foreign (often British) mining companies that increasingly control Africa’s precious minerals, one of its key assets.

A report of mine for ActionAid, analysing the latest available figures, suggests that the four East African countries of Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda are likely losing $1.5 – $2 billion a year from tax breaks provided by their governments. In West Africa, the picture is similar. Ghana is likely losing up to $2.27 billion a year while Nigeria has lost a staggering $3.3 billion in tax revenue to just three oil companies – Shell, Total and ENI – through a series of extraordinary tax breaks.

Sometimes, the scale of losses is nearly unbelievable. In 2013, I worked with a colleague in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, to analyse tax data provided by the country’s main tax body, the National Revenue Authority. The aim was to establish, for the first time, how much revenue the country was ‘spending’ by giving large tax incentives to the major mining companies (then British-owned) investing in the country. The figures were truly shocking – in 2012, Sierra Leone lost revenues from customs duty and sales tax exemptions alone worth $224 million – this was equivalent to 8.3 per cent of GDP. In 2011, losses were even higher – 13.7 per cent of GDP. In 2012, the lost tax revenues amounted to an astonishing 59 per cent of the entire government budget. Put another way, Sierra Leone gave away revenues amounting to over eight times the health budget and seven times the education budget. This is in a country where nearly 1 in 5 children die before age 5.

This scale of revenue losses is extreme but the basic pattern is mirrored across Africa. There are no official figures on global revenue losses from tax incentives but one estimate is that developing countries lose $139 billion a year just from one form of tax incentive – corporate income tax exemptions. The overall figure will be much higher.

Between 1980 and 2005, the proportion of sub-Saharan African countries offering tax holidays to companies rose from 40 per cent to 80 per cent, often due to pressure from Western ‘donors’ such as the UK. This has enabled multinational companies to extract huge profits from Africa – the figure is estimated at $46 billion in 2012, much greater than aid to the continent.

Recently, even bodies like the World Bank and IMF have finally woken up to the indefensibility of promoting tax incentives. In a massive reversal, they are now pressing developing countries to reduce and sometimes eliminate them. But African governments themselves are often dragging their feet, and continue to lose vast amounts of money. In Kenya, for example, government officials say they are committed to reducing tax incentives but actual policy is to maintain and even increase them, especially by introducing new Special Economic Zones.

Another ‘poor’ country, Tanzania, has plans to reduce tax incentives and has taken some steps to do so, especially having introduced a law in 2015 to reduce VAT exemptions. Yet it continues to offer numerous incentives to foreign investors, especially in Special Economic Zones, and to oil and gas companies (which include the giant British company, BG Group, now part of Shell).

Africa is simply promoting the wrong policy. Studies suggest that tax incentives are not an important factor in attracting foreign investment. More important is good quality infrastructure, political stability and predictable macro-economic policy. Neither should governments go all out to attract just any foreign investment anyway – some ‘investments’ displace domestic companies that could better serve local populations; others can impoverish local communities by grabbing land or polluting the environment.

What should Africa do? At one level, its obvious – African elites should stop giving money away. They should also prioritise nurturing (transparent and accountable) domestic investors not foreign companies. And British governments should also stop promoting ‘development’ policies that under-develop Africa.

Published in the Huffington Post, 26 July 2016

Companies listed on the London Stock Exchange control over $1trillion worth of Africa’s resources in just five commodities – oil, gold, diamonds, coal and platinum. My research for the NGO, War on Want, which has just been published, reveals that 101 companies, most of them British, control $305 billion worth of platinum, $276 billion worth of oil and $216 billion worth of coal at current market prices. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ is proceeding apace, with the result that African governments have largely handed over their treasure.

Tanzania’s gold, Zambia’s copper, South Africa’s platinum and coal and Botswana’s diamonds are all dominated by London-listed companies. They have mines or mineral licences in 37 African countries and control vast swathes of Africa’s land: their concessions cover a staggering 1.03 million square kilometres on the continent. This is over four times the size of the UK and nearly one twentieth of sub-Saharan Africa’s total land area. China’s resources grabs have been widely vilified but the major foreign takeover of Africa’s natural riches springs from a lot closer to home.

Many African governments depend on mineral resources for revenues, yet the extent of foreign ownership means that most wealth is being extracted along with the minerals. In only a minority of mining operations do African governments have a shareholding. Company tax payments are minimal due to low tax rates while governments often provide companies with generous incentives such as corporation tax holidays.

Companies are also able to avoid paying taxes by their use of tax havens. Of the 101 London-listed companies, 25 are actually incorporated in tax havens, principally the British Virgin Islands. It is estimated that Africa loses around $35 billion a year in illicit financial flows out of the continent and a further $46 billion a year in multinational company profits taken from operations in Africa.

UK companies’ increasingly dominant role in Africa, which is akin to a new colonialism, is being facilitated by British governments, Conservative and Labour alike. Four policies stand out. First, Whitehall has long been a fierce advocate of liberalized trade and investment regimes in Africa that provide access to markets for foreign companies. It is largely opposed to African countries putting up regulatory or protectionist barriers to such investment, the sorts of policies where have often been used by successful developers in East Asia. Second, Britain has been a world leader in advocating low corporate taxes in Africa, including in the extractives sector.

Third, British policy has done nothing to challenge multinational companies using tax havens; indeed the global infrastructure of tax havens is largely a British creation. Fourth, British governments have constantly espoused only voluntary mechanisms for companies to monitor their human rights impacts; they are opposed to enhancing international legally binding mechanisms to curb abuses.

The result is that Africa, the world’s poorest continent, is being further impoverished. Recent research calculated, for the first time, all the financial inflows and outflows to and from sub-Saharan Africa to gauge whether Africa is being helped or exploited by the rest of the world. It found that $134 billion flows into the continent each year, mainly in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid. However, $192 billion is taken out, mainly in profits made by foreign companies and tax dodging. The result is that Africa suffers a net loss of $58billion a year. British mining companies and their government backers are contributing to this drainage of wealth.

We need to radically rethink the notion that Britain is helping Africa to develop. The UK’s large aid programme is, among other things, being used to promote African policies from which British corporations will further profit. British policy in Africa, and indeed that of African elites, needs to be challenged and substantially changed if we are serious about promoting long term economic development on the continent.


Report for War on Want (July 2016)

This report reveals the degree to which British companies now control Africa’s key mineral resources. It reviews the operations of all the companies listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) that have mining interests in Africa, focusing on key minerals and metals such as gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, oil, gas and coal. It finds that 101 companies have mining operations in 37 sub-Saharan African countries. These companies, which are mainly British, now control an identified $1.05 trillion worth of resources in Africa in just five commodities — oil, gold, diamonds, coal and platinum. Of the 101 LSE-listed companies, one quarter are incorporated in tax havens. A determination to plunder the natural resources of Africa is taking place, with the active support of the British government; this is contributing significantly to a net drain of resources from Africa, already the world’s poorest continent

Read the report here



12 May 2016

This research, undertaken for Global Justice Now, is reported in the Guardian here.

New research shows that 389 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange are incorporated in tax havens controlled by the UK government. The largest number of companies – 129 – is incorporated in Guernsey, a British Crown Dependency. Yet the British Virgin Islands – a UK Overseas Territory that is at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal – is the choice of incorporation for 42 companies. The Cayman Islands accounts for 40 companies and Jersey 89 companies.

The 389 companies have a combined market capitalisation of £224.5 billion.

All seven UK territories rank highly on the Financial Secrecy Index produced annually by the Tax Justice Network. This ranks secrecy jurisdictions (or tax havens) by their level of banking and company secrecy.[1]

Companies on the London Stock Exchange are often regarded as ‘British’. By listing in London, they enjoy the advantage of raising capital on international markets and enhancing their reputation. For example, LSE-listed financial services group Atlas Mara, which is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, says that it has raised $625 million on the Exchange.[2]

Yet being incorporated in secrecy jurisdictions increases the risk that corporations may be avoiding tax payments.  The London Stock Exchange is providing legitimacy to corporations which have chosen to domicile themselves in locations which are beyond proper international accountability. So far, the role of the Exchange has largely escaped critical attention in media coverage of the Panama Papers. It should surely not allow listing by companies registered in known secrecy jurisdictions.

Place of registration Status Number of companies Market capitalisation

(£ billion)

British Virgin Islands UK Overseas Territory 42 6.97
Bermuda UK Overseas Territory 34 58.9
Cayman Islands UK Overseas Territory 40 5.1
Gibraltar UK Overseas Territory 6 0.9
Guernsey Crown dependency 129 35.9
Jersey Crown dependency 89 125.2
Isle of Man Crown dependency 49 11.5
TOTAL .. 389 244.5

Source: London Stock Exchange,

[1] Available at :


A call for voluntary researchers!

In my 2003 book, Unpeople, I included a table outlining conflicts in which Britain played a significant role since 1945. The purpose was to provide estimates for the number of deaths in each conflict and to assess what level of responsibility Britain had (or has) for each one. The conclusion was that Britain bears responsibility for 8.6m-13.5m deaths, or ‘around 10 million’.

The old table is attached here: Table.Deaths.

I want to revise and update this table. The research was done over 13 years ago and there have been significant foreign policy episodes since then. I also want to review the figures I originally used to see if there are more accurate figures now available.

I would ideally like this to be a collaborative effort involving other people who are interested. We need to work on all four columns in the attached and to do so in an academically rigorous way. I would like to hear from people interested in collaborating with me on this. The work will mainly involve checking for the best available available estimate of the number of deaths for each episode identified.

If you are interested in this, please email me at


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