Sunday, December 17, 2006

Saudi bribes (allegedly) and British security interests...

By popular demand (OK, one request on my blog) I’m posting on the decision to abandon the two-year probe into an arms deal made with the Saudis in the 1980s.

Tony Blair and the Labour Government are under fire for pulling the plug on the Serious Fraud Office investigation.

Well, I’m no expert on arms dealing, bribery or Middle East relations, but since I've been challenged, I’ll give the issue my best shot (no pun intended)…

My first observation is the rather obvious irony that any bribery prosecution would surely put Thatcher and her Tory Government in the frame. Not Blair. Not Labour.

I understand it was Michael Heseltine, then Deputy Conservative PM, who signed the deal which came under the microscope two decades later.

So the Tories appear to be in a glasshouse on this one. But that of course doesn't stop the media assisting the Tories in chucking bricks at Blair.

For me, the sensible starting point on this issue has to be first priority of any Government: the protection of British security interests.

That means putting British lives first - whatever did or didn’t happen two decades ago when Lady Thatcher was in Downing Street.

Less important, but significant factors are the thousands of British jobs which depend on our defence industries, and whether it’s in the general public interest to continue an investigation which has gone nowhere in two years.

I understand the facts to be these:

1. British Aerospace (BAe) was accused of paying millions of pounds in bribes to middlemen to win the £150 million Al Yamamah arms contract signed in the 1980s which secured thousands of British defence industry jobs. BAe have always denied paying bribes.

2. Despite two years investigations so far, the Serious Fraud Office predicted that a further 18-months was needed before it would be known if charges were possible. That's three and half years of investigations into something that happened - or didn't - 20 years ago.

3. Representations to the Attorney General on national security were on the basis that a breakdown in UK-Saudi relations could endanger vital joint work on counter-terrorism and impede the search for peace and stability in the Middle East, which in turn could threaten the safety of UK citizens.

4. Acting as overall minister with responsibility for the Serious Fraud Office, and also as guardian of the public interest, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, reviewed the case in detail.

5. Having examined the evidence, he reached the view that it was unlikely that a successful prosecution - resulting in a conviction - could be brought, even if the SFO were given a further 18 months. In contrast, Serious Fraud Office director Robert Wardle says we will never know if a prosecution was possible, as the investigation was not concluded.

6. It has been reported that the Saudis threatened to cancel a £10 billion order for Typhoon fighters unless the investigation was halted, threatening thousands of UK defence industry jobs.

7. Tony Blair clearly put Britain’s national security interests first. He advised Lord Goldsmith that he wanted to keep the Saudis “on side”, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism and in respect of the Israel-Palestine question.Tony Blair says:

"I have no doubt at all that had we allowed this to go forward we’d have done immense damage to the true interests of this country."

The Sunday papers will be full of flak and froth and conspiracy headlines. But I have no doubt they will be far less damaging than if the inquiry festered on leading to the Saudis pulling diplomatic relations and cancelling the Typhoon order.

10 comments:

Brynley said...

You are 100% wrong, Phil, to say the Serious Fraud Office investigation was "going nowhere".

The rule of law was cast aside specifically because the Serious Fraud Office had traced the Swiss Bank Accounts. They had got to the stage of getting the Swiss authorities to agree to examine them. Do you think Tony Blair would have overruled due process if the investigation had been "going nowhere"?

On a point of fact it is Tony Blair who takes "full responsibility " to cast aside the rule of law on this case. The Attorney General was directed, so spare us comforting stuff about his professional assessment.

The bottom line is we back the wrong horses in the Middle East. We support the insupportable Absolute Monarchy in Arabia and then we wonder why the Arab street thinks that our talk of democracy and the rule of law is a lie, a trick and a snare.

Bruno (Skegness) said...

I'm quite partial to dates.

liz said...

I agree with your precis Phil and would question anyone with the authority of the PM to have taken a different stance. Added to what you wrote, I would also say that the SFO has not been successful with many of their prosecutions. This is odd considering they only bring 10-15 a year. Many of their investigations take years to investigate and prepare for prosecution so it is surprising that they have a poor success rate. They obviously are blaming juries for not being able to understand the complexity of fraud cases (I have listened but utterly tedious and they often last for months) as juries are soon to be removed from such trials.

Like you, I do not believe that the AG would have stated that a successful prosecution was unlikely unless he honestly believed so. It has been reported that a previous Head of the SFO held him in great esteem for his impartiality. The SFO have undertaken enquiries lasting years in the past and they have not resulted in Court proceedings.

As you say, the Sunday papers (I have read the lot online)are full of the story and many are using it to bash the PM. Many suggest that there will be a legal challenge. Some also report the French as being livid. Unbalanced reporting when they have not reported that country's efforts to persuade the Saudi government to cancel the UK aircraft order in favour of the French fighter jet. This would make anyone livid. Fortunately many of us take little heed of the newspapers these days - very sad. I feel they seek to make the news rather than reporting it and many newspaper reports are inaccurate. Am I alone with this view?

Liz said...

Brynley,

I think the law is a bit unclear on this matter. The law on banning bribes paid overseas to win business only came in during 2002 and I am not entirely sure it could be used in this case. I will read up the Act to see if it could be used retrospectively but I do not think it does.

I understood that the SFO had contacted the Swiss Authorities regarding access to an account. I also understood that agreement was reached that they would examine the account. However, as a point of record it would take some 2 years for Swiss Authorities to decide whether access could be granted and that the chances of this being approved are very, very remote (FT report).

I understand the Account you refer to in Switzerland belonged to Mr Said the billionaire arms dealer who acts for the Saudi Royal Family. As a side issue he has also donated monies to the Tory Party.

Whether we like it or not the Saudis are our closest allies in the region. We rely heavily on them for intelligence on Al Qaeda. We also need their support for diplomatic iniatives in the region.

The AG stated that in the national interest (what the PM stated) the case would not proceed. He also stated as the appropriate law officer that it was unlikely that a prosecution would follow. No lawyer would state this unless he believed it to be true. He would lose credibility within legal circles - very important, and could easily be challenged. I think it is wrong to question the AG's integrity.

fairdealphil said...

brynley:

Well, you obviously feel more strongly about this than me.

But you asked for my views on the issue and I gave them.

You are entitled to your view that my take is 100% wrong, but it's still my view...

Doing business in the Middle East is no doubt different.

I didn't say Middle East politics was easy - but you didn't say which horse we should be backing in the region.

Yes, I accept that Tony Blair has said that the buck stops with him and he believes he has done the right thing for our country.

Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine backed this allegedly dodgy deal - and it would have been good to see them "in the dock..."

But on this occasion, I'm prepared to accept the argument for "the greater good".

btw, i haven't posted yet on the other subjects that your requested - blair's interview with police and post offices...

i wonder if i'll be 100% wrong on them too!

fairdealphil said...

bruno:

I can imagine that a date with your good self would be most entertaining...

Brynley said...

Liz, you mention Wafic Said as the pricipal fixer and say he once donated to the Tories.

Well yes, that's what fixers do. They cultivate the powerful.

More recently he's been close to Peter Mandelson and Labour.

If the government changed, he changes too.

That is how it works.

Our corrupt support for the Saudi monarchs is the best recruiting sergeant for Al-Qaeda that anyone could possibly devise.

Your comments about lawyers, Liz, are presumably intended seriously. I prefer the taxicab analogy of what lawyers are about.

It certainly seems to work with Attorney General Lord Goldsmith. It was he who produced the professional opinion that it was OK in international law to invade Iraq, an earlier capitulation to a political decision.

What is different in the current controversy is that it is all quite shameless. The Prime Minister himself says that he has overridden the legal process and there it is, take it or leave it, any thoughts that Lord Goldsmith may have as a lawyer may be very interesting, but a political decision to continue bribing the Saudis and to indemnify all the corrupt parties has been taken over his head.

fairdealphil said...

Liz:

You are right. I trained as a journalist in very different times when facts had to be checked before they were printed.

It's amazing how many people still believe that political stories they read in papers like the Mail are truthful.

But if it's what you want to read, then I suppose it's easy to swallow.

In one way, it's a price we pay for a free press - look at the coverage of the non political Diana inquiry this week.

Sun - Driver drunk, Di not pregnant, no cocaine, not about to be engaged, no conspiracy etc.

Express - Whitewash.

Geoffrey G Brooking said...

It was really just the right day to bury bad news!

fairdealphil said...

geoffrey:

more conspiracy theories - not an original one, i realise.

but the fact we're talking about the issue demonstrates how bonkers the conspirators have become.

if the Government had wanted to "bury" this decision, they wouldn't have made a public announcement about it in the first place!

the fact is we have the most open Government ever in the history of this country - and certainly far less secretive than your lot when they were in power Geoffrey!