BURYING state-endorsed corruption on multi-billion pound contracts signed in the UK taxpayer’s name is a price that must be paid to keep Saudi Arabia happy, the Information Commissioner has concluded.
Last month Eye 1375’s special report on kickbacks on a £2bn contract between the British and Saudi governments for military communications equipment, Shady Arabia and the Desert Fix, presented prima facie evidence that the UK government itself approved the bribes through a dedicated Ministry of Defence team in Riyadh.
One former director of the project was recorded telling his bosses that the payments on the SANGCOM deal, made via Cayman Islands companies, “are unlikely to be approved when next reviewed by the MoD in the UK”. A key document printed by the Eye showed that the payments to be made by the deal’s contractor, GPT Special Project Management Ltd, described euphemistically as for “bought-in services” and amounting to 15 percent of the genuine expenses, were clearly itemised on proposals presented to the MoD for approval.
Over-riding public interest
The MoD rejected two crucial freedom of information requests from the Eye: for details of the occasions on which the proposals were ever queried or rejected, and for information on what was covered by a 2013 “letter of agreement” between the UK and Saudi governments after the payments suddenly stopped when a whistleblower reported them to the Serious Fraud Office (which is still investigating). Releasing such information, said the MoD, would so prejudice relations with Saudi Arabia that the over-riding public interest was in keeping the information secret.
Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith has now been persuaded by the MoD stance. “The MoD emphasised that the KSA’s [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s] laws and culture do not share the same concept of information rights that most westernised countries regard as an integral part of the democratic process…” says Smith in his decision.
Covering up corruption
Furthermore “[the KSA] is likely to be highly critical of any inability of the UK government to use its powers to protect what it considers as important and strategic commercial interests in respect of the SANGCOM contract.” This would pose a big threat since the “UK’s relationship with the KSA is underpinned by defence cooperation going back around 50 years, with the SANGCOM project having been in place for the last 36 years”. Thus a relationship built on corruption must be protected by covering up corruption.
Smith at least recognised the public interest in “assurance that the UK’s arrangements with the KSA are handled in accordance with the highest moral, ethical and commercial standards and fully in accordance with [the] law” and that in light of the corruption allegations “there is a particular public interest in disclosure of the withheld information in this case in order to clarify the role of the UK government”. But he still decided that because of the “importance of the UK’s defence and security interests with the KSA”, especially “at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East”, the details of the government’s handling of the payments should not be disclosed.
When it came to information on the new agreement which was signed after the ending of the payments, which some suspect simply replaces an old corrupt system with a new one, the MoD had told Smith that it contained “frank advice to ministers from officials on the nature of the [letter of agreement]”, which “is not couched in diplomatic language or written in terms that would avoid prejudicing international relations between the UK and the USA”.