How key partner behind Simec International ended up doing business in Saudi Arabia
By David Pallister | 30 October 2012
British political officers during the ‘Aden emergency’ of the mid-1960’s were a resourceful and tough bunch, and Bryan Somerfield was no exception.
“He was a very brave man, and cool as a cucumber,” said a colleague, Godfrey Meynell, who went on to become high sheriff of Derby, an independent Green parliamentary candidate and one of the ‘human shields’ who travelled to Iraq in 2003 in a vain attempt to prevent the war.
The job of a political officer was to liaise with the tribal leaders in the harsh hinterland where the anti-colonial guerillas of the National Liberation Front were active, until the British were forced to withdraw in 1967.
“He was not secretive, but he was discreet”
– Robin Somerfield, talking about his father, Bryan
Somerfield worked closely with the pro-British Emir of Dhala, who was deposed by the new Yemeni government and went into exile. But Somerfield’s Arab connections stood him in good stead.
“He was in business in the Middle East,” Meynell recalls. “He made a lot of money, and retired to Norfolk.”
One of Somerfield’s sources of wealth was Saudi Arabia as it launched an enormous spending spree after the oil boom of 1974.
With a partner, identified only as “Mr P. Austen” based in Riyadh, Somerfield targeted Saudi Arabia’s national guard, which was embarking on a major modernization programme under its commander, Prince, now King, Abdullah.
Their company was called Simec International, and some clues about their business have surfaced in a newly-discovered document from the National Archives.
The company was negotiating a contract to provide hospitals for the national guard in the early 1980’s.
It is unclear how long Somerfield was associated with Simec or when he left the business, but Exaro has discovered some details of his later life. In the early 1980’s, when he was in his 60’s, he and his wife moved to Somerton Hall, an eight-bedroom detached house in the Norfolk village of West Somerton.
Parts of the house date back to the 16th century. It was sold in 1998 for £310,000, when Somerfield suffered a stroke. He died at the age of 85 in 2004 and is buried in the cemetery of St Mary’s church next to the house.
According to the hall’s new owner, Simon Peasley, churchwarden and timber importer, Somerfield told him that he used to work in Beirut and talked of having a house in Geneva. But Peasley revealed an even closer source: Somerfield’s son Robin lives in a cottage on the hall estate.
Robin Somerfield, a qualified commercial pilot, has maintained the family’s interest in the Middle East. Using an address in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he is the registrant of a website for a high-end, in-flight caterers, boettiair.com.
Boetti Air also operates a long-range corporate Boeing 737 business jet, registered in the American state of Delaware, and luxuriously fitted out for private clients. It is a regular at Luton airport, but stands out because of its colourful tail-markings.
A former flight attendant on the plane, Jennie Alexander, says that it is owned by the Abdul Latif Jameel Company, which is owned by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, the Saudi billionaire. His company has the largest Toyota dealership in the world, and owns the UK car distributors, Hartwell, whose Oxford base is a short ride away from Luton.
Asked about his father’s business, Robin Somerfield said that he had heard of Simec and the partner, Austen. He added: “I knew that he did business in the Middle East, but I did not discuss his business life. He was not secretive, but he was discreet. He retired in the early 1980’s as a farmer.”
Simec International is at the centre of a criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into bribery allegations surrounding a contract to overhaul the Saudi national guard’s communications systems.
There is no suggestion that Robin Somerfield was involved in the matters under investigation by the SFO. Asked if he was even aware of it, he replied: “It is all new to me.”