Civil servant explained how Saudi national guard expects bribes for business deals
By David Pallister | 31 October 2012
UK government officials have known since the 1970’s that bribes were needed to secure contracts with Saudi Arabia’s national guard, declassified documents show.
The appetite for what one confidential memo described as “douceurs” goes back to when the national guard was run by Prince, now King, Abdullah.
Two documents dating from 1972 and unearthed by Exaro have become relevant to a criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into bribery allegations surrounding a massive, long-running contract to overhaul the national guard’s communications systems under the ‘Sangcom project’.
Only yesterday, Exaro revealed documents from the National Archives that shed some light on one of the companies registered in the Cayman Islands that received more than £14.5 million from the British company carrying out the Sangcom project.
The company, Simec International, was being lined up for what government officials 36 years ago called “agency fees” of three per cent before the Sangcom deal was even agreed, according to a memo written by Sir Lester Suffield, then head of the UK government’s Defence Sales Organisation.
Exaro has identified another declassified memo by Suffield that adds to the picture. Suffield wrote a confidential memo dated March 3, 1972 to Lord Carrington, then defence secretary, about the possible supply of armoured cars to the Saudi national guard. Suffield explained that the UK had persuaded Abdullah, then commander of the national guard, that the force was a “paper tiger” and needed to be re-equipped.
The UK was asked to put forward a proposal to meet the requirement, and estimated the value of the work at £112 million.
Suffield continued: “Because of the usual considerations that apply to any business in Saudi Arabia, ie the need to pay ‘commissions’ and because also Prince Abdullah wished to give any purchase the appearance of a government-to-government deal, we proposed to Prince Abdullah that a middle course would be to make the UK package offer through Millbank Technical Services – an offshoot of the Crown Agents.
“Prince Abdullah expressed himself as satisfied with our proposals, and said that he would put them to the council of ministers. He still hankered after a full government-to-government arrangement, and eventually, when matters seemed to be hanging fire, we obtained ministerial approval to offer such a deal.
“At various times, other ‘fixers’ tried to get in on the act, and we did our best to string them along while continuing to deal through the channel that Prince Abdullah desired. It was becoming obvious however that the temptation of business of this magnitude was causing various other members of the royal family to come out in opposition to Abdullah’s proposals and to suggest that their ‘clients’, ie the US and France, should be allowed in the bidding.”
Suffield was briefed on Abdullah’s strategy by one of his senior officials two months earlier. After visiting Saudi Arabia, Harold Hubert told Suffield in a confidential memo dated January 14, 1972 that the UK’s ambassador would “indicate” to the king of Saudi Arabia “our willingness to do business on a G-to-G basis. There might be advantages in MTS co-ordinating the quasi-government oversight, as well as passing on the douceurs.”
‘Doucer’, based on the French word for ‘sweetness’, means a financial inducement or bribe.
The House of Saud has long kept tight control of the national guard, whose job is to protect the royal family.
Abdullah, who became king in 2005, was the national guard’s commander from 1963 to 2010. His son, Prince Miteb, has been commander since then.
As the ‘Arab Spring’ spread through the region and with signs of unrest in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Abdullah announced in March last year a huge economic package to be spent on housing, jobs and social benefits.
Arab anger has been fuelled by high-level corruption. So, Abdullah also announced a new anti-corruption commission to be run by a senior minister reporting directly to him.
The president of the commission, Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Sharif, said: “We shall not hesitate to strike at corruption wherever it is.”
“Our crackdown will target small and big heads… No one, whoever he is, will be excluded, in line with instruction by King Abdullah.”
Perhaps he should visit Kew, south-west London, home to the UK’s National Archives.