Britain’s biggest-ever arms deal faces renewed scrutiny after Saudi Arabia placed it at the centre of an urgent criminal investigation as part of the kingdom’s anti-corruption drive.
One of the hundreds of princes, ministers and businessmen held in the country’s unprecedented purge of senior figures is Prince Turki bin Nasser, the royal at the centre of the so-called al-Yamamah scandal, The Times has been told.
The Saudi decision to investigate the 43 billion pound ($AU74b) deal has created political pressure for Britain to re-open its investigation into al-Yamamah, which was halted on the orders of Tony Blair as prime minister in 2006.
Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, said it was “an indictment of our foreign policy” that Saudi Arabia was now ahead of Britain in looking at the corruption claims that have swirled around the arms deal for years.
“The ugly truth behind this was never revealed,” said Sir Vince. “It is embarrassing that Saudi Arabia is now leading us on transparency.
“The Serious Fraud Office should reopen this case. The Foreign Office and SFO must also fully co-operate with this investigation.
“It is almost a decade since I sought thorough debates in Parliament to have this properly investigated, but the Government of the day and the official opposition sought to maintain secrecy.”
Ann Clwyd, a Labour MP who has aired concerns about the deal since the 1990s, said she would be raising the Saudi inquiry with the foreign affairs committee.
“I hope the SFO will offer its full co-operation with any new investigation and I would urge them to become involved,” said Mrs Clwyd. “We have been waiting for many years for someone to finally lift the lid on this.”
The al-Yamamah deal involved the sale of arms, particularly fighter planes, by BAE Systems, the former British Aerospace, to Saudi Arabia over two decades from the 1980s.
The series of contracts was sealed with huge support from the government of Margaret Thatcher.
But the path was also allegedly smoothed by multi-million dollar “commissions” to middlemen, most notably Prince Turki, a former deputy head of the Saudi Royal Air Force.
The SFO opened an investigation into the deal in 2004 but that was halted two years later after Saudi Arabia put intense pressure on the government, fearful at the damage it was doing to the Gulf country’s reputation.
If Saudi obstacles to the investigation have been removed, the way is clear for Britain to resume its inquiry.
The investigation is part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on corruption at the highest levels, although he has also been accused of using the purge to clear his path to succeeding his father as king.
A senior source confirmed to The Times that Prince Turki, a grandson of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, was among those being detained.
He added that the al-Yamamah deal was being re-investigated.
“It is accumulation of many corruption cases dealt with in one night,” the source said of the prince’s purge.
“Some are known, but have been ignored for years like the al-Yamamah scandal, and Prince Turki bin Nasser.”
The Saudi attorney-general has said that in total he is investigating misappropriated sums in excess of dollars 100 billion.
The SFO, which was ordered to shut down its criminal inquiry into the al-Yamamah deal by the Blair government in 2006, declined to comment last night (Friday).
A spokeswoman for BAE Systems said: “We will co-operate in full with any investigation”.