If you've been following the Guardian recently, you'll know about allegations of corruption surrounding the Al Yamamah arms sales to Saudi Arabia by BAE systems. The Guardian claims that Prince Bandar, a member of the Saudi royal family, received illegal payments of £30 million a quarter over the last ten years. An investigation by the serious fraud office was dropped, purportedly by the director of the SFO, Robert Wardle, earlier this year. The reasons given for the decision to drop the investigation, in a statement by the Attorney General, were as follows:
"The decision has been taken following representations that have been made both to the Attorney General and the director of the SFO concerning the need to safeguard national and international security."
"It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest."
"No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest."
Well, there's a lot going on here. Firstly, we might ask how the Attorney General's statement that "It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest" squares with the oath taken by Barristers, which reads, in part, "You shall not pervert the law to favour or prejudice anyone, but in all things shall conduct yourself truly and with integrity". The rule of law cannot be selectively applied or 'balanced' against other interests, otherwise it simply doesn't exist. Surely this is something the Attorney General should realise.
We might also ask if it's really true that "No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest." Tony Blair has taken responsibility for the decision, saying that he was asked to give advice on the damage that might be caused if the investigation continued. Publicly, he has stated that "This investigation, if it had gone ahead, would have involved the most serious allegations and investigation being made of the Saudi royal family and my job is to give advice as to whether that is a sensible thing in circumstances where I don’t believe the investigation would have led to anywhere except to the complete wreckage of a vital interest to our country." The fight against terrorism would have been harmed and "we would have lost thousands, thousands of British jobs," Mr Blair added.
So it seems as if Tony Blair was giving some weight to "the national economic interest".
I wrote to my MP expressing my dismay that the SFO investigation was dropped, and received a letter from the Attorney General in which he said the main reason for ending the investigation was that he thought there was little chance of convictions being obtained. This also does not stand up to scrutiny. The investigation was abandoned before the SFO could get access to Swiss bank account details that may have contained damning information. They may not have done as well, but it is impossible to know that before getting access to them.
Of course, the big issue here is not who said what when to whom. It's really rather simple. Essentially, the inquiry was stopped because to continue it might upset Saudi Arabia and cause them to withdraw co-operation on security issues. This position has been admitted and publicly defended by no less a figure than Tony Blair. If we're fighting a 'war on terror' in order to protect our democratic freedoms and the rule of law, it's not a good idea to abandon the rule of law to keep a deeply repressive religious dictatorship onside. This ought to be absolutely obvious. It also ought to be absolutely obvious that any 'ally' behaving in the way Saudi Arabia has (i.e. using blackmail to end a criminal investigation) is not an ally worth having. This government has allowed itself to be put in a position where it explicitly and publicly defends turning a blind eye to bribery and corruption, using security as an excuse. That is unforgiveable.
PS-SFO investigations into BAE deals with South Africa and Tanzania continue. But Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, is reported to be furious that the South Africa investigation is ongoing, saying at Davos that "It does puzzle me why a strategic interest with regard to the work of BAE, there would be a strategic interest that would arise with one country and does not arise with other countries". In other words, you ignore corruption in Saudi Arabia: South Africa is your ally too, so you should ignore corruption in South Africa. This is the kind of mess the decision over the Saudi Arabia investigation will continue to get us into.