Saudi threats forced Britain's hand

The expulsion of Al-Masari: Repeated high-level warnings from kingdom sealed fate of a 'thorn in the side'
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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN

and MICHAEL SHERIDAN

"He is a thorn in our side," said one ministerial source yesterdayof Mohammed al-Masari, the Saudi dissident, who has been running a campaign from Britain against the Saudi authorities.

Thousands of jobs were at risk. "The Saudis felt extremely strongly about him. Every time a meeting has taken place, he has been at the top of the agenda. It was damaging our exports and there came a point when we realised it was becoming deeply embarrassing."

The Saudi government made it clear that it wanted Mr Masari expelled. While it was not explicit that more orders would be signed if Britain bowed to the pressure, ministers were left in no doubt that fresh deals would be made easier.

In the offing were lucrative contracts for British Aerospace Hawk trainer jets, Vosper Thorneycroft is bidding for the supply of minehunters, and there is the long-term prospect of replacing the ageing Tornados which formed the bulk of the bulk of the Al Yamamah armaments programme signed by Baroness Thatcher in the 1980s.

"It is much more likely we will win more orders. That was the main stumbling block," said the source. The Saudi royal family could not understand why British ministers did not act more directly in expelling the dissident as they had requested on numerous occasions.

The power of the Saudi royal family is rumoured to have been felt by the British Government a number of times.

King Fahd raised the matter in private meetings with both Douglas Hurd and his successor as Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind. Senior Conservative sources believe the Saudi government objected directly to Downing Street when Mr Major, after his general election victory in 1992, appointed Malcolm Rifkind, a Jew, as Defence Secretary responsible for the on-going arms deals with the Saudis under the Al Yamamah armaments programme.

To the surprise of many, Jonathan Aitken, a leading Euro-sceptic, was promoted from the backbench to be defence minister directly responsible for the Al Yamamah deal. He was an expert in the Middle East and trusted by the Arabs.

The sensitivity of the Al Yamamah programme has been underlined by diplomatic effort put in by senior British ministers. Mr Major visited Riyadh to sign an order for a further 48 Tornados in January, 1993. His flight was diverted to Saudi Arabia for the visit on the last leg of a trip to India and Oman. Mr Aitken was also there for the signing ceremony.

Mr Major also included a visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss the Al Yamamah programme in September, 1994. He took with him a team of leading British businessmen, including Howard Davies, then director general of the CBI, and Sir Ralph Robins, chairman of Rolls-Royce.

Downing Street yesterday confirmed that the Saudi demands for the expulsion of Mr Masari were then raised at a brief meeting with Mr Major. Mr Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, is believed to have been pressed further on the matter when he visited Riyadh last November. Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, also raised the issue with Mr Major at the UN's 50th anniversary in New York.

Senior bankers and businessmen say they had received clear indications that the interests of British companies would suffer as a result of Mr Masari's activities, while Foreign Office officials blandly asserted in public that no linkage had been established.

The British ambassador in Riyadh, David Gore-Booth, whose job is partly to reflect such views back to London, is thought consistently to have urged a tough line against the dissidents and he had, unusually for a diplomat, made public attacks on Mr Masari.

"It had reached the stage where it had become acutely embarrassing. Every time there was a meeting, this was raised," said the ministerial source."It was made clear to him that if he would keep a bit quieter, there was every chance that nothing would happen, that if he kept his head down, everyone would settle down. But this guy went over the top."

Mr Masari had performed a careful balancing act to stay within the law while directing a stream of intemperate propaganda by fax from London.

But it was no coincidence that two days after a change at the top in Saudi Arabia the British government decided to act The handover of power on New Year's Day from the ailing King Fahd to his heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, triggered a rapid set of decisions by the Foreign Office and the Home Office. The accession generated a rapid consensus in Whitehall that the moment had come to act.

The central dilemma of British policy towards Saudi Arabia remains unresolved, as it was towards the Shah's Iran in the 1970s. The Labour government of the period agreed with the Embassy in Tehran that British commercial interests dictated support for the Shah and hostile indifference to his opponents. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, British influence and business in Tehran collapsed.

The ambassador at the time, Sir Anthony Parsons, later confessed the errors of his policy in a memoir entitled "The Pride and the Fall". It is not known whether this volume is on the reading list for ambassadors to Riyadh. But perhaps it ought to be.

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