Correspondence fuels Ritz bill controversy

Letters show hotel believed Saudi businessman would pay for weekend in Paris
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The Independent Online

The latest evidence of Jonathan Aitken's close association with Middle Eastern business interests while an MP, and his particularly intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia, has prompted new interest in the circumstances surrounding a weekend he spent at the Ritz hotel in Paris in September 1993.

Mr Aitken, then Minister for Defence Procurement, has strenuously denied that this break - he has described it as a holiday - was paid for by a leading Saudi defence businessman, Said Ayas.

The embarrassment were this not the case is obvious: a minister of the Crown taking hospitality from a foreign entrepreneur and failing to then declare it. Saudi Arabia is, and was then, one of the most important export markets for British defence companies. It may be no exaggeration to say that since the Cold War ended the Saudis have kept alive much of Britain's arms industry.

Mr Aitken said that his wife had paid the hotel bill, in cash. He conceded that a part of it had been - in error - paid for by Mr Ayas. He has since, he insisted, paid back the businessman.

In his statement yesterday, Mr Aitken said that a further report in the Guardian questioning his version of events was unfounded. "Nothing . . . shakes my conviction that my stay in the Ritz hotel did not breach the rules governing the conduct of ministers".

But correspondence obtained by the Independent shows that the hotel, at least, was under the impression that Mr Aitken's bill was indeed to be paid by Mr Ayas.

Hotel staff have also claimed that the woman who paid the bill was not, in fact, Mrs Aitken but a secretary, working for Mr Ayas, named Manon Vidal. The correspondence, between Mr Ayas and the manager of the hotel, Frank Klein, took place after the first press reports alleging that Mr Aitken had not paid his bill.

In one letter, Mr Ayas writes to Mr Klein stating: "I never intended to pay Mr Aitken's bill and I definitely didn't pay his bill in any way . . . Please could you send me a fax . . . to prove that Mr Ayas did not pay Mr Aitken's bill."

Mr Klein, however, declined to provide this to Mr Ayas. He wrote back: "I assure you that I will be happy to assist you in any way within the boundary of the law . . . I could send you a letter stating simply that Jonathan Aitken's bill wasn't paid by you personally when you left the hotel. Technically, this is correct."

Mr Aitken's sensitivity to the matter of this bill was in part aroused by reports that some of the most powerful intermediaries for Saudi Arabian business interests were also staying at the hotel at the time.

Apart from Mr Ayas - with whom Mr Aitken had a joint business interest as directors of the UK arm of one of Saudi Arabia's most successful investment companies, Al-Bilad - Fait Somait, a Saudi-based director of the company and Wafic Said, a businessman very close to the Saudi government, were also said to be staying in the hotel.

Last night Mr Aitken said in his statement that he had not met the men in the hotel and had been assured that they were not staying there at the same time.

Mr Said, described by observers as the most powerful intermediary between Saudi Arabian interests and Western European businesses, is a godfather to one of Mr Aitken's three children.

Mr Aitken's association with Saudi Arabia goes back as far as, and partly explains, his success in business. He set up the financial services group Aitken Hume partly with Saudi finance, and later took over the ailing TV-am without initially disclosing the Saudi interest.

Mr Aitken has for 20 years moved in the strange, highly mobile world of the Saudi Arabian business community. His independence of its influence remains uncertain. A former secretary claims that his hotel bills were paid wherever he went with his Saudi contacts. Mr Aitken did not address this point in his statement yesterday.

The key to success in the world of Saudi business is to keep out of the limelight. It may be that, before too long, his friends will grow tired of the incessant publicity and decide that he has become a liability.