Members' Interests: Jonathan Aitken draws his line across the sand: The Minister

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The Independent Online
THE BATTLE between Jonathan Aitken and the Government on the one hand, and the Guardian and the chairman of Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed, on the other, generated vivid domestic political theatre last week. But it also raised again the vexed question of where the national interest lies in matters pertaining to Saudi Arabia.

The Guardian claimed the national interest was served by investigating Mr Aitken's account of his stay at the Fayed-owned Paris Ritz Hotel last September. Diplomats argued that media interest in Mr Aitken degenerated into a feeding frenzy which damaged relations with Britain's key Gulf ally.

'What the Press did was an utter disgrace,' declared a retired diplomat with close ties to Saudi Arabia. 'What did they achieve except to sow the seeds of mistrust?'

Mr Aitken's fate and that of the British-Saudi relationship have become tangled. Mr Aitken, indeed, has come to personify the bilateral relationship. Long after the question of how he handled the Ritz affair fades, the question of what his relationship is with Saudi Arabia is likely to remain current.

Mr Aitken became acquainted with Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, before the country benefited from the Opec oil price hikes of 1974 and 1980. 'Jonathan covered the Vietnam war for the Telegraph,' recalls an acquaintance. 'He stopped off in the Gulf on his way between London and Saigon. He wrote an article about Saudi Arabia that caught the royal family's attention and was invited to meet the King.'

In 1973 Mr Aitken gave up journalism for business and joined the aggressive Slater-Walker investment group as its Middle East representative. This offered him a new forum for developing his contacts with the Saudi royal family. When two teenage Saudi princes were sent to London, Mr Aitken was asked to act as their chaperone. 'Jonathan tried to take the princes to the theatre,' an acquaintance recalls. 'They wanted to go to Soho.'

After Slater-Walker collapsed during the 1970s fringe banking crisis, Mr Aitken went out on his own to Saudi Arabia, establishing himself as a conduit for bilateral trade and financial flows. 'I used to meet him in Riyadh in 1979-80,' recalls another British businessman then resident in Riyadh. 'He would come out two or three times a year. He stood out because he was elegant and articulate - and also because of the level of his contacts.'

It was during this period, the British businessman says, that Mr Aitken grew close to Wafic Said, the Syrian-born businessman who adopted Saudi nationality and worked as a middleman in the pounds 20bn Al Yamamah arms deal. 'Wafic was close to a British hospital services company called Llewellyn Davies Weeks,' the businessman recalls. 'This was one way the two men became close.'

At about this time, Aitken and his cousin Timothy set up Aitken Hume International, a small investment bank. It bred a number of subsidiaries including the UK-registered Beaverbrook Investments Plc; and the Netherlands Antilles incorporated Aitken Telecommunications Holdings.

In 1981 Beaverbrook Investments sank pounds 2.1m in TV-am, the fledgling morning television company. In 1988 it emerged that Mr Aitken and his family owned only 18.2 per cent of Beaverbrook Investments while a Saudi company, called Al Bilad, founded by a son of King Fahd, owned 49.3 per cent through Aitken Telecommunications Holdings.

Mr Aitken resigned as chairman of TV-am after the Independent Broadcasting Authority pointed out that Beaverbrook had failed to observe a rule stipulating that foreign investments in commercial television stations in excess of 1 per cent had to be declared.

By this time Mr Aitken was known in London as a friend of Saudi Arabia. In June 1982 he gave a Commons speech which celebrated 'the recent tranquil accession to the throne by King Fahd'. He had become a director of Al Bilad's British subsidiary Al Bilad (UK), one of whose fellow directors, Said Mohammed Ayas, was alleged last week to have paid half of Mr Aitken's bill for staying at the Paris Ritz last September.

By this time he had served as chairman of the Middle East advertising agency Fiennes, Perry & Partners in 1984. A company called SIFCORP, the British investment arm of his friend Wafic Said, had increased its stake in Aitken Hume from 12 per cent to nearly a third share. In the same year Mr Aitken joined the board of BMARC (British Manufacturer and Research Company), a subsidiary of the now defunct British arms company Astra.

Gerald James, the chairman of Astra at the time, told lawyers acting in an Al-Yamamah-related court case in Washington that Mr Aitken asked to be appointed a director of Astra while the company was negotiating to purchase PRB, the Belgian munitions company later named as a supplier for the Iraqi supergun. Mr Aitken says that Mr James asked him to join the BMARC board.

In September 1988 Mr Aitken spent several days at the Geneva Hilton on behalf of BMARC with Astra's chairman, Gerald James. .

Mr James told the American lawyers that the purpose of the Geneva trip was to meet Saudi princes to discuss a contract to arm Westland Black Hawk helicopters to be sold under the auspices of Al Yamamah, but to his chagrin he was not introduced to any Saudi princes. Mr Aitken has confirmed the Geneva trip, but has denied all wrongdoing in conjunction with his non-executive BMARC directorship In June 1992 Mr Aitken was made the minister for defence procurement. Gossip at the time said this offset Saudi displeasure at the appointment of Malcolm Rifkind, a Jew, to the post of minister of defence.

Since 1992 Mr Aitken has kept relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia strong as the royal family has reviewed its Western alliances in the light of the Gulf War, declining oil revenues, mounting debts and the prospect of a successor to King Fahd emerging soon, according to diplomats.

The political problem Mr Aitken now faces at home is convincing the public he has drawn the line between his public and private duties according to the cultural conventions of Britain, not Saudi Arabia.

(Photograph omitted)