Minister denies playing role in arms deal

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The Independent Online
JONATHAN AITKEN, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has denied he competed with Mark Thatcher to broker the Al- Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

In taped conversations between Saudi officials there are references to a man named John, who was an alternative fixer to Mr Thatcher. The Saudis allegedly preferred to use Mr Thatcher, who is said to have made pounds 12m from the deal.

Mr Aitken's office said yesterday that he had nothing to add to a statement, issued on Monday evening, denying that he was John. There is no suggestion that the minister was involved in Al-Yamamah. However, there are few people in the Conservative Party who know as much about Britain's commercial interests with Saudi Arabia.

During the 1980s Mr Aitken, who developed a knowledge of the Middle East while working in the region for Slater Walker, the 1970s property company, became commercially involved with Saudi business interests on several fronts.

Mr Aitken's declaration in the Register of MPs' interests for 1989 lists a number of business interests, most of which had Saudi connections. At the time he declared his chairmanship of Aitken Hume, the merchant bank; his directorship of Al Bilad (UK) Limited; his directorship of TV-am, which he held until March 1988; his directorship of Beaverbrook Investments; and his directorship of BMARC (British Manufacturer and Research Company), which was a subsidiary of the now defunct arms company, Astra.

Aitken Hume, a small merchant bank on the edge of the City, was formed with Mr Aitken's cousin, Timothy, in 1981. At the peak of its fortunes in 1987 it had a market capitalisation of nearly pounds 100m.

Following its purchase of an insurance company, Sentinel Life, Wafic Said, the man said to be a key player in the pounds 20bn Al-Yamamah contract, became a major shareholder.

Former members of Aitken Hume say that Mr Said's involvement in the bank began as a favour to Mr Aitken. The two men were close personal friends. Initially Mr Said was represented on the Aitken Hume board by Ziad Idilby, one of Mr Said's close colleagues.

When Mr Said became the subject of some controversial articles in an Arab London- based satirical magazine in 1984, Mr Aitken lobbied senior members of the Government on his behalf. He urged ministers to try to do something about the magazine that printed the allegations, which, he had been assured, were 'totally untrue'.

Al Bilad (UK) Limited is described in the Register of MPs' interests as a subsidiary of a foreign parent company which receives payments from contracts with Saudi Arabian royal family interests and government agencies. Al Bilad (UK) had offices in Upper Brook Street.

In 1988, Mr Aitken's Saudi connections forced him to resign from the board of TV-am when it emerged he had failed to disclose a Saudi royal family interest in Beaverbrook Investments, the company through which he held his position.

Mr Aitken joined the board of BMARC in September 1988 partly, Gerald James, the former chairman of the parent company Astra, says, because he said that he could be 'very helpful to us in relation to Saudi Arabia because of his long- standing connections with the Saudi royal family'.