TONY Blair is already half-forgotten in Downing Street but Britain this week received one of his most contentious legacies in the form of an arms contract with Saudi Arabia, which could be worth more than $46billion.
The Saudi decision to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes and a barrage of related services from arms manufacturer BAE Systems followed Mr Blair’s decision in December to block a Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribes allegedly paid by BAE to members of the Saudi royal family.
The then prime minister ordered British prosecutors to drop the case on the grounds that it would be against the national interest, even though SFO officers believed they had enough evidence for a criminal conviction.
Mr Blair’s decision prompted criticism from the OECD, anti-corruption campaigners and US government investigators, who have launched their own inquiry into the bribes allegations.
It also brought claims of hypocrisy from the Kremlin, after British officials claimed they could not interfere with Britain’s “totally independent” justice system to stop British prosecutors pursuing diplomatically sensitive allegations that a former KGB agent had killed a Russian dissident in London.
When Mr Blair announced the BAE bribery investigation was being dropped, he denied it was in response to intense pressure from British industry and unions, which had worried that Saudi anger could undermine the Typhoon deal and threaten thousands of British jobs.
Government officials conceded privately the potential impact on British industry was a factor in their decision, but Mr Blair and then attorney-general Peter Goldsmith said they were stepping in for “national security” reasons because angering the Saudi Government could imperil Saudi support for the campaign against Islamic extremism.
The Saudis had threatened to cut off intelligence co-operation and that could put British lives at risk, Mr Blair said.
The British Government was quiet about the huge new arms export deal, with confirmation only coming this week from a Saudi announcement that the deal with Britain’s biggest arms-maker had been signed on September 11.
The initial contract was for pound stg. 4.43billion ($10billion) but related deals for munitions, repairs, training and other services are expected to lift it to pound stg. 20billion, making the export deal, by some accounts, Britain’s biggest.
Britain’s Conservative Party, which was in power during the initial Saudi arms deal, has offered little criticism of the stifling of the investigation, but the Liberal Democrats called the decision an outrage, a charge that party leader Menzies Campbell highlighted at his party’s annual conference yesterday.
“What kind of country is it where the Government halts a criminal investigation into corrupt arms sales to placate commercial interests?” Sir Menzies asked at the start of his keynote speech.
The US Department of Justice mounted inquiries into the matter in June, and a US law firm has launched a class action suit of BAE shareholders, claiming BAE bosses failed to carry out their duties by paying bribes to secure the original deal to sell Hawk and Tornado jets to Saudi Arabia in 1985.
The lawsuit alleges BAE gave more than $US2billion in bribes to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a claim the prince and the firm deny.