Saturday, June 30, 2007

Behind the BAE Bribery Investigation - Robert Fisk: 'Abu Henry' and the mysterious silence

I was tempted to tag this "Humor" ... but it's too painful ... - AC

30 June 2007

"Abu Henry" says we may have to remain in Afghanistan for decades to protect Afghans from the Taliban. Our ambassador in Kabul - Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, KCMG, LVO, to be precise - apparently sees no contradiction in this extraordinary prediction.

The Taliban are themselves mostly Afghans, and the idea that the British Army is in Afghanistan to protect the locals from each other is a truly colonial proposition. It's what we said about the Northern Irish in 1969. Anyway, I thought we destroyed the Taliban in 2001. Wasn't that the idea at the time? Isn't that what Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, our new man in the Middle East - who will grace us with his first visit next month - said back then?

Abu Henry - and I am indebted to one of the Saudi government's house magazines for telling me that this is how he "is affectionately called by his Saudi friends" - left Riyadh in some haste, a "surprise" as he put it, since he expected to spend another year there. And presumably, he has not been able to take the Cowper-Coles family's pet falcons - Nour and Alwaleed - with him to Kabul. But before he left, Abu Henry had some warm praise for the notoriously third-rate intelligence services in the kingdom. "I've been hugely impressed by the way in which the Saudi Arabian authorities have tackled and contained what was (sic) a serious terrorist threat," he announced. "They've shrunk the pool of support for terrorism..."

No word, of course, of the Saudis' habit of chopping off the heads of "criminals" after grotesquely unfair trials. In an unprecedented year for executions, the kingdom's swordsmen - the job is sometimes passed on father to son as was once the case in Britain - managed to hack off 100 heads by the middle of this month. But then again, you'd have to avoid any such references when British investment in Saudi Arabia is worth at least £6b. That, no doubt, is one reason why Abu Henry boasted to his Saudi friends - according to the same government magazine - that in Riyadh "we've been proud of our visa policy, where 95 per cent of Saudis applying for a visa before 9am on a workday obtain their visas by 2pm the same working day". Phew. Now that is something. The Saudis, you may remember, provided 14 of the 19 killers of 11 September, 2001; quite a record for a little kingdom, and one which in other circumstances - had the murderers been from Chad, say, or Mali - would not have been rewarded with quite so generous a visa policy.

And no word from Abu Henry, of course, about that other little matter of the alleged bribery of Saudi officials by the British BAE Systems arms group. Here, however, there is much more to say - courtesy, I admit at once, of a delightfully written article by Michael Peel in the Financial Times last February. In the paper, Peel describes how Robert Wardle, director of the Serious Fraud Office, had "much to ponder" after three London meetings with Cowper-Coles, "Britain's urbane ambassador to Saudi Arabia". Mr Wardle, it seems, was "coming around to the view" that he might have to scrap his enquiry since it could damage "national security". Wardle told Peel that "the matter was difficult and really I found it very helpful to have, as it were, the ambassador flesh out the position. It helped my understanding of the risks and very much helped me to make my decision to discontinue the investigation".

Abu Henry, it seems, "told how the probe might cause Riyadh to cancel security and intelligence co-operation, potentially depriving London of access to vital surveillance of terror suspects during the haj pilgrimage to Mecca... The ambassador had even suggested (that) persisting with the SFO probe could endanger lives in Britain". According to a person "closely involved in the events", wrote Peel - and I suspect the "person" was probably Wardle - Cowper-Coles "didn't overelaborate, but he spelt out in very clear terms, in specifics, what he believed the consequences would be ... including that people could die". Two days later, the bribery investigation was scrapped.

So no wonder the Saudis affectionately called him "Abu Henry".

Given some of his remarks during a recent visit to Oxford, however, Abu Henry must himself have been surprised that he could persuade Lord Blair of the wisdom of dumping that all-important bribery investigation. Among academics, he did not hide his cynicism of our former prime minister, complaining that despite exhaustive Foreign Office briefing notes and proposed speeches, Blair scarcely seemed to read them and sometimes used only a single line from their contents.

But then again, I guess that's what diplomacy is all about, persuading here, pleading there, trying to get what you want by a few off-the-record comments to officials of the Serious Fraud Office, even to journalists I have no doubt.

Indeed, I remember way back in the late 1970s - when I was Middle East correspondent for The Times - how a British diplomat in Cairo tried to persuade me to fire my local "stringer", an Egyptian Coptic woman who also worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press and who provided a competent coverage of the country when I was in Beirut. "She isn't much good," he said, and suggested I hire a young Englishwoman whom he knew and who - so I later heard - had close contacts in the Foreign Office.

I refused this spooky proposal. Indeed, I told The Times that I thought it was outrageous that a British diplomat should have tried to engineer the sacking of our part-timer in Cairo. The Times's foreign editor agreed.

But it just shows what diplomats can get up to.

And the name of that young British diplomat in Cairo back in the late 1970s? Why, Sherard Cowper-Coles, of course.