Comment: UK can’t back down on fraud inquiry

Once again the UK is threatening to back down on a fraud investigation involving arms manufacturers and Saudi Arabia.

By Chandrashekhar Krishnan

As the reports emerged on Sunday of a possible government intervention into a UK-Saudi bribery investigation, I was immediately reminded of a similar case which ended controversially five years ago.

The attorney general is reportedly deliberating over the implications of continuing the inquiry into allegations that GPT – a UK subsidiary of EADS – made illicit payments to the Saudi Royal family in order to secure a contract worth £2 billion. The investigation was initiated after a whistle-blower alerted the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to a payment of £11.5 million made to a Swiss bank account allegedly controlled by a member of the Saudi Royal family.

There is a danger that history could repeat itself. The Blair government caused an international outcry by forcing the SFO to drop an investigation into allegations of bribery involving BAE Systems and a member of the Saudi Royal Family in the Al Yamamah UK-Saudi defence contract. It is imperative that this case does not follow suit. Under no circumstance should the UK allow political, economic or diplomatic considerations to affect the course of justice. If the SFO believes it has a credible case, it is vital that they are allowed to investigate and prosecute without political interference. 

EADS is one of the leading members of the defence industry's own anti-corruption initiatives IFBEC and the Common Industry Standards of ADS. The company should cooperate with the SFO and undertake a thorough internal investigation into these allegations, regardless of the UK government's decision. Likewise the Saudi government should undertake its own investigation into the allegations. 

The attorney general's decision will face a high level of international scrutiny because the UK’s anti-corruption record is currently under review by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the OECD. Under Article 5 of the OECD anti-bribery convention, to which the UK is a party, a state cannot allow political, economic or diplomatic considerations to interfere with the investigation and prosecution of foreign bribery cases. 

The Arab spring has shown us that citizens in the Middle East strongly resent corrupt rulers and bribe-paying by European companies exacerbates this problem and helps to maintain corrupt governments in power.

The government's decision will be closely watched by any corrupt company and government overseas looking for an excuse to continue business as usual. It is imperative that the government sticks by the international rules and ensures this investigation goes ahead.

Chandrashekhar Krishnan is executive director of Transparency International UK.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.