Newly released documents show Thatcher apologised to King Fahd for hostile comments about Saudi Arabia in the British press.
The extent to which Margaret Thatcher personally lobbied the Saudi royal family, flattering them at every opportunity to secure Britain’s biggest arms deal, is revealed in newly released documents.
They show how anxious British ministers and diplomats pursued the Saudis to buy Tornado and Hawk aircraft in what became a £43bn deal known as al-Yamamah (Arabic for dove). Many documents have been withheld and passages removed to suppress embarrassing disclosures.
One document refers to a meeting between British officials and Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, in September 1985. It reads: “At the meeting, the prince indicated that, particularly in view of our willingness … [passage deleted] … there might be further UK orders in connection with construction work …”
A number of pages have been removed after a document refers to “offset” arrangements and “payment methods”. The papers refer to a press report that £600m backhanders were passed to arms dealers known as the four cavaliers.
The Yamamah deal became mired in a long-running controversy over allegations that BAE, Britain’s biggest arms dealer, made huge illicit payments to Saudi royals to land the contract. In 2006, Tony Blair’s government abruptly halted a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the allegations following pressure from the Saudis and the firm. In 2010, BAE agreed to pay almost £300m in penalties, to settle an investigation by US and UK authorities into alleged corruption in its deals with the Saudis and other countries.
Until the Yamamah deal was finally signed in September 1985, British officials expressed concern that France might persuade the Saudis to buy Mirage jets instead of Tornados.
With the enthusiastic backing of British arms companies, Thatcher apologised to King Fahd for hostile comments about Saudi Arabia in the British press. At a time when the arms deal was in the offing, but not yet agreed, she told the king on 2 January 1985 that she was delighted “relations between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia are warm and friendly”.
She said: “I attach the very highest importance to maintaining and improving them, and I am convinced that the possibilities for cooperation between our two governments and peoples are very great indeed.
“I am particularly encouraged by Your Majesty’s welcome assurance that British press reporting on Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to influence our bilateral relations.”
On 23 August 1985, as the Tornado and Hawk deal was close to being finalised, Thatcher conveyed to the king her “warmest respects”. She wrote: “Your Majesty proposed that the contract agreement should be between our two governments. I warmly support this proposal which I see as offering the opportunity develop still closer relations between our two countries at government level”.
Intriguingly, the letter has been redacted just before a passage in which Thatcher says she agrees that “no publicity whatever” should be given to the negotiations over the arms deal.
Thatcher bowed to the Saudi demands for secrecy. “You may be confident of our complete discretion”, Thatcher told King Fahd in January 1985.
Officials in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence wrote: “The prime minister has instructed that there are to be no (no) leaks from the British side.”
A document records that Sir Patrick Wright, the UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, “emphasised the extreme secrecy and delicacy with which this matter was being handled in London”.
The full extent of the commissions on the deal remain secret. They are understood to be the subject of a National Audit Office report that remains under lock and key.
Whitehall weeders have withdrawn numerous pages from the files under a section of the Public Records Act that enables government departments to prevent the release of government documents indefinitely.
Saudi Arabia remains Britain’s biggest arms market. Last year it bought 72 Typhoon aircraft in a deal valued at more than £7bn.