Calls for Inquiry after Britons Cleared of Bribing Saudi Officials

Published: 07 March 2024

London Southwalk Crown Court The verdict was reached by a London jury at Southwark Crown Court after a 12-year investigation. (Photo: Jorge Franganillo, Flickr, License)

By Lara Dihmis and Brian Fitzpatrick

Two British men have been acquitted of bribing senior Saudi officials to secure and retain military communications contracts worth at least £1.6 billion (US$2.04 billion), after arguing the payments had the approval of the U.K.'s Ministry of Defense.

The verdict was reached by a London jury on Wednesday, nearly 12 years after the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) opened its investigation into £9.7 million ($12.36 million) of payments made by the U.K. firm GPT Special Project Management Ltd. GPT itself had pleaded guilty and paid £27.5 million ($35 million) of penalties over the same payments in an earlier case.

Following Wednesday’s verdict at Southwark Crown Court, the non-profit Spotlight on Corruption called for an inquiry into the extent of the British government's alleged involvement in facilitating the payments at the heart of the case.

The now-defunct GPT, an Airbus subsidiary at the time of the events, had been contracted by the Ministry of Defense to install and operate communications for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, as part of a project known as SANGCOM.

Jeffrey Cook, a civil servant assigned to work with GPT who later became its managing director, and John Mason, an accountant working with GPT’s subcontractors, did not deny involvement in the payments between 2007 and 2012.

Prosecutors had claimed Cook and Mason were behind a scheme in which 12 percent of GPT’s revenues were paid to Saudi officials through offshore firms and intermediaries, to ensure GPT kept its contracts.

Among those who received bribes, according to the SFO’s findings, was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, son of the former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and then-deputy head of the National Guard.

However, GPT had held the lucrative SANGCOM contract since 1994, and the judge in the case, Justice Simon Picken, had earlier concluded that a “small number” of officials may have “known or suspected” that corrupt payments were being made as part of SANGCOM until 2006.

Lawyers representing Cook and Mason told the court that the payments were authorized at the “highest levels” of the defense ministry. Cook’s barrister said the British government had not “merely acquiesced or tolerated those payments” but “actually required those payments to be made.”

Spotlight on Corruption said the case “revealed extensive and disturbing allegations of government knowledge and potential complicity with alleged corrupt payments that must now be fully investigated.”

Allegations about the program first surfaced in 2011, after ex-GPT Program Director Ian Foxley told the SFO that GPT had paid huge fees to offshore firms. The SFO first charged Mason, Cook and GPT in 2020. A first trial collapsed in July 2022 after the judge ruled the Ministry of Defense needed to disclose additional documents, and a second trial began in November 2023.

“There is a real chance that in deciding to acquit these men on corruption charges, the jury gave serious consideration to the extensive knowledge of U.K. government officials about, and the role of the Ministry of Defense in authorizing, the alleged bribes,” Spotlight’s statement continued.

“It is essential that a full, independent judge-led inquiry is now undertaken to get to the bottom of the Ministry of Defense’s role in these arrangements and how it has conducted itself in relation to the SFO’s investigation.”

The group also called for authorities to perform an audit of the defense ministry’s “bank accounts and contracting arrangements” in its contracts with Saudi Arabia, and to publish the results.

Also on Wednesday, Cook was found guilty of a separate count of “misconduct in public office,” for receiving tens of thousands of pounds in illegal payments and gifts while he was employed by the Ministry of Defense between 2004 and 2008. His sentencing on that count will follow at a later date.