UK defence industry seeks swift end to damaging fraud investigation into BAE Systems Saudi aircraft deal

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A UK trade body representing the country's defence industry has written to the country's government in a bid to speed up an embarassing corruption probe into a 1980s defence contract with Saudi Arabia, which it fears may damage further deals with the Middle Eastern kingdom.

The National Defence Industries Council, a grouping formed from the Society of British Aerospace Companies, has written to the UK's trade minister Alistair Darling calling for a swift resolution to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into the wide-reaching Al Yamamah deal between BAE Systems as prime contractor and the Saudi government. Al Yamamah covered the purchase of aircraft including Panavia Tornado ground attack aircraft, BAE hawk trainers and Pilatus PC-9 turboprops, as well as training and support, although full details have never been disclosed.

However, the SFO has been investigating claims of commissions having been paid in cash and in kind to senior members of the Saudi ruling family, thus angering those subject to investigations.

The NDI fears the probe may threaten the £10 billion ($19 billion) order for Eurofighter Typhoons, which BAE is also heading as prime. NDI represents companies including Rolls-Royce, Cobham, Smiths Aerospace and VT as well as BAE.

The Saudi government has reportedly threatened to take the contract to the rival Dassault Rafale team if the investigation is not halted. In its letter, the NDI does not, it is understood, ask for the cancelling of the inquiry, but rather for a speeding up of its findings. The NDI is said to fear the uncertainty, rather than any findings itself.

UK law banned the paying of any commisisons, sweeteners or bribes in the negotiation of arms deals. However this law only applies to contracts signed after 2002, a rule the SFO may apply in quickly ruling the case invalid, insiders hope.