John Major cabinet papers: Saudi sections censored

Sensitive discussions by British government ministers about Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, which likely involve controversial arms deals, have been censored from a series of newly declassified files. The move raises more questions about oversight of one of the UK’s deepest alliances.

31 December 2019

Files about Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia during the reign of King Fahd (seated third from left) are censored (Photo: D. W. Holmes / Public domain)

Cabinet papers from 1996 containing details of weekly meetings held by then-prime minister John Major and his Conservative ministers have been released under Britain’s declassification rules.

Although the agendas show Saudi Arabia was discussed on three separate occasions that year, the minutes of those discussions have all been redacted and remain censored.

It is the latest sign that British officials want to keep secret details of their relationship with the authoritarian Saudi regime.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle told Declassified: “The fact that even now the British public can’t see the level of cooperation between our country and Saudi Arabia shows that the British authorities must be worried that the full truth would disturb many sensible patriotic Brits.”

Russell-Moyle, who has sat on parliament’s arms export committee, added: “It is time that this relationship be exposed and ended whilst the Saudi Arabian coalition continue to bomb and destroy the Yemen, harbour international terrorism and destabilise the Middle East.”

The UK cabinet minutes concerning Saudi Arabia have been stamped with a message stating they are temporarily retained “under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act”.

This is a legal instrument allowing Britain’s Lord Chancellor—currently the Conservative justice minister Robert Buckland QC—to censor government documents “for a special reason”. The provision can be used in cases where declassification will “create a real risk of prejudice to national security.”

Prime minister John Major, home secretary Michael Howard, health secretary Stephen Dorrell and Welsh secretary William Hague were present at all three cabinet meetings, which took place on 14 March, 16 April and 4 July 1996. Deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and defence secretary Michael Portillo were also present at the first and third meetings when Saudi Arabia was discussed.

Saudi Arabia was among the largest customers of British arms in 1996 but relations between the two countries had become strained over the case of Mohammed al Mas’ari, a controversial Saudi dissident who sought asylum in Britain, where he helped Osama Bin Laden open an office in London in 1994.

By January 1996, following concerns that the Saudis were blocking arms deals because of the dissident’s presence in Britain, home secretary Howard rejected Al Mas’ari’s asylum application.

But three months later, around the time of the first cabinet discussion on Saudi Arabia, Al Mas’ari had won his appeal against deportation. Judge Pearl, the chief adjudicator, said there had been an attempt by the British government to bypass the UN Convention on Refugees for “diplomatic and trade reasons”.

Declassified minutes of cabinet meetings from a decade earlier, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, have not had the sections on Saudi Arabia redacted and illustrate the high priority British governments have put on arms sales to the Gulf dictatorship.

In one meeting on the morning of 3 October 1985, Michael Heseltine, then defence minister, talked of the recently signed Al-Yamamah arms deal, which was eventually worth over £40-billion, and noted that this was the “biggest export deal ever concluded by the United Kingdom in the defence field”, adding that “the personal role of the prime minister in the negotiations has been crucial.” 

UK cabinet minutes from 1985 about Saudi Arabia have already been published without redactions.

“As a result of this sale,” Heseltine told the cabinet, “the United Kingdom would play a central role in Saudi Arabia’s defence for 20 years ahead”. He added that the deal meant Saudi Arabia had “departed in an important way from its reliance on the United States for the supply of arms.”

The UK’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been shrouded in secrecy, with many aspects of it kept from the public. Declassified UK recently revealed that the UK military has a training team in Saudi Arabia that is embedded in the Saudi armed forces and is believed to report to Saudi commanders. 

Declassified UK also revealed that a classified £2-billion British military communications project in Saudi Arabia employs ten times more people than the government has admitted.  

Declassified UK contacted the UK Cabinet Office, Sir John Major, Lord Hague, Portillo and Dorrell for comment, but received no responses. Lord Heseltine declined to comment, while Lord Howard said he has “no recollection of these discussions and is, therefore, unable to help”.