‘Give me 10 minutes. That was enough time for me to get out of the compound and lose the tail’: How a whistleblower escaped Saudi Arabia after uncovering an alleged bribery scheme at Airbus

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

    Ian Foxley blew the whistle on what he claims was a multi-million-pound bribery scheme at Airbus in Saudi Arabia. After raising the alarm, Foxley ran from an interview with his managing director and fled to a safe house. The Serious Fraud Office has been investigating Foxley’s claims of bribery at sub-contractors in Saudi Arabia.

LONDON – Retired Army officer Ian Foxley thought he had found his dream job overseeing a £1.96 billion ($2.6 billion) contract for upgrading defence telecommunications in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Instead, he uncovered what he believed was evidence of a multi-million-pound bribery scheme, and tried to blow the whistle, deciding to flee the country rather than risk staying.

Foxley served in the British Army for 24 years, before moving to telecommunications in the private sector.

In 2010, he found a job advert in the Sunday Times for an operations director at defence contractor GPT (now Airbus), and in June of that year touched down in Saudi Arabia to start work on a 10-year project for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Foxley became the programme director on a project to provide satellite communications and a defence intranet for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, work that the the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) contracted out to GPT as part of a memo of understanding between the UK and Saudi governments.

Having worked in the private and public sectors, built two fibre-optic networks, and an intranet, he says, he was confident there was “nothing in this project I didn’t know about.”

But Foxley soon discovered he was the third director in six months – and by December, he too was gone. Not long after he arrived, he says, “things started building in a kind of adversarial way, because things didn’t smell right.”

This is the story of how Foxley uncovered what he claims was a systemic scheme at Airbus to bribe Saudi officials, which is now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

An Airbus spokesperson told Business Insider, “the UK’s SFO is conducting a formal investigation in connection with aspects of the business of GPT Special Project Management Limited in Saudi Arabia which is a local subsidiary of Airbus conducting business exclusively for the UK MoD. We continue to fully and constructively engage with the SFO but in view of the investigation will not be commenting further.”

“Things started getting nasty”

Ian Foxley

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Ian Foxley

At a meeting with Business Insider in London, Foxley is smartly dressed in a navy suit, and carrying a camouflage-pattern umbrella, a nod to his military past.

Not long after starting work in Saudi Arabia, he says he came across a large payment for “bought in services” in the first major GPT project he was required to sign off.

He was told these were outsourced services, but the cost was £1.6 million, more than that of the prime contractor’s fee. Across the total £1.96 billion contract, he says, “bought in services” accounted for 16% of the costs, making them his biggest sub-contractor “by volume of payment.”

This mystery contractor, he remembers thinking, was “not giving me any service. They’re not giving me any product. I’ve never seen them, I’ve never met any of them, I’ve never even heard of them.”

This was his “‘oh shit’ moment,” he says. He started asking questions, and “things started getting nasty.”

Foxley says he now suspects there were sub-contractor fees hidden in every project in GPT contracts going back to 1978. He estimates the contracts’ overall worth since then at around £5 billion: “if you tot up 16% of £5 billion, you should be looking for something in the region of £750 million [in “bought in services” payments],” he says. These unexplained payments, he alleges, were bribes for Saudi officials.

After doing some digging – which included talking to the company’s former financial controller, a man he says he’d been told was “mad” and who had previously tried to blow the whistle – Foxley got hold of documents he says prove a history of bribes totalling millions of pounds, and sent them to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) brigadier he knew in Riyadh.

Later that day he received a phone call from his managing director, who called him into his office. The head of HR, a Saudi princess, was also there. The director, who knew Foxley had emailed the documents to the MoD, questioned his suspicions, and the discussion grew heated.

According to Foxley, the director then threatened to have him arrested for theft of confidential information.

“I thought to myself, ‘you’re stuffed,’ because if a Saudi princess rings the police here and accuses you of theft, you’ve got no get-out, you’re dead in the water,” he says. So he said, “this conversation isn’t going anywhere,” and walked out.

Foxley describes swiping through secure doors at the military base with his key card, the director shouting at him from behind. When he finally got outside he called the brigadier, who sent out a military vehicle to collect him.

The James Bond-style escape from Saudi Arabia

“This is where things get a bit James Bond-y,” he smiles.

Having collected some essentials from his house – which was “effectively like a luxurious penitentiary” – Foxley bumped into a colleague who’d been sent out as part of a group to look for him. Luckily, he says, the man owed him a favour. “I said, give me 10 minutes. And that was enough time for me to get out of the compound and lose the tail.”

Foxley was taken to a safe house, and an army Colonel drove him to the airport later that night. As they said goodbye at passport control, the colonel said, “if they’ve put a stop and hold [on your passport] they’ll grab you here. I’ll go up onto the platform and I’ll watch. My first call is to the Ambassador, my second is to the brigadier. Good luck.”

Foxley steeled himself, presented his passport, and was let through. He waited until the plane was clear of Riyadh, then ordered a large whiskey and “collapsed.”

Back in the UK, he spent a few days writing a report of his findings, which he sent to two “trusted sources” in 2010, with instructions to send it straight to the SFO if anything “happened to him,” noting, “I’m not suicidal, by the way.”

Foxley’s report is currently sitting with the SFO, which said last year it had opened an investigation into possible fraud, bribery and corruption at Airbus. No charges have yet been brought, but Foxley expects action to be taken in the next six months, before SFO Director David Green retires in April.

Whether charges are brought, against whom and for what crimes, remains to be seen. According to Foxley, an added complication is that the GPT/Airbus contracts, which are still active, must have been approved by someone senior within the MoD; the original agreement was between the British and Saudi governments, although it was GPT/Airbus that carried out the work.

A MoD spokesperson said, “we understand that the SFO is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations concerning GPT Special Project Management and aspects of the conduct of their business in Saudi Arabia. It would be inappropriate to comment while that is ongoing.”

The SFO declined to comment, since the investigation is ongoing.

Foxley is adamant action must be taken, in order to stamp out the notion that engaging in bribery is sometimes simply the “cost of doing business.”

“How big do you have to be and how big does the client have to be to get away with it?” he says, “is it burglary or is it business?”