Magna Carta, Philip Hammond and the Saudi businessman

Magna Carta, Philip Hammond and the Saudi businessman

Did foreign secretary help sheikh meet the Queen? 

Last summer Britain's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, received a gift from a Saudi businessman – an Ebel watch priced at almost £2,000. Although government ministers are forbidden from accepting gifts worth more than £140, an apparent loophole in the rules has resulted in Hammond keeping the watch, much to the disgust of numerous Twitter users.

The grubby story of Hammond's watch is just one example of the way that wealthy Saudis and others from the Gulf states ingratiate themselves with the British establishment and sometimes with British royalty. 

The revelation about the Saudi's gift to the foreign secretary came less than a week after Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the Conservative government of taking a soft line towards Gulf regimes. Speaking on the BBC's Today programme, he said:

"The failure to put pressure on the Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, first of all to stop funding the Salafists and Wahhabists, secondly to play a larger part in this campaign [against jihadism] and other actions where the government has refused to have a proper inquiry into the funding of jihadism in Britain, leads me to worry about the closeness between the Conservative party and rich Arab Gulf individuals."

Ashdown is not alone. There are even some in the Conservative party who worry about this. Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, for example, has previously complained about "men in pinstripes telling us how critical Saudi Arabia is to British interests". In an article for the Telegraph in 2007, he wrote:

"British interests" is, of course, a much nicer phrase than "my place on the board of a Saudi-funded company", which is often what they really mean, but never mind. They have set the terms of the debate. As far as commentators are concerned, this is now a morality versus Realpolitik issue. On the one hand stand the namby-pamby liberals, with their concerns about feminism and capital punishment; on the other the hard-faced hommes d'affaires with their talk of defence contracts and counter-terrorism.

But let's take a closer look at the story behind Hammond's watch.

This year marked the 800th anniversary of a significant moment in England's political development, when the unpopular King John was forced to accept some limitation on his powers by signing the document known as Magna Carta. In essence, it was an early step away from the kind of absolute monarchy that we see today in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The signing of Magna Carta in 1215 took place at Runnymede, in a water meadow on the banks of the River Thames – a spot that today happens to lie in Hammond's parliamentary constituency.

As the 800th anniversary approached there was discussion locally about how to celebrate it. A £8.3 million "masterplan" put forward in 2013 seems to have fallen by the wayside, but in 2014 two Runnymede councillors came up with their own plan.

Runnymede already had a modest monument to Magna Carta, erected in 1957 and inscribed with the words: "To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law". However, it was paid for by the American Bar Association – a fact which seems to have troubled Daniel Hannan, the MEP whose constituency in the European parliament includes Runnymede. It was "disgraceful", "bewildering" and "bizarre", he later told the Telegraph, that there should be no "permanent British memorial" on the site.

Runnymede: the American Bar Association's 
monument to Magna Carta

A sensible way of remedying this would have been to hold a design competition and choose the best idea, but time was short and instead councillors Paul Tuley (a finance consultant) and Derek Cotty (a former production manager for The Bill television series) took matters into their own hands. In May/June 2014 they formed a limited company called Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy where they were joined on the board by Paul Beck, an economist/businessman and later by Ronald Enticott, a chartered accountant.

In September 2014 they announced that the company would be raising funds to erect a 16-foot bronze statue of Britain's current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, at a cost of £350,000.

"I think the Queen is the perfect example of being a monarch and what our monarchy has achieved," Cotty told the media, posing in front of a small model of the proposed statue.

However, a statue of the Queen was an incongruous way of celebrating the 800-year anniversary since it appeared to turn the basic principle of Magna Carta – the curbing of royal power – on its head. 

One of the first to criticise the royal statue plan was Dr Matthew Smith, curator of Egham Museum nearby. He recalled that once, when the Queen's father, King George VI, was being driven through Runnymede he had thrown his arm out of the window of his car and exclaimed "that’s where it all started" in frustration at the latest infringement on royal powers by the Churchill government of 1944. A newspaper report of Smith's criticisms continued:

“The story of the monarchy is intricately bound up with that of Magna Carta but not in a way that often reflects positively on the crown,” he told the Herald & News.

“For centuries radicals and reformers have reached for Magna Carta to defend or expand rights in opposition to the monarch or government ...

“Are we risking giving the suggestion, intentionally or not, that our rights are a gift of the crown and not the culmination of centuries of struggle by those often in opposition to the state?”

A two-week "public consultation" process followed, which elicited 31 objections and only 21 declarations of support. One angry resident told the local press: 

"I find it utterly bizarre and ridiculous that a statue of a monarch should be erected near land which has so many connotations with democracy, justice, liberty and the rights of the ordinary person, all of which have been vigorously opposed by royalty since before 1215."

A collection of other comments from residents can be found here

Regardless of the objections, Runnymede council announced that the statue "would be accepted as a gift". In the meantime, though, the plan had run into a snag that almost scuppered it: although the statue was a gift, the council could be liable for the cost of maintaining and insuring it, at an estimated cost of £8,300 a year. Furthermore, the council's own insurers were refusing to provide cover, citing the high cost of the statue, its proximity to the river and the risk of vandalism.

That difficulty was apparently resolved when Councillor Tuley (of Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy Ltd) announced that a new insurer had been found and a "legacy fund" would be provided to cover maintenance and insurance costs.

And so, on June 15 – a rainy day in Runnymede – a crowd gathered beneath umbrellas to watch the unveiling of the statue. Dignitaries in attendance included Philip Hammond (foreign secretary and MP for Runnymede), John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons), Daniel Hammond (MEP for the area) and Councillor Derek Cotty of Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy Ltd (who by then had become mayor).

As the ceremony got under way a band struck up a tune but then halted as Bercow struggled to remove the statue's cover, before resuming the music as it finally came off. It was a day, Bercow said, for anyone who believes in the rights of citizens and the importance of representative democracy to count their blessings.

But who paid for the statue? According to one account, its "sponsors" were "headed" by Sheikh Marei Mubarak Mahfouz bin Mahfouz, one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia, who presumably donated a large chunk of the money. It was Sheikh Marei who also later presented Hammond with the £2,000 watch.

How and why Sheikh Marei came to be involved is still far from clear. According to the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, the MEP, "helped source sponsorship" but considering his distaste for those who cosy up to Saudi businessmen we should probably assume he was not the one who recruited Sheikh Marei to the project. And Hannan's desire to have a thoroughly British monument to Magna Carta is still unfulfilled: there are now two monuments, one American funded, the other (at least in part) Saudi funded.

Hammond: an act of "kindness" to the sheikh

An equally interesting question is what prompted Sheikh Marei to give Hammond a £2,000 watch. According to the sheikh's lawyer, quoted in the Sunday Times, the watch "was a gift of appreciation for the kindness extended by Mr Hammond to Sheikh Marei on 15 June".

This act of "kindness" – whatever it was – occurred not at the unveiling ceremony but a day after, and there's a clue in the Sunday Times story: 

"The sheikh was not present at the unveiling but arrived the next day and was shown the statue by Hammond. The sheikh later met the Queen."

So it's possible the watch was simply a thank-you to Hammond for accompanying Sheikh Marei to look at the statue. If so, the watch seems an unnecessarily generous reward, even by Saudi standards. But what of Sheikh Marei's meeting with the Queen? Is it possible that Hammond pulled some strings to arrange it, and was being rewarded for that? Perhaps other MPs should enquire further.

Sheikh Marei is head of the Marei Bin Mahfouz Group, which he founded in 1965. It's a trading, manufacturing and services company which operates mainly in Mecca and Jeddah and is said to be ranked 19th among Saudi Arabia's top 100 companies.

One of Sheikh Marei's sons, 45-year-old Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, is a philanthropist who also cultivates connections with British royalty. Earlier this year he donated $370,000 to a charitable trust headed by Prince Charles which runs the 15th century Castle of Mey in Scotland, a former home of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. In recognition of his support, a wood on the estate was renamed the Mahfouz Wood.

In 2013 he became the first Bredon Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, after making a "munificent" (but unspecified) donation to the college.

For reasons which I can't fathom, Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz is also known as the Lord and Baron of Abernethy – a Scottish feudal title which he somehow acquired in 2008.