LONDON (Reuters) - Lawyers for two Saudi princes involved in litigation over a business dispute they have tried to keep secret argued in a British court on Tuesday their clients should be granted immunity from being sued.
The litigation, which has been going through British courts since December 2011, stems from sales in 2010 and 2011 of shares in Fi Call Ltd, a company jointly owned by Prince Abdulaziz bin Mishal and Jordanian businessman Faisal Almhairat.
Prince Abdulaziz and Almhairat accuse each other of wrongdoing but details of the claims have so far remained secret because the prince and his father, who is also involved, have argued that it would be damaging to Saudi Arabia’s relations with Britain and the United States to air them in open court.
Prince Abdulaziz’s father is the elderly Prince Mishal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, one of King Abdullah’s many brothers and the chairman of the Allegiance Council, which oversees the succession to the Saudi throne.
The Fi Call matter is scheduled to come to trial in January 2014. In two separate strands of pre-trial hearings, lawyers have argued that details of the case should remain secret and the Saudi princes should be granted immunity from litigation.
At Tuesday’s hearing before the High Court, which was about the immunity question, Prince Mishal was described as a “close confidant, senior brother” of King Abdullah who was “listed in terms of precedence above the crown prince”.
The lawyer representing the princes, Timothy Otty, argued they should enjoy the same immunity from litigation to which the monarch was entitled. The judge will rule on the princes’ application for immunity at a later date.
A ruling on the separate matter of whether the case should be heard in private, handed down on February 13 by judge Paul Morgan, gave limited insight into what the dispute is about.
The two sides accuse each other of misappropriating the proceeds of sales of shares in Fi Call. Almhairat also alleges that Prince Abdulaziz is guilty of wrongdoing in relation to two deals referred to only as “the Beirut transaction” and “the Nairobi transaction”. Almhairat says Prince Mishal is involved in some matters relevant to the dispute.
The lawyers also argued that Prince Abdulaziz would be “at risk of serious personal injury or death from reprisals” if the allegation about the Beirut transaction was made public.
The princes reject the allegations against them as “scandalous and outrageous”.
Their lawyers argued that the allegations should not be heard in open court where media could be present because they would “lead to an adverse effect on relations between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia”.
Judge Morgan ruled that these arguments came “nowhere near being clear and cogent evidence” to justify holding court hearings in private.
The princes have appealed against Morgan’s ruling. Pending the outcome, the details of the case remain secret.
It is not the first time that the threat of damaging relations with Saudi Arabia has played a part in legal proceedings in Britain.
In 2006, a corruption investigation into a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia was dropped because of concerns that it could harm Britain’s security interests.
But there was widespread criticism at the time that the true motivation for shelving the case was to protect Britain’s commercial prospects in the kingdom.
Editing by Mark Heinrich