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The Saudis put it rather more honestly. Apart from the hardware, they will be buying "transference of technology and investment in the field of defense industries in Saudi Arabia, as well as training of Saudi citizens in the field of aviation".

In other words, they'll be buying not just 72 jets, but all the technology that's gone into them. It doesn't seem likely that they'll be knocking out fifth-generation fighters themselves any time soon, but they'll have full access to the knowledge base required. And there's absolutely no reason at all why they'd bother to keep all those secrets to themselves. Even though UK and Western-European taxpayers - whose money paid for the development - might prefer them to be rather closely held.

Furthermore - if the previous Saudi deals are anything to go by - at least a few billion of the Saudi oil credits, having been turned into hard currency by the British government, will then be placed into the al-Saud family's various offshore accounts. This will be part of the contract, quite above board; just like the former deals. It does mean that we aren't really talking £16bn on top of the fighters, though. Allowing for a perhaps rather inflated estimate by the biz scribes' "defence sources", then some cumshaw for the al-Sauds, we're probably looking at less than £10bn for Blighty on top of the jet deal.

So best case, the UK has landed a fairly insignificant engineering contract and a middling-size services/financial/consulting deal. Whoopee - like we didn't have a big enough service sector.

Worst case, we've sold our good names forever and our £20bn war-winning air combat tech to the wide world - all for peanuts. Smooth. The Chinese may not be able to make decent jets now, but if we keep handing out the book on how to do it, they might pick up a copy one day.

Then we'll have to go back to BAE for some kind of sixth-generation aerial deathware to get back the advantage we've spent twenty years paying through the nose for. Ouch.

Still, BAE aren't getting it all their own way. The SFO bloodhounds were only called off the Saudi trail; they were allowed to keep files open on the various other areas round the world where BAE has sold stuff. It appears that they may have made some progress, with the Financial Times reporting today that Tanzanian plods - with SFO help - are looking to charge various shady intermediaries involved in the 2002 deal where BAE sold the penniless Tanzanian government an air-search radar system that they had no need for. (The kit was, of course, paid for using international aid money. Your taxes at work, again.)

Meanwhile in America, a class-action lawsuit has been mounted by BAE shareholders against the company's directors. Pension-fund investors accuse the executives of ruining the company's reputation and trading dishonestly. Prince Bandar of the House al-Saud is also named. So is Michael Portillo, the former UK defence secretary who put lots of business BAE's way and later took a seat on the company's board.

The US Justice Department haven't given up, either. They asked the UK home office for access to the SFO's voluminous Saudi files some months ago, but thus far Gordon Brown's government has ignored them and hoped they would go away.

The request for assistance (MLA) was receiving "due consideration", the Home Office told reporters last night.

"This is certainly not an unprecedented length of time for a case of this complexity to be considered."

It seems that the federales may not be willing to hang around while the Home Office puts its fingers in its ears and mutters "la la la, I'm not listening to you". The Guardian reports this morning that the Feds have begun taking statements from British witnesses on their own initiative.

This level of stench is going to call for a truly massive can of corporate deodorant. ®

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