On a hot Arabian night, the Red Sea sparkled silver as a mile-wide firework display lit up the sky. For the King of Saudi Arabia, the lavish opening ceremony of a new science and technology university in Jeddah was the culmination of a 25-year dream. King Abdullah's hope was that the research centre would become a beacon of tolerance in the troubled Middle East.
Prince Andrew, who watched the dazzling pyrotechnics from VIP seats, had less lofty aspirations. As Britain's trade envoy, he was leading a delegation of more than 20 vice-chancellors from UK universities, as well as representing the Queen. The event was a good opportunity for Britain to further its relationship with the oil-rich kingdom.
But surrounded by foreign royals and dignitaries, the trip was also an opportunity for the Duke to push the commercial interests of his business partners, David and Jonathan Rowland.
An astonishing chain of leaked emails seen by this newspaper reveal a controversial blurring of his public duties and private interests on the trip, as he lobbied the King of Bahrain on behalf of his friends.
Prince Andrew with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in May 2017
It was just one part of a push by the Duke to help the Rowlands fulfil their plan of launching a Middle Eastern banking operation – one which the emails show Andrew was due to have a stake in. The Duke had been working with the Rowlands for several years. Publicly, the pair were described as his financial advisers.
In July 2009, the Rowlands had bought a private bank, Banque Havilland, and were planning to expand its activities to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Andrew would only be in Saudi Arabia for two days – but it was enough time to pull strings.
Buckingham Palace's Court Circular shows that the Duke arrived in Jeddah on September 22, 2009, for the launch of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. There he rubbed shoulders with world leaders, including Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad.
As luck would have it, the King of Bahrain was among the guests. Whether he and Andrew talked at the ceremony, or held a more formal meeting elsewhere, is unclear. Either way, the Duke found a way to engage the King in a discussion about the Rowlands' plans. This was an extraordinary move: lobbying foreign monarchs on behalf of his own business associates was certainly not part of his remit as UK trade envoy, or as a senior member of the Royal Family on a taxpayer-funded trip.
Banque Havilland was an odd choice of a business to champion. Established in Luxembourg, another tax haven, the bank was unapologetic about its aim of managing the wealth of 'ultra-high net worth' billionaires.
Pictured: Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman in April 2019
The bank only established a London branch in 2013, while David Rowland had been a tax exile for much of his business career until returning to London in 2009. Before flying home, Andrew picked up the phone to a former aide, now conveniently a senior official at the Bahrain Economic Development Board, and told him what the Rowlands wanted.
During his conversation with Steve Harrison, his former deputy private secretary, Andrew let it be known that he had personally discussed the issue with Bahrain's King. This was enough of a steer for Mr Harrison to get the ball rolling. Soon he was emailing Jonathan Rowland volunteering his services.
'The Duke of York telephoned me from Saudi Arabia last week to relay a conversation that he had with His Majesty The King of Bahrain in Jeddah about opening an office here,' he wrote. 'That news has not filtered down to me from the Royal Court, but I am obviously keen to ensure you get the best possible service here, including the type of licence that best suits your intended operations.'
Attached to his email to Jonathan Rowland was a helpful copy of the Central Bank of Bahrain's 'online rulebook' and a register of rival foreign financial houses in the region.
Mr Harrison also included a crib sheet about the different types of bank licences available, adding he would be happy to arrange a meeting with the relevant regulator. On October 14, 2009, Rowland replied to Harrison suggesting he and his father 'swing by' Bahrain and meet royal aides.
Although he did not copy the Duke into his response, he claimed Prince Andrew was 'facilitating' the whole project. 'We would be keen to pursue an office for Banque Havilland in Bahrain facilitated by both HRH and his Majesty. We are due in Abu Dhabi on 28th-2nd November. Maybe we could swing by Bahrain and meet with the regulator and the King's people and get the ball rolling?'
Pictured: Amanda Thirsk in 2016
The Rowlands' ambitions did not stop in Bahrain. They were also eager to pursue opportunities in Saudi Arabia and wanted Prince Andrew on the case. Two months later Andrew would be back in the Middle East. This time, there was no big state occasion to attend, instead a key focus of the trip would be to help the Rowlands – and Jonathan Rowland was invited to attend.
The leaked email trail about the visit begins on October 14. Jonathan Rowland emailed senior Saudi government official Amr Al-Dabbagh, chairman of the Board of Directors at the powerful Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), proposing they get together.
Under the subject line 'Duke of York', Jonathan Rowland wrote: 'Amr. Hope you are well. After having spoken with the DOY he suggested we get together to discuss our newly acquired bank in Luxembourg investing in Saudi Arabia and in particular opening a branch/representative office in Riyadh. We would be keen also to discuss possible [sic] applying for an Investment Banking License. Can you