Tony Blair's multiple jobs in the spotlight

September 30, 2011 - 10:15 AM
Britain Blair Middle East

FILE -- In this Thursday, March 25, 2004 file photo, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, at right, talks with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair during a meeting outside Tripoli, Libya. As Tony Blair juggles his roles, as special envoy to the Middle East Quartet, consultant to investment bank JP Morgan, questions are being raised over the wisdom of trying to carry out so many different jobs at once. Emails seen by the Associated Press show that JP Morgan mentioned former British premier Tony Blair when doing business with Gadhafi's former regime. The revelation raises questions on how Blair combines his role as special envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East and JP Morgan consultant, and the collapse of Gadhafi's regime this year has raised uncomfortable questions over just how Blair and other senior politicians had been willing to work with Libya.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)

LONDON (AP) — Since stepping down as Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair has built up a formidable work portfolio: He's an international peacemaker, a consultant for investment bank JP Morgan, a pricey public speaker and a philanthropist.

He's so many things to so many people that it's starting to cause him trouble — with human rights groups, the Palestinian Authority, and even current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who described Blair's deals with Moammar Gadhafi's regime as "dodgy deals in the desert."

Rights workers who have tried to track his activities find it's sometimes unclear which job he is doing — or who is paying him to do it. Crucially, when he's in the Arab world as the Middle East Quartet's peace envoy some of the very parties he's meant to be negotiating with aren't sure whose interests he's representing.

"The problem is a lack of transparency over how Tony Blair has organized his business affairs," said Robert Palmer, a campaigner at pressure group Global Witness. "If former leaders are appearing on a public stage, it's important that they do all they can to make sure they are seen to be open and clear over what they are doing."

Blair's effectiveness and impartiality in the Middle East are under attack from the Palestinian Authority, which accuses him of acting "like an Israeli diplomat" after he refused to support their decision to sidestep negotiations and to ask the Security Council for admission to the United Nations as a state. At the same time, the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya has led to the discovery of documents that show that Blair maintained ties to the Libyan leader even after he left office.

Blair famously mended Britain's ties with Libya, bringing the country back into the international fold following years of pariah-status isolation due in part to the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988.

Blair's diplomatic efforts eventually led to international companies, such as Britain's BP, resuming operations there. He has since been a frequent visitor to the country.

British media have focused in particular on Blair's dual role as Middle East peace negotiator and consultant to JP Morgan.

In 2009, Blair brokered a deal that allowed a mobile operating company, Wataniya, to provide telephone services in Palestine. Blair played a key role in persuading Israel to free up the necessary frequency for Wataniya to launch its service — an intervention his supporters say was solely aimed at boosting the Palestinian economy.

What has drawn scrutiny is the fact that Wataniya's co-owner, the Qatari mobile phone company Qatar Telecom, was — and still is — a major client of JP Morgan.

JP Morgan was one of several banks that helped finance Qatar Telecom's $4.5 billion acquisition of Wataniya mobile in 2007. The investment bank also recently helped the company with a $1.5 billion bond offer, and this year opened an office in Qatar to expand its Middle East operation.

Blair spokesman Matthew Doyle said Blair was not aware of JP Morgan's relationships with Wataniya or with Qatar Telecom and never discussed the deal with the bank.

"It is his (Blair's) responsibility as Quartet representative to work to build the Palestinian economy and the Wataniya project represented the single largest foreign direct investment there has been into the Palestinian Authority," he wrote in an email. "That is good news for the Palestinians."

But the Palestinian Authority, frustrated at the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel and unhappy that Blair refused to back their decision to sidestep negotiations, complains that Blair has not effectively promoted their interests.

"I think different people have different impressions but the wider impression is that Tony Blair hasn't been able to be useful, for whatever reason, including that Israel isn't making his mission easy," Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said.

People who distrust Blair — the Palestinian Authority, some human rights groups, a handful of lawmakers from the Labour Party he once led — say his claim to be an honest broker in his role for the Middle East Quartet has been damaged by his decision to keep his financial affairs private.

His office declined to give details of what he earns with JP Morgan, and says there is no overlap between his work for the investment bank and his role in the Quartet.

Blair himself insists he spends most of his time working for free, and is being criticized by people who dislike his success in modernizing Labour and winning three elections.

"The fact is I probably spend more than two-thirds of my time on pro bono activity," he said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday. "Just to explain what I actually do, I spend probably the biggest single chunk of my time is on the Middle East peace process, which I do unpaid. I then have a foundation which is about religious interfaith ... I have a foundation that is about Africa governance, where we work with five different African countries."

But Peter Oborne, a journalist who spent months investigating Blair's role in the Wataniya deal, argues that Blair is connected in different ways to so many players that he must be open about his business dealings in the regions where he has political influence.

"Blair is a former prime minister and has a role on the public stage. He should apply to himself the highest standards," Oborne said. "People need to know at any time who is acting for — himself, JP Morgan, the Quartet, or his African initiative? It's absolutely in the public interest that we understand this."

There is no precedent for Blair's post-prime ministerial career. Former prime ministers and party leaders have joined company boards or become involved in international politics, but they have often remained in Parliament and are bound to declare their business interests and gifts. Blair, who is not paid for his most high-profile role as envoy to the Middle East Quartet, is not bound by any legislation to declare his interests.

Blair is a rich man. His family owns several multimillion pound (dollar) properties in London, commands handsome fees for speaking engagements, and runs Tony Blair Associates — a consultancy advising world leaders. His 65,000 pound ($100,000) annual pension from the British government does not account for a fraction of his wealth.

"There have been few British politicians who have performed that kind of high-profile, international, quasi-official role and combined it with making money," said Nicholas Allen, senior lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway University of London.

Doyle has so far refused to reveal whether Blair's contract with JP Morgan or the Middle East Quartet has any clauses that deal with preventing conflicts of interest. JP Morgan declined to comment on whether Blair's contract has any such clause.

In one prominent example of confusion over his roles, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported that Blair visited Gadhafi's government in Tripoli in 2009, around the same time JP Morgan was trying to close a deal between Russian aluminum company Rusal and Libya's sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority.

JP Morgan's vice chairman Robin Renwick explicitly mentioned Blair's visit when he invited the Libyan Wealth Fund's vice chairman Mustafa Zarti, to London to discuss the deal.

Renwick's December 2008 email — seen by The Associated Press — says: "On behalf of JP Morgan, we would like to invite you to London in the week beginning 12 January to finalize the terms of the mandate concerning Rusal before Mr. Blair's visit to Tripoli which is scheduled to take place on around 22 January."

Both JP Morgan and Blair's spokesman say Blair played no role in the Rusal deal, but were unable to explain why Renwick used Blair's name in the email. Doyle said Blair did visit Libya at the time, but did so to talk about Libya's development fund to build African infrastructure projects and did not get involved in the Rusal deal.

But Allen says Blair, as a high profile international figure, has to be totally transparent and that his myriad jobs create a sense of opaqueness that can be damaging.

"Rightly or wrongly, the appearance of impropriety can be as damaging as actual wrongdoing," Allen said. "The maintenance of trust is essential, especially in the context of something as delicate as the Middle East peace negotiations."

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AP reporter Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this story.