London: The UK Serious Fraud Office has made arrests and questioned six individuals in connection with its long-standing investigation into alleged corruption in Saudi Arabia by a subsidiary of Airbus, the European aerospace and defence group.

Two individuals who have been questioned are still employees at GPT Special Project Management — the Airbus subsidiary that specialises in communications equipment for the Saudi national guard — according to people familiar with the investigation. Another two are former GPT employees.

In addition, two UK Ministry of Defence officials have also been questioned by the SFO in connection with its investigation, said two people with knowledge of the situation. The MoD declined to comment.

The interviews signify another change in pace in the SFO’s probe. Almost two years ago the probe was ratcheted up to a criminal inquiry; before that the agency allowed Airbus to carry out an internal inquiry into allegations made by a whistleblower relating to GPT’s £1.5 billion (Dh7.5 billion) contract to supply equipment to the Saudis.

The new activity could signal that the SFO is in the final stages of its probe, according to legal experts.

The SFO is examining whether GPT bribed individuals in connection with its contract to supply communications equipment to the Saudi national guard.

Details about gifts allegedly given to Saudi generals, and payments made to a Cayman Islands bank account, were passed to the SFO by Ian Foxley, a former Saudi-based employee of GPT.

GPT has a contract to design, operate and maintain communications systems to the Saudis under a government-to-government programme called Sangcom. The Ministry of Defence is GPT’s sole customer under that contract, and is supposed to approve the Airbus subsidiary’s expenditures.

An SFO spokesperson said: “In connection with a Serious Fraud Office investigation, we can confirm that a search warrant has been executed and a number of arrests have been made. Officers from the National Crime Agency assisted the SFO with its operation.”

If the SFO has enough evidence to charge individuals or the company, and the agency believes prosecution to be in the public interest, it has to first seek permission from Dominic Grieve, UK attorney general, who must sign off on any overseas corruption prosecutions relating to the period before July 2011 when new UK anti-bribery laws came into effect.

Airbus said: “Airbus Group understands that four former and current employees were recently interviewed under caution as part of a wide-ranging SFO investigation into subsidiary GPT. At this stage we cannot add anything further to our previous statements on this matter.”

Last year, Airbus said its own investigation into GPT yielded no evidence of wrongdoing. The results of the company’s inquiry were passed to the SFO.

The US authorities are also aware of the allegations made by Foxley.

The case has echoes of the SFO’s inquiry into alleged bribery in Saudi Arabia and other countries by BAE Systems. That case was significantly narrowed by Downing Street on national security grounds in 2006, casting a shadow on UK anti-corruption efforts.

BAE eventually pleaded guilty in the UK to one count of false accounting over a Tanzanian radar system. It paid $400 million (Dh1.5 billion) to US authorities to settle allegations over its Saudi Al Yamamah contract.

— Financial Times