Boris Johnson was this week forced to backtrack on a controversial ‘anti-Israel’ sponsorship deal with Emirates airline, after huge pressure following the publication of a “discriminatory” cable car contract signed in 2011.
The Mayor’s office maintained that Johnson had been “unaware of the clause in question,” which excluded commercial involvement from individuals and companies associated with Israel as “conflicting persons”.
After hastily-arranged meetings between Town Hall officials and the airline, Johnson’s spokesman confirmed on Wednesday that Emirates had “agreed to remove the clause and re-work the wording”.
The furore has raised fears of a secret boycott of Israeli businesses at the UK’s biggest sporting venues and events, many of which are sponsored by Emirates or other Gulf companies.
“This is not the end of the story,” said Labour Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Andrew Dismore. “The terms in the contract seem to be standard terms insisted on by the Emirates, when sponsoring attractions.”
Emirates’ sponsorship of Arsenal Football Club is the airline’s most well-known sporting association in London, with the Dubai-based firm beginning its relationship with the North London club almost a decade ago, signing a stadium sponsorship deal in 2004 and a shirt sponsorship deal in 2006.
In November last year, both the club and the airline agreed to extend their relationship until 2028, in a deal worth £150 million.
However, Arsenal executives declined several requests for them to reassure Jewish supporters that its sponsorship deal did not contain similar clauses.
This prompted speculation that a standard condition upon Gulf money is that the UK partner adheres to the foreign policy dictates of the UAE, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
Despite welcoming the Mayor’s intervention, community leaders blasted the original contract and warned against its implications.
“The only foreign policy that should apply in Britain is British foreign policy,” said Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark.
His thoughts were echoed by Zionist Federation chairman Paul Charney, who warned that it “sets a dangerous precedent, effectively allowing UAE money to dictate government policy through commercial contracts”.
Querying the clause’s legality, Newmark said: “Serious questions will now be asked about how TfL can adopt contractual clauses that appear to oblige them to adopt discriminatory boycotts.”
Asking those questions was David Lewis of UK Lawyers for Israel, who confirmed that the original contract gave good grounds for suspicion.
“It stops DLR sublicensing the Emirates trademarks to an Israeli, even if this is necessary to perform the agreement,” he said. “It could force DLR to discriminate against Israeli nationals or companies when hiring staff or engaging subcontractors.”
In addition, he said DLR could not assign or mortgage the installation to an Israeli company, preventing Israeli banks from making a secured loan, adding: “We are surprised that any company, let alone one which operates public infrastructure, would enter into an agreement that discriminates against nationals of another country in the absence of a sanctions regime.”
Details of the £36 million ‘anti-Israel’ contract between TfL and Emirates followed this week’s publication of the 2011 Thames Cable Car contract, which was only revealed after a Freedom of Information request.
And the timing could not have been worse for Johnson, who only announced his upcoming Israel trip in recent weeks, and opposition politicians cried foul, saying the Mayor was being “two-faced” when it came to Israel.
“On the one hand he wants to lead a delegation to Israel to promote business links yet on the other, he is signing deals which exclude Israel companies,” Dismore chided. “He clearly has a lot of questions to answer.”
Neither was the fallout limited to the UK’s Jewish community, with the Israeli embassy in London also expressing “serious concerns” over the revelation.
TfL had initially tried to downplay the concerns, saying it was “standard” for a sponsor to expect that it would not sell the cable car to someone whose interests contradict those of Emirates.
Emirates airline refused to comment.