Exclusive: Eddie Lister Was A Director Of Firm Aiming To Build "The Next Dubai" In Libya While Serving On Foreign Office Board
Edward Lister resigned as the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to the Gulf on Friday evening. (Creative Commons)
Boris Johnson's senior aide was a director of a firm that was aiming to build a "Hong Kong" in Libya, while serving as a non-executive director at the Foreign Office.
Lord Lister, one of Boris Johnson's closest advisers, joined as a director of Eribi Holdings Limited in October 2018, despite also serving as a non-executive director (NED) at the Foreign Office.
His appointment came a year after then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson drew widespread criticism for his description of a group of UK business people as "wonderful guys" who planned to turn Sirte into the “next Dubai”, adding the "only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they'll be there".
The Tory peer, who was until last night the Prime Minister's special envoy for the Gulf, had been appointed as a NED of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in April 2017 and remained in the post until July 2019 when he entered Downing Street as one of Johnson's senior advisers.
According to the department, the paid position offers NEDs a "key role in the operational and strategic leadership" of the organisation", including "focusing on getting policy translated into results and ensuring delivery".
While serving on the Foreign Office board, Lister joined Eribi Holdings alongside Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford, and only resigned his directorship in July 2019 when he took up his Downing Street role.
On Friday, PoliticsHome asked both the Foreign Office and Lord Lister to provide details of his declared interests during his time as a NED. In a statement, a No10 spokesperson said Lord Lister had declared any "relevant" interests but did not confirm whether this included Eribi Holdings.
The spokesperson said: "As an FCO Non-Executive Director, Sir Edward Lister declared any relevant interests in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct, ensuring full transparency. Notwithstanding, he had no involvement in Libyan issues whilst he was a Board member of the Foreign Office."
Asked directly whether Lord Lister had declared Eribi Holdings to the Foreign Office and the extent of Johnson’s knowledge of the project, the spokesperson said: “We don’t have anything more to add at this point.”
Speaking at Conservative Party conference in October 2017, Johnson prompted a rebuke from Downing Street and faced anger from Libyan officials when he discussed the details for a project to invest in Sirte.
"There's a group of UK business people, wonderful guys, who want to invest in Sirte, on the coast, near where Gaddafi was actually captured and executed, as some of you may have seen,” he said.
"And they literally have a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai.
"The only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they'll be there."
The Foreign Office said at the time the comments were related to a private project and were not linked to government policy, but the timing of his remarks raise questions about his prior knowledge of the plans.
Mole Valley MP Paul Beresford, who remains a director of the company, said in an interview with a local journalist in October 2019, that the group planned to "hire, rent, a large portion of the land, the whole land surrounding Sirte and it will be an opportunity to build a Hong Kong, in effect, rented to us, with British companies and so forth in there, and we will be working with the Libyan government to develop this."
He added: "Definitely there is a national interest. I have talked it through with the Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] and with the previous Prime Minister [Theresa May] and it is an opportunity to do something really positive."
Despite the insistence from the government that the group's work to create a free zone in Sirte was a private project, the plans have been raised several times during bilateral meetings between British and Libyan officials.
In March 2020, local media reported that during a meeting between British trade minister Conor Burns and Libyan economy minister Ali al-Issawi that the pair "emphasized the importance of establishing and managing free zones and special economic zones as a way of enhancing relations between the two countries..."
In a June 2018 meeting with a Libyan official, Frank Baker, the UK's ambassador to the country reviewed plans for a "free economic zone in Sirte", which was described by the Libyan authorities as a "very vital" project for both countries.
A Downing Street source insisted that while the PM supported the UN-led process in Libya he had not directed officials on this “specific issue”.
Lord Lister resigned late on Friday night as the PM's Special Envoy to the Gulf, just two months after being appointed to the role.
He had faced a series of stories in recent weeks about his previous work within the private sector, but a source told The Telegraph, who first reported his resignation, that there were "no links" between the previous reports and his decision to step down.
Commenting on the resignation, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "The Prime Minister is hugely grateful for Lord Lister's dedicated service over many years.
"He has been an outstanding servant to the country, to the Government and to the Prime Minister when he was mayor of London."
Sir Paul Beresford has been approached for comment.