Saudi Aramco exec spent week in Indian jail for having satellite phone

A senior executive at Saudi Aramco spent almost a week in an Indian jail over the summer after he was arrested for having a satellite phone while on a yoga holiday near the country’s border with China.

Fergus MacLeod, head of investor relations at the world’s largest oil exporter, said he was arrested on July 12 at his hotel in the Valley of Flowers National Park, which is in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. The 62-year-old was held in prison in the town of Chamoli until July 18.

Authorities detained the British executive after picking up the coordinates of the phone, which MacLeod says he turned on and off at his hotel but did not use while on the holiday with friends, some of whom were colleagues from Saudi Aramco.

It is illegal for foreign nationals to possess and operate satellite phones in India without government permission. The bans came after satellite phones were used by terrorists during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

MacLeod, who has led investor relations at Saudi Aramco since 2017, told the Financial Times that he was unaware of the ban and had passed through two Indian airports, carrying the phone openly, without being stopped by staff.

The disputed 3,500km border between India and China has long been a source of tension and the region is closely monitored by Indian security forces, particularly since deadly border clash two years ago

Narendra Singh Rawat, a police officer in Chamoli, confirmed that MacLeod had been arrested. The executive had carried the phone “by mistake”, Rawat said.

MacLeod said he bought the device legally in the UK in 2017 for personal use and took it with him when traveling in the desert in Saudi Arabia in case of emergency in remote areas with poor mobile phone signal.

One of the few foreigners to reach the upper ranks of Saudi Aramco, MacLeod said that while he was treated relatively well during his almost week-long detention, prison authorities ignored his daily requests to contact his lawyer, the British High Commission and his family.

“It was a frightening place and a highly traumatic experience, where I was in a communal cell with long-term prisoners who had committed very serious crimes,” said MacLeod.

MacLeod, who co-operated with authorities, said his friends posted bail on his behalf, securing his release from prison. However, he was unable to leave the country until after a July 27 court hearing, when he pleaded guilty and paid a fine of Rs1,000 ($12).

MacLeod said he had sought help from the UK authorities by contacting a Foreign Office helpline en route to jail and visited the British High Commission in New Delhi after he was released on bail.

While the response from the Foreign Office in London was sympathetic, it “did not translate into any meaningful action to support me by the staff at the High Commission in Delhi”, he said, adding that UK authorities told him they could not interfere with India’s legal process.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said they “provided consular support to a British man in India”, but declined to comment further.

The episode comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to forge deeper ties with India, an important buyer of its crude oil as the country’s middle class grows.

MacLeod, who was previously the head of investor relations at BP and before that an oil analyst at Deutsche Bank, was recruited by Saudi Aramco to help professionalise its operations and management structures ahead of its landmark initial public offering in 2019.

Saudi Aramco declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish

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