Scottish oil worker home in Dubai after 11-month Iraq ordeal

Thomas Simpson, 61, who was arrested over a former employer's soured business deal last year, was cleared by an Iraqi court

A Dubai resident has spoken of his relief after returning home to his family, almost a year after being detained and prevented from leaving Iraq.

Thomas Simpson, 61, was arrested at Basra International Airport last July, after flying in for work.

He still does not fully understand what he stood accused of, although he knows it related to a job he had in the country two years ago.

Despite attempts to unravel the issue, Mr Simpson is still unclear if he was ever formally charged with an offence.

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To meet my kids at the airport was just indescribable. We just held each other so tightly for so long
Thomas Simpson

But he was cleared of any wrongdoing by a court in Erbil. He was finally allowed to leave on July 3 after a no-fly order was removed. In a statement to The National, British authorities said they were aware of his case and had been in contact with Mr Simpson.

The court ruling allowed the Scot to fly into Dubai, where he was reunited with his partner Esme, and children Jamie, 16, and Kane, 13.

The moment the plane took off from Erbil was the “most wonderful feeling”, said Mr Simpson, who has lived in Dubai for 13 years.

“Then to meet my kids at the airport was just indescribable. We just held each other so tightly for so long. And we all sobbed and came home together and it was just the best feeling,” he said.

Mr Simpson spent three "miserable" days in solitary confinement, after being arrested at the airport last July, before his current employer arranged for a lawyer to get him out of prison.

He was able to return to his company's worksite, south of Basra.

“I had to remain there for the next 11 months because I couldn't fly. I couldn’t leave. But at least I was working and earning. And I wasn't in jail anymore,” he said.

Mr Simpson said he understands his arrest related to a joint venture, an oil storage operation involving a Lebanese and local Kurdish company, from 2018 to 2019, which soured.

He worked as the general manager of the site at the time.

His employer, the Lebanese company, eventually pulled out, after which Mr Simpson was “marched off-site by machine gunpoint”.

That was the last he heard of it, until he was arrested in Basra last July.

“I understand the local Kurdish half thought I must have been involved in the dissolution of the joint venture. I wasn’t,” he said.

“I was just there on a purely operational basis to run the facility. That was the most terrifying part of it. It was like, hang on, what have I done wrong? What’s the charge? I still have no idea what the charge was.”

Mr Simpson, who went through four lawyers before finding one who was able to help him, was eventually summoned to Erbil by a judge.

“My colleagues, some of whom are quite connected, arranged for me to be driven to Erbil from Basra," he said.

“They then engaged a security guy who was pretty high up in Basra and he got me through the checkpoints just with his own clout. Because this is how Iraq works,” he said.

The process was supposed to take days, but stretched to weeks, as he gave testimony and was referred to various government departments, including police, immigration and other agencies to help clear his name.

Thomas Simpson, with partner Esme, is relieved to be back home in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“You get a bit of paper off one guy, then you have to proceed to the next stage,” he said.

“There is no system which says Tom is good to go for the next stage. So that five or six days turned into seven weeks that I spent in a hotel in Erbil.”

He tried to leave the country in late May, but was refused, as the system had not yet been updated to show he had been cleared at that stage.

The UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it had been in contact with Mr Simpson.

“Our staff were in contact with a British man following his arrest and travel ban in Iraq,” said an FCDO spokesman.

Mr Simpson said he has been in touch with the wife of Robert Pether, an Australian who has been held without charge for 90 days.

“Tom has was in touch to offer help and provide some advice because he knows what we are going through,” said Desree Pether.

“Tom’s had a similar experience to what my husband is going through right now.”

Mr Pether, an engineer, was arrested along with a colleague when he attended what he thought was a routine business meeting with his employer’s client, the Central Bank of Iraq.

He has remained in custody for 90 days over a contract dispute, without being charged with any offence.

His wife said she was hopeful his case would be heard by the civil court in the near future.

Updated: July 11th 2021, 7:26 AM