Questions on Abu Dhabi interest in Ruto state visit amid jet furore

President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto arrive at the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, USA. [PCS]

President William Ruto’s claim that the United Arab Emirates government facilitated his luxurious trip to the United States has raised fresh questions over foreigners’ interest in the US visit.

On Thursday evening, State House spokesperson Hussein Mohamed said the Middle Eastern nation had “offered the aircraft at less than Sh10 million”, justifying it by stating the UAE’s intention was to have “a secure partner state with which they can trade, invest and collaborate.”

“This is how nations operate, supporting and partnering with each other for mutual prosperity,” Mohamed said.

In a statement issued yesterday, Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura reiterated this position saying, “The people of Kenya spent Sh10 million majorly for fueling and other costs”.

Both their statements followed remarks by the Head of State that friends funded his US trip. None of the government officials have provided invoices or receipts to support their claims. They have also not clarified whether Kenya solicited the gift or whether it originated from the UAE’s end.

“It’s a friendly offer by friends of Kenya,” Mwaura said.

“This was support to the State of Kenya by the UAE government. It wasn’t to the President but to the country,” Mohamed explained. You can ask them (the UAE) government,” he added about the invoice.

On Thursday, President Ruto said that “friends” had “heard” that he was planning to fly on Kenya Airways to the US.

“They told me, ‘How much do you want to pay?’ I said I don’t want to pay more than Sh20 million. They told me, ‘Bring Sh10 million, we will give you the plane’,” Ruto said during this year’s national prayer breakfast.

Abu Dhabi has also not issued any related statement. The Standard asked the UAE embassy in Nairobi whether they funded the trip and their interest in doing so, but we had not received a response by the time we went to press.

University lecturer Prof Macharia Munene said that Ruto had “not done himself proud” by accepting the offer, stating that the president’s remarks threatened to demean KQ’s stature.

“Whether or not the jet was solicited is not the issue. The issue is in accepting it. What image does it send out there? It is an insult and shows that he does not believe in Kenya’s institutions,” he said.

Abu Dhabi owns the private aviation firm, Royal Jet, which provided a Boeing Business Jet (BBJ), a 737-700 twin-engine. A one-way trip to Atlanta aboard the jet typically costs Sh98 million, meaning that a round trip could exceed Sh200 million mark if additional costs are factored in.

Mwaura’s remarks that Kenya only paid for fueling and other line costs imply that Kenyans got some discount. That was the same - message Ruto put across when he defended his travel costs.

However, an analysis by The Standard shows that the Sh10 million ostensibly spent on the jet would not be enough to cover operating costs. Direct operating costs of the BBJ average $5,000 (Sh653,000) to $6,000 (Sh784,000) per hour. These operation costs include fuel burn, maintenance, crew and operating fees.

With these figures in mind, the Hustler Jet gobbled up between Sh25 million and Sh30 million in operating fees alone. This is because the jet was in Ruto’s hands for 38.5 hours, excluding the flight back to Abu Dhabi from Nairobi.

The aircraft spent four and a half hours on its initial trip from UAE, undoubtedly attracting positioning fees. It would later take the eight-hour-42-minute ride to Spain before crossing the Atlantic in nine hours and two minutes, landing in Atlanta.

The Atlanta to Washington flight lasted 1.5 hours. Last week Saturday, the Royal Jet plane, assigned ROJ7, would take a seven-hour flight from Washington to Morocco and later embark on the final leg to Nairobi, which lasted seven and a half hours.

The Sh10 million figure would make sense if it were strictly for fueling in the literal sense. That is because the BBJ burns up an average of 682 gallons of jet fuel an hour. With jet fuel costing an average cost of Sh260 per gallon, fueling the Hustler Jet would cost about Sh6.8 million for Ruto’s total trip. Without invoices, claims that Kenya paid less than Sh10 million for the jet seem far-fetched.

Mohamed’s statement also raises fundamental questions regarding the favours foreign governments can extend to Kenya and their impact on our sovereignty. While defending the favour, the State House spokesperson equated the UAE’s offer to donations by other governments.

“In 2018, the UAE government donated to Kenya six military-grade FENNEC helicopters and three ECUREUIL trainer aircraft. The donation included accompanying servicing spares, spare parts and tools, valued at Sh4 billion,” he said. “The US is donating to Kenya 16 helicopters and 150 Armoured Security Vehicles under an agreement signed between the two countries during the visit.”

Prof Munene argued that a plane ride does not compare to donations to the nation. “The helicopters are being given as part of a security arrangement. The jet was offered to Ruto so that he could fly in comfort. The president cannot accept gifts. It is improper and may be unconstitutional. The implication is that maybe he was bribed... Has it been declared to the relevant authorities?” posed Prof Munene.

Leadership and management Prof Gitile Naituli said on Thursday that the UAE offer must have come with some strings attached, a view shared by Prof Munene, who wondered how the UAE got information that Ruto wanted a jet.

“The president said that his friends didn’t want him to fly KQ and offered him theirs. How do foreigners have access to presidential thinking and what are they getting in return? All this shows that the president is vulnerable and weak,” said Prof Munene.