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REVEALED: MPs’ Gifts from Gulf States Accused of Human Rights Abuses

Analysis by this newspaper reveals Conservative MPs make up the majority of those in receipt – as post-Brexit trading opportunities appear to be trumping ethical concerns for the Government

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the 2022 G20 Summit. Photo: Leon Neal/AP/Alamy

REVEALED:MPs’ Gifts from Gulf States Accused of Human Rights Abuses

Analysis by this newspaper reveals Conservative MPs make up the majority of those in receipt – as post-Brexit trading opportunities appear to be trumping ethical concerns for the Government

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Nearly £2 million worth of donations from Gulf States accused of human rights abuses have gone to 160 MPs over the past decade, new analysis by Byline Times can reveal.

The donations were payments declared in parliamentary declarations of interest. The money covered visits to the region, alongside lucrative speaking engagements.

Since 2013, a total of £1.7 million was given for travel and hospitality costs to six Gulf nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Such political funding has raised concerns from civil rights groups, which have condemned these countries for significant human rights abuses. But it appears that post-Brexit trading opportunities trump any ethical concerns. Last year, the Government announced its ambitions for a new free trade agreement with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.

Byline Times’ analysis found that Conservative MPs made up the majority of those in receipt of gifts – with £1.1 million of the gifts donated to the Tory Party, compared to just 23% of donations to Labour politicians. 

The MP who received the most (nearly £250,000 from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) was former Prime Minister Theresa May, primarily for speaking engagements. In 2016, she said she wanted “to leave no one in any doubt about the scale of (her) ambition or the extent of (her) determination to establish the strongest possible trading relationships between the UK and the Gulf”.

The biggest benefactor was Saudi Arabia, who donated more than £500,000 to 54 MPs.

Qatar, which came under extensive criticism for its history of human rights abuses while hosting last year’s World Cup, cumulatively donated more than £462,000. Analysis shows that rights and freedoms have actually declined since it won the right to host the tournament.

Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman gave nearly £739,000 combined. These include food baskets and watches (accepted by constituency offices, rather than MPs directly) and donations for attendance at sporting events. 

Human rights experts have raised concerns about the increasingly close relationship between Parliamentarians and repressive Gulf regimes, who point to the Saudi-led involvement in a prolonged war in Yemen and the routine violation of the human rights of women and minority groups. 

Allan Hogarth, UK head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International, said: “There’s long been a suspicion that important human rights issues have been downplayed by successive UK governments in the interests of securing lucrative trade deals with Gulf states, including arms sales.”

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Many MPs in receipt of the donations also sit on All Party-Parliamentary Groups dedicated to the individual countries. APPGs are informal cross-party lobbying groups that have no official status within Parliament, but some MPs appear to have repaid the generosity shown with praise. Of the 160 MPs included in the figure, 59 have sat on APPGs representing GCC states.

Conservative MP Mark Menzies, who has received nearly £36,000, joined the Saudi Arabia APPG in January 2017. A month later, he wrote in Conservative Home how “banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia would harm Britain and the Middle East – including Yemen”, citing implications for the British defence industry. 

Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, who also sits on the Saudi Arabia APPG, has received more than £12,000 in donations from that state. Kawczynski has previously been reported as “begging” for private Saudi consultancy work, claiming he needed “to pay school fees”, and describing himself as the most “pro-Saudi” member of Parliament.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of multiple human rights abuses, including the brutal murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, ongoing state executions (147 people were put to death by the regime in 2022), and the arrests and torture of women’s rights activists and political dissidents. 

The Kingdom has also been condemned for its involvement in a proxy war in Yemen, which had killed an estimated 377,000 people by the end of 2021, including nearly 15,000 civilians. UK-manufactured weapons sold to Saudi Arabia have played a crucial role in the conflict.

While the UK has provided more than £1 billion in aid to Yemen since 2015, it has also licenced £8.6 billion in arms sales to the coalition – £7.1 billion to Saudi Arabia alone. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) group estimates, however, that the real value of arms sold to the coalition is much higher, standing at nearly £25 billion since 2015. 

The UN has even suggested that the UK may be complicit in war crimes for its support of the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict.

Bahrain is another prominent donor, the funds of which are accepted by MPs despite it being run by an authoritarian regime under which criticising the Government can lead to arrest and imprisonment. Bahrain gave £231,000 to MPs and has been in receipt of praise from prominent MPs.

Conservative MP Bob Stewart, in receipt of nearly £19,000 from Bahrain and Qatar, once gave a speech in which he exclaimed “God save the king of Bahrain”. Stewart has also spoken in defence of the regime in Parliament and chairs the APPG. He told Byline Times: “I have visited Bahrain with the APPG or CMEC three times and attended/spoken at the Manama Dialogues twice. I have declared exactly what it cost the Bahrain Government for those visits in accordance with parliamentary rules.”

Former Conservative MP Alistair Burt also accepted more than £45,000 in gifts and travel costs from Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE during his time in Parliament. Burt sat as vice-chair of the Bahrain and UAE APPGs in 2016-2017, on which he was a vocal defender of Bahrain – a country much criticised for human rights abuses against pro-democracy activists, journalists and trade unionists. 

In 2018, following elections that were criticised for banning opposition parties, Burt tweeted that he welcomed “the successful conclusion of the first round of voting in Bahraini elections”. He was joined on the APPG by Conservative MP Conor Burns, who received £2,800 from Bahrain in 2017 (as well as a further £6,779 from Bahrain and the UAE between 2010-11). 

Burns was chair of the Bahraini APPG in 2012. That same year, he praised the regime’s security forces as they responded to protests around the Bahrain Grand Prix and urged for the motor race to go ahead. Security forces were later accused of using “excessive force” against protestors, and military courts convicted around 300 people for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Not every APPG is supportive of the regime. Labour’s Andy Slaughter, chair of the APPG for Democracy in Bahrain, criticised both Burns’ comments and Bahrain’s record on human rights, including allegations of oppression, executions and torture.

As well as offers of support, there are at least six examples of peers who have received hospitality from states in the region who sit on APPGs, but without declaring the amounts. Some of those who sit on the APPGs have also held financial interests in the region.

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Lord David Richards, on the Bahrain APPG, was – until last March – listed as chair and director of Equilibrium Gulf Ltd, an intelligence firm described as a “UK-based geo-strategic advisory company with an international focus”. It has contracts in Bahrain, as does another entity he chaired and directed, Palliser Associates Ltd. Palliser offers corporate “strategic advice to governments and companies” and clients include the “King and Government of Bahrain”.

Others who have sat on APPGs have also defended their positions in holding the nations to account for human rights abuses.

Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price has said “it is precisely to challenge them on their human rights record that we go on these trips”. However, claims that these discussions take precedence over trading relationships have been disputed both by campaigners and parliamentarians.

Lord Paul Scriven, vice chair of the Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf APPG, told the House of Lords last November that “the Government seems to refuse to accept that some things are getting worse and are putting trade deals, gas supply and arms sales above human rights with regard to Gulf states”. He accused all six states of being “non-democratic, with severe limitations on freedom of speech, political participation and the media” while “women and LGBTQ+ people face systematic discrimination”.

Green Party Co-Leader Adrian Ramsay told Byline Times: “Few can deny that political donations have the potential to buy political influence. Donations from leading oil producing Gulf States threaten to weaken climate action and encourage politicians to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.

“We need to introduce annual caps for political donations from individuals, organisations and states. These limits should apply to political parties, members of Parliament and candidates for elections at all levels of government.”

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