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Gulf-states influence on British politics examined in face of accusations of human rights abuses

The political influence of Gulf states in British politics has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly with regards to donations made to Members of Parliament. A new analysis by Byline Times has revealed that over the past decade, donations worth nearly £2 million have been made by Gulf states accused of human rights abuses to 160 MPs. The money was primarily used to cover visits to the region and lucrative speaking engagements.

Then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss headed to the Gulf in October 2021 in a bid to boost economic and security ties.

The donations were declared in parliamentary declarations of interest, raising concerns among civil rights groups that such political funding may be downplaying significant human rights abuses committed by these countries, including a protracted war in Yemen.

The six Gulf nations included in the analysis were Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 2013, these countries have donated a total of £1.7 million for travel and hospitality costs.

The fact that many MPs in receipt of these donations also sit on All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) dedicated to the individual countries is particularly worrying. APPGs are informal cross-party lobbying groups that have no official status within Parliament. However, some MPs appear to have repaid the generosity shown with praise, raising concerns about the increasingly close relationship between parliamentarians and repressive Gulf regimes.

Of the 160 MPs included in the analysis, 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 was former Prime Minister Theresa May, who received nearly £250,000 from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, primarily for speaking engagements. In 2016, May 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, which 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. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman gave nearly £739,000 combined. These donations 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 Gulf states’ increasing influence in British politics, pointing 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.”

This concern has been exacerbated by the UK Government’s ambitions for a new free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. Post-Brexit trading opportunities with these countries appear to have trumped ethical concerns.

Despite criticism from human rights organizations, some MPs have continued to defend their positions in holding the nations to account for human rights abuses. Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price has said that “it is precisely to challenge them on their human rights record that we go on these trips”. However, campaigners and parliamentarians dispute claims that these discussions take precedence over trading relationships.

Lord Paul Scriven, vice-chair of the Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf APPG, has accused all six Gulf 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”.

This is not to say that all MPs who have received donations from Gulf States have compromised their ethical standards or are beholden to these regimes. Many parliamentarians have spoken out against human rights abuses in these countries and have called for greater scrutiny of these states’ political influence on British politics. However, the sheer scale of these donations, coupled with the lack of transparency in the system, raises serious concerns about the potential for conflicts of interest and undue influence.

Moreover, these concerns are not limited to the lower house of Parliament. Members of the House of Lords, who are appointed rather than elected, have also come under scrutiny for their links to Gulf States. Several peers have been found to hold financial interests in the region, while others have accepted hospitality from Gulf States without declaring the amounts.

The implications of these links between British politicians and Gulf States go beyond the issue of human rights abuses. For example, the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have been criticised by human rights groups for their role in the conflict in Yemen, have been defended by some MPs who have received donations from the Saudi government. Such conflicts of interest can undermine the credibility of British foreign policy and raise questions about whose interests are being served.

The UN estimates that the protracted war in Yemen has claimed the lives of 377,000 Yemenis, with 150,000 people dying directly as a result of the conflict, and the rest from “a lack of food or access to healthcare, as well as by the lack of basic infrastructure to provide these services.” As a result, 4.3 million people have been displaced, with a cholera outbreak that has raged since 2016 and the pandemic further contributing to the dire conditions faced by the Yemeni people.

The UK government’s supply of arms to the Saudi-led war on Yemen has led to widespread and deep hostility among the British public towards the government’s policies. In response to growing criticism, a Court of Appeal ruling in June 2019, following legal action by CAAT, concluded that the government’s decision-making process for granting export licences was “irrational” and “unlawful.” This led the government to stop issuing export licences for weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen and to review how these weapons were used, as well as to ensure that future arms sales complied with the government’s own rules and procedures.

However, in July 2020, then Trade Secretary Liz Truss resumed arms sales, claiming any violations of IHL were only “isolated incidents.” Since then, the British government has licensed at least £2.2 billion additional weapons sales to the coalition, while cutting its 2021-22 aid to Yemen by more than half.

In light of these concerns, it is essential that the British public and the media scrutinise the links between Gulf States and British politicians. It is also important that greater transparency is introduced into the system of political donations, so that the public can have greater confidence in the integrity of the political process.

Ultimately, the issue of political influence by Gulf States in British politics is a matter of democratic accountability and the protection of human rights. If these issues are not addressed, the UK risks being seen as complicit in human rights abuses and undemocratic practices in the Gulf region, and as a country that is willing to put trade deals ahead of ethical considerations.