Qatar, Dubai speeches and Israel trips: Middle East donations to UK MPs
Middle East and North African states have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and benefits to British parliamentarians, according to a database published this week.
"Westminster Accounts", a compilation of figures launched on Monday by Sky News and Tortoise Media, showed that Qatar was among the highest donors of "gifts and benefits" to members of parliament since the last general election in December 2019, spending around £267,990 ($325,078).
Bahrian and the United Arab Emirates each spent more than $5o,000 each. Pro-Israel groups also featured in the figures, including the Conservative Friends of Israel, who gave a sizeable £116,700 ($141,497) to dozens of MPs.
The database uses publicly available information, mainly from the register of members’ financial interests.
It shows that several state-funded organisations in the Middle East and North Africa have provided gifts and benefits to UK parliamentarians, the majority of which came through covering costs for delegations to the country in question.
Stay informed with MEE's newsletters
Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked
Qatar was by far the biggest donor from the Middle East, and among the biggest contributors altogether.
Only three organisations - trade unions Unite and GMB, and little-known company MPM Connect Ltd - gave more gifts or benefits to parliamentarians than the £249,932 ($302,924) given by the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs.
The vast majority of these donations were to cover air travel, food and accommodation for MPs to visit Qatar to discuss a range of issues with government officials.
Thirty-four MPs received funds from Qatar’s foreign ministry, several of whom have publicly commented on the country.
Among the recipients was Conservative MP Bill Wiggin, who last year said during a parliamentary committee that the UK needed to be accepting Qatari and Ukrainian refugees rather than “people in rubber boats”.
Conservative MP Alun Cairns, who went on two Qatari-funded trips to Doha last year, praised Qatar’s labour reforms in parliament ahead of its hosting of the World Cup last year. Cairns is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Qatar.
Ahead of the World Cup, Qatar was widely accused of human rights abuses towards women, migrant workers and LGBTQ+ minorities.
Conservative MP David Mundell, deputy chair of the Qatar APPG, described critical media coverage of Qatar’s record on workers rights as “baseless” and praised the country’s reforms.
Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price, who also visited the country, urged the UK to be “less holier than thou” on human rights issues around the world during a parliamentary speech about UK-Qatar relations in December 2020.
Conservative MP Mark Menzies, another recipient, attended an event held by arms manufacturer BAE systems alongside Qatari officials. There, he welcomed Qatar's purchase of 24 typhoon aircraft, saying it would would positively impact manufacturing in his constituency.
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, a former chair of Qatar’s APPG who led a delegation to the country in 2020, has praised the UK’s relationship with Doha and progress made in the country.
In response to Middle East Eye request for comment, Carmichael said: “In early 2020 I took part in a short cross-party visit to Qatar. The Qatar government paid for the costs of travel and accommodation, which were declared in accordance with House of Commons rules.
"There has been recent justified public concern about Qatar’s record on labour and LGBT rights - issues which I personally raised with the Emir of Qatar and other senior members of the government.
"In the course of the visit I was also able to meet representatives of the migrant workforce working on World Cup projects."
Some MPs who went on trips paid for by Qatar have been critical of the country’s human rights record.
Conservative MP Nickie Aiken has tweeted positively about human rights protests in Qatar, while Labour MP Chris Bryant has expressed regret for going on one such trip, accusing Doha of using the World Cup to “wash their reputation”.
Whilst the vast majority of Qatari funds came from the foreign ministry (£242,300, or $294,117), other government-linked institutions were also among the donors.
Qatar’s embassy, the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, Doha Forum 2022 and the Racing and Equestrian Club funded by the sports ministry all provided gifts of under £8,000 too.
MEE contacted Wiggin, Cairns, Mundell, Doyle-Price and Menzies but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE was another significant donor to British parliamentarians.
Its foreign ministry paid a total of £44,330 ($53,773). Most of this went to Conservative MPs Rob Butler, Tobias Ellwood, Caroline Ansell, Richard Bacon, David Jones and Scottish National Party (SNP) legislator Douglas Chapman to cover the costs of a delegation to the country in February 2022.
£8,650 ($10,483) of it went to Ellwood alone to attend the 2021 Sir Bani Yas Forum, which brought together decision makers from across the world.
Ansell has said in parliament that the significance of Israel’s normalisation deal with the UAE “cannot be overstated”, and intimated that it “gives hope for a new peace deal”.
Jones, chair of the UAE APPG, has said that the Emirates is “precisely the sort of country with which we need to forge even stronger relations”.
Palestinians have denounced normalisation deals between Israel and Arab countries, which they say violate a longstanding Arab League position that relations with Israel should only be normalised in exchange for a Palestinian state.
Chapman has previously spoken in parliament of the need for the UK to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bring about an end to the war in Yemen.
"It is unfortunate Sky has conflated earnings MPs have made with donations and gifts. People may wrongly get the impression I have directly received this money when that is not the case," Ansell said in response to MEE's request for comment.
The Conservative MP added that the UAE foreign ministry funds were part of an APPG trip which took place “following the UAE becoming a signatory to the Abraham Accords, a development that is strengthening stability and the prospect of peace in the region".
Jones said that he did not receive donations from a foreign government, and that the sum towards travel, accommodation, food and transport paid for by the UAE ministry was clearly noted in the parliamentary members’ financial interests.
Butler said the funding for his trip to the UAE was “declared as required”. He added that he had “robust conversations… with senior figures in the UAE administration” during the trip, during which he “personally press[ed] them on rights for gay people”.
Bacon said that he accepted the invitation “to learn more about the UAE”.
“My view is that if you wish to understand the world you have to go and see it - and there is no area in the world where it is more important than in the Middle East,” he told MEE.
Ellwood pointed MEE towards the register of members interests for "more accurate detail as to how all MPs declare all costings".
Chapman did not respond to MEE's request for comment.
It is also worth noting that former Prime Minister Theresa May received a hefty £115,000 ($139,347) from Dubai Women Establishment for a speech she delivered in 2020 on female empowerment. This was listed as an "earning", though, not a "gift" or "benefit".
Dubai Women Establishment was set up in 2006 by the city’s ruler Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who was pictured shaking hands with May during the event.
A British judge ruled last year that Mohammed bin Rashid was abusing his ex-wife and keeping both his daughters captive after kidnapping them.
MP May did not respond to MEE's request for comment.
The Bahraini government donated £48,940 ($59,301) worth of funds to British parliamentarians, the vast majority of which came through its foreign ministry.
The ministry’s funds were split roughly equally between Conservative MPs Royston Smith, Tobias Ellwood, Adam Holloway, Bob Seely, Matthew Offord, Bob Stewart, Alicia Kearns and Robert Jenrick.
It was provided, for the most part, to fund a parliamentary delegation to Bahrain in November 2021.
Several of the MPs, including Stewart, Smith and Seely, attended a Bahrain Conservatives Abroad event whilst there.
In a speech in Bahrain last year, Stewart said “God save the King of England, and God save the King of Bahrain.”
He is the chair of the Bahrain APPG, and has defended the country on several occasions in parliament, including suggesting that “Bahrain does not have political prisoners; they are all prisoners who are there because they have committed a crime.”
Stewart was probed by police in December after he told Bahraini activist Sayed Alwadaei to “go back to Bahrain” after he was confronted about taking donations from Manama.
"Get stuffed. Bahrain's a great place. End of," he said. “Go away, I hate you. You make a lot of fuss. Go back to Bahrain."
Offord, who was also on the trip, has previously made critical remarks about Bahrain, including raising the plight of prisoners who face the death penalty there.
Jenrick, a former cabinet minister, has praised Bahrain’s normalisation agreement with Israel, and told parliament that he was “privileged” to represent the UK at the 2019 conference organised by former US presidential advisor Jared Kushner in Manama to agree the deal in 2020.
MEE contacted Smith, Holloway, Seely, Offord, Stewart, Kearns and Jenrick but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Several pro-Israel groups, mostly affiliate organisations within UK political parties, were also on the list.
The Conservative Friends of Israel has given a total of £116,700 ($141,495) to 40 Tory MPs, to cover the cost of “fact-finding political delegations” to Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) has spent £9,700 ($11,761) on similar endeavours.
The Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel put £6,620 ($8,027) towards fact-finding delegations, including for Layla Moran, the first and only Palestinian-origin British MP.
Palestinian activists say pro-Israel delegations to the region are one-sided. They often include involvement from Israeli state-run bodies.
In reponse to a request for comment, Moran told MEE: “Last year, I visited Israel and Palestine as a member of a two-part fact-finding delegation on the future prospects for peace and a two-state solution. One visit was funded by Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and the second was funded by the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians.
“Across both visits, we met with government officials, NGOs carrying out humanitarian work and sought to gain a better understanding of the day-to-day impact of the occupation in the region which, following the recent election of a far-right government in Israel, has taken on even greater importance.”
She added that details of the second trip would appear on the January update of the Register of Members' Financial Interests.
There is no suggestion that the trips funded by pro-Israel party affiliate organisations received state funding.
Gifts and benefits were also provided by the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange (£3,500, or $4,242), Israel Allies Foundation (£1,750, or $2,121) and the Israeli foreign affairs ministry (£1,350, or $1,636).
Other MENA countries and APPGs
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Kuwait’s parliament gave three Conservative MPs - Royston Smith, Rehman Chishti and David Morris - and Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi £3,160 ($3,829) each to cover the costs of a November 2021 trip to meet various Kuwaiti officials and stakeholders.
Morocco donated £11,350 ($13,757) to organise various trips to the country, including a June 2022 “UK Abraham Accords Group Parliamentary Delegation” focused on Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel.
As well as donations to individual MPs, the database included information on donations to APPGs.
Several APPGs dedicated to countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa received funds, mostly from private donors.
The APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq received a sizeable £114,000 ($138,173) in benefits.
There were also contributions towards the groups focused on Iraq (£28,500, or $34,543), Sudan and South Sudan (£22,500, or $27,271), Israel (£12,000, or $14,545), Egypt (£12,000, or $14,545), Yemen (£9,000, or $10,908), Qatar (£4,500 or, $5,454) and Palestine (£3,000, or $3,636).
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.