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Revealed: The Gulf business tycoons backing the Conservative Middle East Council

January 27, 2016 at 4:18 pm

British and Arab businessmen with strong commercial interests in Saudi Arabia are key funders of the Conservative Middle East Council, a Westminster body which has become increasingly vocal in its calls for Britain to stand by the House of Saud, despite the latter’s human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Yemen. An investigation has revealed how the group has raised close to a million pounds since 2007, using the money to lobby for a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as arrange delegations to other parts of the Arab world.

The recently-appointed Chairman of the CMEC is Alan Duncan, a Conservative MP who spoke out in the House of Commons against Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s recent decision to withdraw a contract with the Saudi prison authorities. Duncan claimed that the decision was not based on “legitimate concerns” on the part of his fellow Tory MP but was driven instead by a “rather caustic personal view of Saudi Arabia.” His comments were made during a parliamentary debate in December.

Alan Duncan then penned a piece for ConservativeHome in favour of continuing the relationship with Saudi Arabia, arguing, “While we should certainly not condone, we should be aware that aggressively condemning is no guarantee of reform either.”

In June last year, Duncan appeared at a high-profile Intelligence Squared public debate in London, and argued successfully against the motion, “The West should get out of bed with the House of Saud.” He faced feminist activist Mona Eltahawy and former American diplomat Hilary Mann Leverett. The audience, numbering several hundred, began the debate by indicating their preferences, with 17 per cent saying that they opposed the UK-Saudi relationship. Swayed by Duncan’s arguments, 43 per cent left the event in favour.

In December 2014, the CMEC offered an uncontested platform to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001 and a former ambassador for the kingdom; he delivered the group’s Annual Policy Lecture. The speech, which covered a range of regional security issues, included a denial that Saudi and UAE troops had taken part in the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011; Al-Faisal also claimed that the kingdom wanted sectarianism “to stop as quickly as possible.” Questions after the speech, which was received with glowing praise, came from a range of Conservative MPs and Foreign Office officials, none of whom raised the issue of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

Two months before Prince Al-Faisal made his speech, the most prominent Shia preacher in Saudi’s predominantly Sunni population, Shaikh Nimr Al-Nimr, was sentenced to death by the Saudi authorities, while his nephew, Ali Al-Nimr faced death by crucifixion. Shaikh Al-Nimr was executed on 2 January this year in a move which was viewed widely as a sectarian provocation by the authorities. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also been accused of fomenting further sectarian tensions in Yemen by deliberately targeting Shia mosques, and has stood by while the Sunni regime in Bahrain has done the same thing.

Now, an exclusive MEMO investigation has revealed that nearly all of the CMEC’s financial backers have strong business interests in Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf allies, ranging from defence to manufacturing to energy resources. This suggests that the support by the CMEC for an unconditional relationship with Saudi Arabia could be driven by donor preferences, something that is denied by officials.

By far the most generous current backer of the Conservative Middle East Council, according to Electoral Commission records, is David Rowland, a controversial British business tycoon, political financier and Monaco tax exile. Rowland has been involved closely in helping to secure multi-billion pound defence deals between British firms and the Saudi Arabian government; he has given the CMEC nearly £350,000 since 2010. In 2011, Rowland offered his private jets to Prince Andrew for free, as the member of the British royal family visited Saudi Arabia to help secure deals for BAE Systems.

The investigation also revealed that in June 2015, Rosemary Said, the wife of Syrian-Saudi businessman Wafic Said, gave CMEC £20,000; back in 2008, the donation was much more substantial, at £100,000. Wafic Said, who was banned from making donations to Westminster political parties as he does not hold British citizenship, is reported to have played a key role as a “fixer” in arranging the controversial Al-Yamamah deals between BAE Systems and the Saudi Arabian government, using his extensive network of contacts within the kingdom. Records show that alongside channelling funds to the CMEC through his wife Rosemary, Wafic’s son Khalid, has also given £12,500 to the organisation.

Alan Duncan and Wafic Said are known to be close; in 2012 the MP attended the glitzy wedding of Said’s daughter Rasha in a ceremony held at the Palace of Versailles near Paris. It was attended by hundreds of guests, including several members of the British royal family.

Another businessmen involved in funding the CMEC is Assem Allam, who made his first £15,000 donation to the organisation in May 2014, despite being a Labour Party supporter. One year later, he gave an additional £15,000. His equipment manufacturing business, Allam Marine, has made him a multi-millionaire; it exports heavily to Saudi Arabia, the most lucrative power generator market in the Middle East.

The kingdom accounts for 8.4 per cent of all British exports of generators, Allam’s included. Power cuts are common in Saudi Arabia, which means that generators to run air conditioning units are in huge demand in the summer in a country with high levels of disposable income. Allam fled the Nasser regime in Egypt in 1968 and has since become a prominent figure amongst Britain’s super-rich; his assets include the ownership of Hull City Football Club. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, he is worth an estimated £340 million.

Energy boss Abdul Majid Jafar is also a donor to the CMEC, giving the group £15,000 in January 2014. His company, Crescent Petroleum, is the oldest of its type in the Middle East, and has extensive interests in the UAE, Bahrain and Iraq, with a smaller footprint in Saudi Arabia.

The investigation has also revealed that a construction firm called International Hospitals Group has donated £40,000 to the CMEC in the past two years. The company has secured several multi-million pound contracts with the government of Saudi Arabia, and received as a result “various letters of acknowledgement [i.e. references]… from senior Royal Princes” within the House of Saud, with which the company enjoys a strong business relationship.

A former funder of the lobby group is Pierre Rolin, a financier who previously provided investment management services to a $1bn American property empire owned by Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd, a prominent royal in the House of Saud. Details of the extent of this portfolio were revealed in 2012 by investigative journalist Seth Hettena. However, Rolin stopped donating to the CMEC in 2009, and shortly afterwards it was revealed that his financial advisory business to the Saudi prince had collapsed.

The MEMO investigation also showed that the CMEC received an £18,000 donation from the London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger, which has represented Saudi Arabia in a public affairs and advocacy role. Its other clients have included the Bahrain government; the company declined to comment when contacted by MEMO, although a spokesperson for the CMEC said that the donation had been made because Bell Pottinger “supported the aims of the organisation at the time.”

The Director of the Conservative Middle East Council, Leo Docherty, told MEMO that donations (and thus donors) had not influenced decision-making within the group. “No donor has given us conditions,” he insisted, “but any big business person in the Middle East has strong interests in Saudi Arabia. We see ourselves as making the case for a constructive relationship, but we acknowledge it’s not perfect.”

The CMEC head claimed that a “huge amount of pressure” was being put on the Gulf States to reform. “Anyone who has a long-standing business relationship with the Gulf States, their job is to support these reforming tendencies,” he added.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.