Imagine if a Conservative MP was on the payroll of the Saudi royal family. By payroll, I mean receiving a monthly salary paid into their bank account. Imagine if that MP was asking for British airmen to risk their lives defending Saudi ground troops. Imagine if that MP was repeating Saudi Arabian propaganda on the floor of the House of Commons about the execution of peaceful dissidents.
Imagine… well, actually, you don't have to imagine this scenario, because a Conservative MP really is acting as a paid adviser to a think tank with close ties to the Saudi Arabian intelligence services. He has a history of advising foreign governments and defecting between political parties. We should be very wary of his intentions.
Pakistan-born Rehman Chishti was a vice-chairman of Labour students in Wales and a Labour councillor in Medway, Kent, before defecting to the Conservative Party in 2006. The turncoat is now the Conservative MP for Gillingham and Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Saudi Arabia, an advocacy group operating in Westminster for the Saudi government. It is chaired by fellow Tory MP Daniel Kawzynski, whose nickname has been the "honourable member for Saudi Arabia" since he criticised Justice Secretary Michael Gove's decision to cancel a training contract for the Saudi prison service last October. Kawzynski's nickname is, however, no longer exclusive, for Chishti is at his side.
Parliamentary records reveal that the MP for Gillingham now gets paid £2,000 per month to provide advice on "international relations covering Europe and the Middle East" to the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, based in Riyadh. According to the group's website, the areas of research include Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Mahgreb (north-west Africa), but not, funnily enough, Europe. So what exactly is Chishti "advising" the Saudi government on?
The King Faisal Centre's chairman is Prince Turki Bin Al-Faisal, who served as chief of the Saudi intelligence services from 1977 to 2001. He was later appointed Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain and the United States. During his term as intelligence chief he oversaw funding of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan — his agents are known to have met with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — and provided funding for a number of jihadist groups during the war.
Kawczynski and Chishti visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in December 2011 on a £3,000 per person trip, with costs covered by the government in Riyadh. Along with a number of other MPs, they met with the Shura council, Prince Turki and other Saudi royals, including the defence minister, and a select group of government-sponsored human rights organisations. Kawczynski led a second delegation in February 2014, and threatened BBC Newsnight with legal action on his return after he defended on air alleged war crimes by Saudi-led forces in Yemen. He has also boasted of writing "the most pro-Saudi book ever written by a British politician."
Chishti set out to Riyadh with his own delegation in February. The four other MPs, no doubt excited to have £2,888 worth of expenses lavished on them, included Conservatives Royston Smith, David Mackintosh, Mark Pawsey and Martin Vickers. Vickers praised the kingdom on his return for its supposed economic "diversification" although real analysts thought that this was more "headline-grabbing" than anything substantial. Of course, Vickers' comments, very conveniently, would have reassured members of the House of Commons that a key international ally isn't about to go bankrupt, even if this is probably far from the case.
Chishti himself invited former spy chief Prince Turki to parliament in February last year to discuss "Islamic State" and shortly afterwards launched a campaign to have the group referred to as "Daesh" instead. "It was a pleasure to meet with Prince Turki, whom I admire and respect," the MP for Gillingham said at the time. "His great knowledge and wisdom on tackling many of the key challenges and issues we face in the world today, should be taken into account when forming international policy."
While the King Faisal Centre is currently funded by trusts established by the late monarch's children, it also conducts research for the Saudi Arabian ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry for promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice (often labelled the "religious police" in Western media), and the interior ministry. The organisation is regarded as being close to the royal court, which is unsurprising, given that Turki is a former spymaster.
A lawyer by training, the spritely MP was born in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He began his career as a political advisor to Benazir Bhutto, the then Pakistani Prime Minister who was assassinated in 2007. His family fled to Britain shortly thereafter.
On 29th February, Chishti asked Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, whether Britain would provide air cover if Saudi Arabia ever deigned to send ground troops into Syria. This followed his suggestion on 15th January that Shaikh Ali Al-Nimr, who was executed by the Saudis for protesting — peacefully, it must be said — against the kingdom's policies, was a terrorist. This parroted Saudi propaganda about the Shia Saudi citizen. After linking him explicitly to Lebanon's Hezbollah, Chishti referenced an article by the convicted criminal turned Saudi stooge Joseph Braude, who had cited only "Saudi sources" as his evidence. As an enlightening report at the Intercept noted, Braude also has close ties to several members of the Saudi royal family. Going back further, Chishti asked former Foreign Secretary William Hague in January 2012 to "strengthen our strategic relationship" with Saudi Arabia.
His self-serving campaign to rename Daesh eventually convinced David Cameron, who made it government policy to refer to the group in this way in December 2015. Appearing on the BBC Daily Politics show, Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute mocked the move, pointing out that Daesh "meant the same thing." Quentin Letts, political sketch-writer for the Daily Mail, claimed that the MP was simply trying to "make a bit of a name for himself."
The debate about what public and media organisations should call the group — Daesh, Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL — made Joshi "despair," he added, given "the overall amount of time that we devote to this absurd issue. That's five minutes we could have spent discussing ground troops or strategy." The show's host Andrew Neil snorted, "Is this going to make a blind bit of difference to some kid in Bradford who's thinking of going to join Islamic State?"
In written evidence submitted to the British parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee regarding Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Chishti claimed that the human rights situation was "changing" and cited the establishment of a National Society for Human Rights in 2004 as evidence. He did not mention that it was government-funded and that a more independent watchdog had been refused a licence by Riyadh two years before. Although allowed to exist informally, the independent organisation's website is blocked in Saudi Arabia, which is hardly a shining example of a government dedicated to human rights.
Chishti has declared his financial relationship with the Saudi royal family through the proper channels, but could he still fall foul of other rules? The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament notes: "Taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the House is strictly forbidden. Members may not speak in the House, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings for payment in cash or kind." The Conservative MP on the Saudi payroll should tread carefully.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.