British MPs are calling on the government to suspend a "secretive" multi-million-pound funding programme to Gulf countries over concerns that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain may have channelled taxpayers' money to institutions that are "implicated in serious human rights and international law violations". The programme is supposed to channel money to health, sports and culture projects.
However, a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, which is expected to be released later today, warns that British taxpayers' money may be used for nefarious purposes and security issues.
Details of the report were released by the Financial Times prior to its publication. It found that programmes supported by the Integrated Activity Fund (IAF) had been run with "absolute minimum levels of accountability, transparency and due diligence in spite of being repeatedly implicated in human rights violations".
The IAF was launched in 2016 and began funding programmes in the Gulf the following year, with oversight from the Cabinet Office. It was replaced by the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF) in 2020, which falls under the remit of the Foreign Office.
The programme channels funds to the Gulf States including Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, where it's said to be helping the latter in its preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The FT, however, points out that the British MPs' concerns are related specifically to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Along with the UAE, both countries have clamped down on pro-democracy campaigners since the 2011 Arab Spring.
Between 2016 and 2017, and again between 2019 and 2020, the IAF spent £53 million ($73m). Not all of the money has been used properly, it is alleged. Critics say that some of it has gone to fund programmes that could place the UK at risk of complicity in human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Endorsed by 10 of the group's 17 members of the All-Party Group, the report accused the government of being "misleading" and "deceptive" about the IAF by saying that it claimed it was a fund for health, sport and culture and was not used for security matters in Bahrain.
The Foreign Office has disputed that claim, and insists that all co-operation through the GSF was "subject to rigorous risk assessments to ensure all work meets our human rights obligations and our values." An official statement added, "We do not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns and encourage other states to respect international law."
The All-Party group paints a different picture, though. "As parliamentarians, we have seldom encountered so much government resistance as when we began investigating the source of this funding, the secretive Integrated Activity Fund (IAF) and the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF)," said the MPs.
The IAF and GSF fund programmes run by "bodies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that continue to be implicated in serious human rights and international law violations". As a result, they conclude, "Government funding to GCC states through the GSF should be immediately suspended pending an independent inquiry."