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British MPs demand end of government Gulf programme over Pegasus spyware scandal

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. - Private Israeli firm NSO Group has denied media reports its Pegasus software is linked to the mass surveillance of journalists and rights defenders, and insisted that all sales of its technology are approved by Israel's defence ministry (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021 [JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images]

British members of parliament have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to scrap a taxpayer-funded multimillion pound programme for Gulf states, following their involvement in the Israeli Pegasus spyware scandal earlier this year.

The Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, was made infamous in July when the University of Toronto's internet watchdog Citizen Lab exposed numerous governments' misuse of the software through the hacking of around 50,000 phones and devices belonging to journalists, human rights activists, and political critics worldwide.

Amongst those client governments were Gulf Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

British MPs – led by the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs and International Development spokesperson Layla Moran – have now called on the UK to scrap the Gulf Strategy Fund, a programme run by the British government which supports the six Gulf Arab states and is part of the nation's foreign policy towards them.

In a letter written and signed by the MPs, they told Prime Minister Johnson that the hackings supported and ordered by the Gulf states "appear to show a blatant disregard by these GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states for both UK and international law."

They also questioned the programme's contribution to the UK's national security, saying that "The continued supply of surveillance equipment and services, as well as of advanced military and technical training and equipment to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, may in fact pose a serious threat to our national security."

Read: Israeli spyware is a threat to all freedoms everywhere

After the confidential programme was reported on at the beginning of this year, when it was revealed that the UK provided the Saudi military with £2.4 million, the Conservative MP James Cleverly insisted that the Gulf Strategy Fund helps Riyadh to "protect its national security" and overall has a "significant positive impact on human rights in the region."

Through the programme, the UK has already provided up to £53.4 million to the six Gulf states it is allied with. Apart from issues such as those states' poor human rights records and the ongoing war in Yemen already having been a point of criticism, the scandal around the Pegasus spyware proves to be another obstacle to the programme's legitimacy amongst some MPs.

The MPs told Johnson that the "government has failed to publicly condemn the actions of either NSO Group or the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini governments or take substantive action to protect UK nationals and residents."

They also demanded that the UK blacklist and impose restrictions and sanctions on the NSO Group, which the United States did last week. Like Washington, London must "ensure there is much tighter supervision on the licensing of relevant software in compliance with international human rights law," the MPs stressed.

Contrary to the calls to oppose the Israeli spyware firm, it was reported early in 2020 that the UK government was helping it to sell its products and software.

Read: Lobbying in Britain's Conservative Party illustrates the dark ties to the Gulf alliances with Israel

BahrainEurope & RussiaIsraelMiddle EastNewsSaudi ArabiaUAEUK
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