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Left to right: Lord Clanwilliam, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, Conor Burns MP
Left to right: Lord Clamwilliam, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, Conor Burns MP

The deepening British and Bahraini defence ties were brought into the spotlight this week as it was revealed that a Bahrain lobbyist sponsored a table at a Conservative Party fundraiser last summer, where he sat with the UK Defence Secretary.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalists published details of the fundraiser, held at Old Billingsgate Market on 24 June 2013. Lord Clanwilliam, founder and chairman of PR firm Meade Hall & Associates (formerly Gardant Communications) which represents the Government of Bahrain, covered the £1000 a head costs for a table that included:

  • UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and his wife Susan Hammond
  • Connor Burns MP, Chair of the UK-Bahrain All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of which Meade Hall is the secretariat
  • Dr Afnan Al-Shuaiby, Chief Executive of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce, “whose job includes fostering UK-Bahrain trade links”
  • Richard Sharp, multi-millionaire and member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee
  • John Hart, oil trader and CEO of Milo International

Lord Clanwilliam’s firm, Meade Hall & Associates, has worked for the Government of Bahrain since at least 2006. At the time of the fundraiser, its sole listed client was the Embassy of Bahrain in London. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked him “whether he represented Bahrain’s interests at the event, or discussed any issues affecting any of his firm’s clients”. He “declined to comment”.

Prime Minister David Cameron was questioned in Parliament about the fundraiser on Wednesday. Shadow Foreign Minister Kerry McCarthy MP asked whether Lord Clanwilliam and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond “discussed the fact that Bahrain is still not regarded by the Foreign Office as a human rights country of concern”. Cameron dodged the question.

Meade Hall’s previous and current work for Bahrain remains largely opaque. However in December 2013, six months after the fundraiser, Lord Clanwilliam visited Bahrain during the Manama Dialogue. Speakers at this annual security summit included Foreign Secretary William Hague and General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff. Another speaker was former Foreign Minister Alistair Burt. He traveled as part of a delegation of the UK-Bahrain APPG, which Lord Clanwilliam’s firm acts as the secretariat for, although Burt is not listed as a member. Burt’s trip was funded by Bahrain’s Parliament.

It is unclear if any other politicians were part of the APPG delegation. Three other Conservative MPs – Kwasi Kwarteng, Dr Philip Lee and Nicholas Soames – also attended the Manama Dialogue, with travel and accommodation paid for by Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a cost of £3,700 each. However they are not members of the APPG and their trip appears to have been organised by the Conservative Middle East Council. In October 2010, UK-Bahrain APPG Chair Conor Burns, along with two of its Vice-Chairs, Priti Patel MP and Thomas Docherty MP, traveled to Bahrain on a trip funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the start of the pro-democracy uprising in February 2011, which resulted in a massive crackdown leaving dozens dead, hundreds tortured and thousands imprisoned, Burns claimed: “There is no doubt about [King Hamad’s] total commitment to reform, religious tolerance, openness and transparency.”

Following the 2013 fundraiser, UK-Bahrain defence relations deepened. Britain announced the expansion of its naval base in Bahrain and pursued massive new arms exports. This deepening continued a path pursued by the current British government since it came to power in 2010, as documented in Bahrain Watch‘s submission to an inquiry currently being run by the UK Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls. In October 2012, for example, despite the ongoing human rights abuses, Philip Hammond signed a new UK-Bahrain Defence Cooperation Accord, the contents of which remain secret.

10 days before the 2013 fundraiser, Philip Hammond was in Bahrain on an “operational visit”. Six weeks after, on 6 August 2013, King Hamad met with Prime Minister David Cameron in Downing Street where he expressed “Bahrain’s keenness to purchase the British Typhoon warplanes”. Subsequent reports revealed that a deal to buy 12 Typhoon jets “thought to be worth more than £1 billion” was being discussed. King Hamad returned to the UK in September, where he met with both Philip Hammond and Defence Minister Lord Astor. The following week, Philip Hammond gave the keynote address at the opening of the DSEi arms fair in London. A delegation from Bahrain attended the arms fair as guests of the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO). King Hamad met again with Philip Hammond in Dubai in November. Hammond described the meeting as “very fruitful” and added that he was hopeful that Bahrain would “join the Typhoon family soon”.

In December 2013, Bahrain’s Ambassador to the UK gave hampers to two British Defence Ministers, Lord Astor and Philip Dunne MP. They were held by the Ministry of Defence. Hampers were also given to Foreign Secretary William Hague and two Foreign Ministers, Hugh Robertson MP and Baroness Warsi. The previous year, the Bahraini Ambassador gifted hampers to several MPs, including UK-Bahrain APPG Chair Conor Burns MP. Ann Clywd MP, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee which was conducting an inquiry into UK-Bahrain relations at the time, was also sent a hamper but she refused to accept it.

Hammond returned to Bahrain in January 2014, leading a British government delegation at the Bahrain International Airshow, where UKTI DSO had a large stall. The Airshow, organised by British company Farnborough Internatioanl, coincided with GREAT British Week, an initiative run by the UK Government to showcase British firms and “emphasise the friendship and strong bilateral relationship” between the two countries. While in Bahrain, Hammond met with the Crown Prince and military officials. He described Bahrain as a “key market for UK firms”.

In March 2014, it was announced that the UK was expanding its base in Bahrain, making it “its largest operational theatre abroad”. On 22 April, UK Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois traveled to Bahrain to attend the “official ground-breaking ceremony” of the £6 million expansion. Whilst there, the defence minister said: “British commitment to, and cooperation with, Bahrain will celebrate its 200th year in 2016; throughout my visit I have been keen to underline the UK’s enduring commitment to Bahrain and the region.”

Many questions remain about the Tory fundraiser, particularly what was discussed between Philip Hammond, Lord Clanwilliam, Conor Burns and other guests at the table. Beyond the ‘Bahrain’ table, other tables were sponsored by individuals and companies who have done PR work for Bahrain. One table was sponsored by Bell Pottinger, who have worked for the Government of Bahrain since at least 2009 and recently signed a new multi-million pound contract for further work. Bell Pottinger’s Chief Executive James Henderson and its communication director were at the table, although details of others have not been made public. Another table was sponsored by David Burnside, whose PR firm New Century Media earned at least £100,000 working for the Bahrain International Circuit in 2011.

The Government of Bahrain has spent or allocated at least £29 million ($50 million) on Western PR firms since the start of the pro-democracy uprising in February 2011. As the revelations about the Tory fundraiser demonstrate, far greater transparency is required by both governments and companies so citizens can see precisely what that money is buying.

[UPDATE: 11 July 2014]

In response to a question by Lord Roberts, Minister of State for Trade and Investment Lord Livingston revealed that Bahrain became a “priority market” in 2014/15 for UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), a government body which promotes arms exports. This is the first time since at least 2009 that Bahrain has been given such a status. However, in December 2013 Business Minister Michael Fallon MP said that Bahrain is among 52 countries where “UKTI DSO is currently supporting defence and security commercial campaigns and prospects”.

Between 2008 and 2010, Bahrain was a “key market” for UKTI DSO. As noted in Bahrain Watch’s submission to a Parliamentary inquiry on UK arms exports: “UKTI DSO officials had meetings with the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) and Ministry of Interior in the months before February 2011. On 5th-10th October 2010, representatives demonstrated a ‘Ballistic Toolkit’ to the BDF. On 19th January 2011, two UKTI DSO officials met with the MOI to discuss ‘possible sharing of info between UK and Bahrain on Security and Policing best practice’.”

Whilst UKTI DSO tempered it approach to Bahrain following the events of February 2011, they were quick to resume activities. Quoting again from Bahrain Watch’s submission on arms exports:

Shortly after the state of emergency had ended in Bahrain, the British government began to expand its drive for arms exports. On 8th September 2011, the UKTI DSO Senior Management Team hosted a lunch in London to give members of the AeroSpace, Defence, Security (A|D|S) trade association an opportunity to meet “meet newly appointed UK Defence Attachés”, including the official who was due to start work in Bahrain. On the same day, two officials from UKTI DSO, including the Country Manager for Bahrain, spoke at an event organised by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry titled: Middle East: A Vast Market For UK Defence and Security Companies. Bahrain was named as a “top destination” for the UK defence industry.The following week, London hosted the DSEi international arms fair. A delegation from Bahrain National Guard attended “as guests of the UK Government”. The Bahrain National Guard supported other agencies in the March 16th 2011 assault on Pearl Roundabout and security operations at Salminaya Medical Complex and the Financial Harbour.

According to emails obtained by Private Eye, the UK Government had originally decided not to invite Bahrain, however it changed its mind after determining that the human rights situation had “improved considerably”.[34] A delegate from the Bahrain National Guard was escorted around the arms fair by Gerald Howard MP, then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Security Strategy at the Ministry of Defence, as well as two officials from UKTI DSO. According to Private Eye: “The government also arranged dinner dates and “stand visits” with arms firms, and the two Bahraini National Guard reps attended a BAE Systems reception on 13 September. There were also meetings with defence ministers Gerald Howarth and Lord Astor, a “lunch hosted by Air Vice Marshal Nigel Maddox” in the “VIP Dining Area” and a 45-minute presentation on unmanned drones”.

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