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Media coverage: Guardian, AlJazeera, Middle East Eye, BuzzFeed News, Jadaliyya

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Leaked confidential agreements today published by Bahrain Watch and the Guardian, combined with publicly available financial statements show that the Bahraini government has been secretly funding the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) to the tune of approximately £30 Million since 2010, accounting for over £6 million annually. The actual figure could turn out to be significantly higher.

The financing from the Bahraini government has accounted for at least 30%, but possibly much more, of IISS’s total annual income, amounting to £30 Million since 2010. The Memorandums of Understanding signed by IISS head John Chipman and the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa reveal an agreement to “take all necessary steps” to keep the large amount of funding secret.

Open this spreadsheet in a new tab to explore the data yourself

The MoU states that the IISS is to maintain contact with the Bahraini King and government:

It goes on to state that the agreement should remain secret:

This extraordinary amount of funding from a single government institution raises questions about the claimed independence of the IISS which is registered as a charity in the UK and was recently ranked as the world’s second best defence and national security think tank in an index by the University of Pennsylvania. The Manama Dialogue, a high-profile annual security summit funded by the government of Bahrain, which is the single largest source of income for IISS, bringing in over 20% of its total annual income alone. The keynote speaker for this year’s Manama Dialogue will be Boris Johnson.

In addition to funding the Manama Dialogue, the money has also appears to have been used to fund operations of the IISS office in Bahrain including premises and staff costs. Despite declaring income from IISS India, IISS Singapore and Arundel House in London, charity statements fail to disclose the income from the Bahrain office.

The long-time chief executive of the IISS, John Chipman, who has been in office for 23 years, takes credit for the creation of the Manama Dialogue and it’s increasing dependency on foreign government funding. But questions around scrutiny and lack of Public financial documents show that his salary has gradually increased to up to GBP 600,000 at one point, which according to a critical article in the Times puts him among the very top of the UK’s most well paid charity heads.

The information suggests that the IISS relationship with the Bahraini government has involved the Bahrainis paying cash in exchange for the IISS’s credibility as a prestigious organisation hosting the high profile Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, giving the Bahraini government an exclusive platform to attract and engage some of the world’s most influential political and business players.

“Any organisation should be concerned about receiving donations of such a large sum from a single donor, but they should be even more concerned when that donor is an autocratic government with such a terrible track record for human rights,” said Bahrain Watch researcher Fahad Desmukh. “The Bahraini government is willing to provide the IISS and the Manama Dialogues with significant funds because they allow the government to portray itself as modern, liberal and business-friendly, in contradiction to the evidence of torture, abuse and political disenfranchisement that has been so well documented by countless credible organisations. Although the IISS will claim that it has maintained its independence, the facts suggest otherwise.”

Almost 30% of the Bahraini delegates at the 2015 Manama Dialogue were members of the Al Khalifa royal family. And there have been a number of documented cases of international delegates being denied visas to attend or, in one case, being forcibly deported after arriving in the country, for apparent political reasons

Last year, Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer-prize award winner and writer for the New York Times, tweeted his denial of entry to attend the dialogue. In addition, five Yemeni delegates were deported from Bahrain. Two were removed by the police from the Ritz Carlton hotel while the third was ejected from a workshop by an IISS staffer and escorted to Bahrain airport, apparently at the orders of the Bahraini and Yemeni governments. As part of the Access Denied project, Bahrain Watch has documented the cases of nearly 250 journalists, and independent observers who have been denied entry into Bahrain since 2011. 

Background

The 8th Manama Dialogue was scheduled to take place in December 2011, however it was postponed due to the political uprising in Bahrain that ignited in February of that year. The event was resumed in December 2012 with participation from then UK foreign secretary William Hague and several other government leaders from around the world. A statement issued from the state-run Bahrain News Agency in the run up to the event asserted that the Manama Dialogue “confirms Bahrain’s acknowledged status on the map of global forums and conferences”.

At the actual event, the Crown Prince of Bahrain discussed the ongoing protests in Bahrain saying they had divided the country and called for a dialogue between “all sides”. He also gave thanks to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for sending their troops to Bahrain to assist in the crackdown on the protestors. In another session, Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa declared that Bahrain had initiated a new stage of reform and that “reconciliation will require efforts from all players”. In another panel, the deputy foreign minister of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah Al Saud praised and justified the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain. Al Saud’s co-panelist was the former chief of Bahraini police and current secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdullatif Al Zayani. Later, the delegation leaders were given a private audience with King Hamad of Bahrain.

What was missing from any of the Manama Dialogue sessions in 2012 onwards were any voices that did not represent the Bahraini government, and no discussion of the ongoing human rights abuses that have been documented by many international human rights organizations. Some of the publications issued by the IISS have mentioned the political crisis in Bahrain, the high-profile Manama Dialogue itself is absent of such discussion.

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