Note: This piece was originally was written by Bahrain Watch members Ala’a Shehabi, Fahad Desmukh and Marc Owen Jones for Jadaliyya and has been cross-posted here.
Last week, Bahrain Watch published an investigation into the secret funding of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ahead of its annual Manama Dialogue. The investigation demonstrated that one third of the think-tank’s funding was coming from the Bahraini ruling family. In this article, the investigative researchers behind these revelations delve into the activities and role that the IISS has played over the past twenty-five years—critically questioning the IISS claim of “independence,” and its relationship with the Bahraini and British governments.
Farea Almuslimi and Sama’a Al-Hamdani are two young Yemeni researchers. In 2015, they both accepted the IISS invitation to attend the 11th Manama Dialogue. Despite the invitation, both Almuslimi and Al-Hamdani had to purchase their own airfare and hotel accommodations. As an analyst, Almuslimi had risen to prominence in some policy circles of Washington DC. He is perhaps most known for his testimony before the US Congress about US drone warfare in Yemen. Al-Hamdani has likewise been outspoken about her country’s plight. With a valid Bahraini visa, Almuslimi arrived in Manama just in time for the beginning of a packed three-day forum. Al-Hamdani, who also had a valid visa, was scheduled to arrive a few hours after him. They both planned to meet up with another at the private sessions on Yemen where they would come face to face with Yemeni officials.
Established in 2004, the Manama Dialogue, according to IISS Executive Director John Chipman, has “become the key annual gathering at which the pulse of Gulf security is taken and security policy transparently debated.” IISS meetings, events, and other activities regularly bring together heads of state, high-level ministers, diplomats, military and intelligence officials, and several independent individuals (the IISS deems worthy of inviting). Voices from the invited Yemeni group (among others) would of course be essential to any discussion on Yemen and the Gulf more generally.
It was around eleven o’clock in the morning on 30 October 2015, just as the workshop Almuslimi had signed up for was set to begin. He received a phone call from his colleague Al-Hamdani. She had been denied entry at the Bahrain airport. “They are also looking for you,” she warned Almuslimi, “they have been going door by door in different hotels to track you down.” For his part, Almuslimi immediately suspected that the Bahraini regime was coordinating with Yemeni officials of the Hadi government to remove what was effectively an independent Yemeni contingent from the Manama Dialogue. IISS staffer Emile Hokayem soon approached Almuslimi and confirmed that the authorities want him out of the country. Fearing for his safety, Almuslimi decided it was best that he leave the country immediately. The staffer, appearing more concerned for the embarrassment the situation would cause IISS than for the wellbeing of the Yemeni delegate, volunteered to arrange his quick departure. The staffer drove Almuslimi to his hotel, where he collected his belongings, and then transported him to the airport, where he arranged the purchase of Almuslimi’s new ticket. Afterward, the staffer made several calls to ensure Almuslimi made his flight. In the departure area, Almuslimi was eventually reunited with Al-Hamdani very briefly, towing their tale were five police officers, three in plain clothes. They followed them all the way to the plane. Both joked about the dubious honor of this level of security.
Reflecting back on the affair in a BBC interview, Al-Hamdani was struck by how the very same regime that was looking for them allowed Almuslimi to leave quietly—effectively concluding that in all cases the mission had been accomplished: there would be no independent Yemeni voices at the forum. By four o’clock in the afternoon, Almuslimi’s flight to Beirut had departed. The exhausted Al-Hamdani had to wait much longer for the next flight to the United States. In addition, the Bahraini regime dispatched secret police to pick up two other Yemeni delegates directly from their hotel rooms. In turn, all five Yemeni delegates were deported within hours of their arrival.
The humiliation of this incident still bothers Al-Hamdani. It was not a surprise to discover that Yemeni officials would disapprove of their participation in the Manama Dialogue. But what she found unacceptable was the Bahraini regime’s designation of the delegates as Personae Non Grata, the inability of IISS to defend its delegates, and the lack of any public statement of support—let alone apology—by the IISS. Facing a barrage of attacks on social media, and being disparaged as a pro-militia Houthi, Al-Hamdani says she urged the IISS to make a public apology. However, the IISS refused to do so, justifying their stance by claiming they did not want to upset the Bahraini regime. The line between serving as interlocutors with the Bahraini regime and facilitating its repressive act was effectively blurred. Almuslimi was lucky in that he was forewarned by Al-Hamdani from the airport, while Al-Hamdani never made it outside the airport. It was their colleagues staying at the conference hotel who police intercepted without warning in a direct raid on their hotel rooms.
The following evening, on the penultimate day of the 2015 Manama Dialogue, organizers held a closed party at the private Villa Gazebo at the Ritz Carlton by the beach. There, IISS staffers, patrons, and guests swilled down champagne bottles in celebration of their “successful” forum till the early hours of morning. Any apparent discontent with the forcible removal of delegates dissipated rapidly. IISS made no public statement, not to the Yemeni researchers, the forum attendees, or the general public. They clearly preferred not to assuage any guilt with a show of contrition. Doing so, after all, could draw attention to the fact the IISS cannot, despite assertions to the contrary, have independence in who they invite to and what they discuss at the Manama Dialogue.
The Rise of IISS (and Chipman)
Established in 1958, the IISS has had six chief executives prior to John Chipman. The average tenure of such a position is less than six years. Yet Chipman took the helm in 1993, and twenty-three years later he is still in charge. It was in fact around 11 September 2001 that Chipman rose to prominence. Today he is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Think Tank Leaders Forum. He describes as one of his accomplishments taking IISS global and making it “the world’s premier institute providing facts and analysis on international security issues and has developed its role as a convenor of vital inter-governmental summits.” The University of Pennsylvania ranked the IISS second in its 2015 ranking of the world’s top security and national defense think tanks. Furthermore, over the years it has become a sought-after destination for former senior officials of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CFO) to seek employment.
In his 2004 book on the workings of British foreign policy, journalist John Dickie argues that it was Chipman’s quick-thinking after the al-Qai‘da attacks of 11 September 2001 that put IISS at the forefront of international policy think tanks. It was then that IISS began marketing itself as an expert hub on countering the al-Qa‘ida threat. The 2003 invasion of Iraq provided another opportunity to improve its international standing among governments and think tanks. In a meeting with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Chipman described how the IISS assessment of classified information on Iraq’s WMD capabilities was more damning (of the Saddam Hussein regime) than that of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His propagating of the now-debunked myth of Iraqi WMD stockpiles put the IISS on par with a group of establishment-oriented NGOs whose output rarely deviated from official UK policy.
Today, the IISS performs the innovative “para-diplomatic function as a facilitator for meetings that would be difficult for governments to organise.” The institute’s agenda relies on elite-driven, top-down and closed-door forms diplomacy. In a 2009 interview, Chipman claimed that “the Manama Dialogue represents the privatization of diplomacy.” Yet while Chipman may have been focusing on the role of private enterprise in the policy-making process, it is actually the secrecy of the process that has perhaps been most potent in making this process “successful.” Crucial to these meetings appears to be the salience of military and security discussions, with numerous reports recommending costly arms expenditures. For example, in a recent strategic dossier playing on the Gulf countries’ fear of Iran, IISS recommends the updating and replacing of existing patriot defense systems with Medium Extended Air Defense Systems (MEADS)—a joint US and European endeavor.
Chipman’s position as an establishment maverick is perhaps best reflected in his remarkable remuneration. The Times ranks Chipman as one of the highest-paid charity executives in the United Kingdom. His known salary does not appear to include the income earned from other roles he takes on. According to IISS’s financial statement published with the UK Charity Commission, Chipman earned a salary of between 590,001 and 600,000 British pounds in 2014, decreasing the year after to a range between 530,001 and 540,000 British pounds. For comparison, the director of Chatham House—an institution with a comparable turnover—earned an annual salary of up to 220,000 British pounds in 2015, according to financial statements filed with the Charity Commission. Chipman also offers consulting services to international businesses, and has served as an advisor or board member for the Abraaj Group (Dubai), the National Bank of Kuwait, Reliance India and Future Pipe Group (Dubai)—positions we have confirmed are remunerated but the amounts of which remain undisclosed.
The IISS-Bahrain Relationship: Credibility for Cash
The IISS claims they “will not accept any funding that may impinge on our intellectual and political independence.” Yet the large sums of money paid out to its staff have historically raised concerns, especially within the British charity sector. Most recently, internal IISS documents leaked to Bahrain Watch about the think tank’s funding have further called into question the independence of IISS. Key in this respect are the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between IISS and the Kingdom of Bahrain regarding both the Manama Dialogue and an IISS regional office (IISS-Middle East). Most damning in this regard are revelations of the degree to which IISS relies on the financial support from the small Bahraini state.
Based on these leaked documents and those that are publically available, we can deduce that—for the past five years—Bahraini funding accounted for around a third of the IISS’s total annual income, approximately thirty-three million British pounds (thirty-eight million US dollars). This figure does not include the income generated from other IISS events funded by the Bahrain government. The manner in which the funding is “hidden” and obscured in IISS official financial accounts reflects the terms of the MoU. Therein, both parties keep the agreement strictly confidential, and only divulge its terms with the written permission of all parties. In a further report following the revelations by Bahrain Watch, columnist Peter Oborne suggests that the funding from Bahrain could actually amount to half of IISS total income after considering other voluntary “donations.”
The money from the Bahraini regime is not just funding the Manama Dialogue, despite inferences to the contrary by IISS. In 2010 the IISS established a permanent regional office in Bahrain (IISS-Middle East) which the Bahraini regime also funds to the annual tune of 1.25 million Bahraini dinars (approximately 2.7 million British pounds), to cover expenses for premises and staff. For researchers who are directly employed by the IISS-Middle East office, such funding is an issue of livelihood. The Bahraini regime also funds an IISS geo-economic seminar series and other smaller programs, including: the GCC Strategic Cyber Programme funded directly by the Bahraini military; the Bahrain Global Forum (2010-11), the Bahrain Bay Forum (2015), and the Bahrain-UK Forum (2016).
It has long been noted that maintaining financial independence, whether in the academic, artistic, or policy sector, requires (among other things) a plurality and diversity of funding sources. The same holds true of the charity sector. Yet the combined value of all of the known 2015 revenue (both public and leaked) from the Bahraini regime represents over thirty-three percent of the IISS’s total revenue for that year. While the MoU continually stresses the independence of IISS, it also states that “the IISS will have contact with the offices of HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and will continue to work closely with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and other Bahraini government ministers and national security leaders as may be appropriate.” This close cooperation with members of the royal family invites serious questions about the extent of their influence within and over IISS. This is especially so since the MOU goes on to state, “it [IISS] will consult with all participating governments to ensure that the dialogue is structured and organised to meet their interests in an open and inclusive pan-regional summit of security leaders and professionals.”
The claimed independence comes further into question when we consider the fact that former UK Chief of Defence Staff (2010 – 2013) and sitting House of Lords member General David Richards, is concurrently both a senior advisor to the IISS and an advisor to the government and King of Bahrain through a consulting company called Palliser Associates wholly owned by himself and his wife.
The need for secrecy also suggests that both IISS and the Government of Bahrain are aware that such an agreement will understandably elicit allegations of partisan motives in IISS analyses and recommendations. This is especially true when the MoU regarding the setting up of the IISS-Middle East office is concerned: it permits the Kingdom of Bahrain to commission proprietary research from IISS outside the scope of the Bahrain office’s normal activities (subject to the agreement of both parties). What such “proprietary research” may entail is unclear. It is also unclear if any such work will be divulged to the public and, thus, bound by the requirements of independence or transparency.
FCO and IISS: Revolving Door Politics
The revolving door between the UK political establishment and IISS also calls into doubt IISS independence. Sir John Jenkins, a former Executive Director of IISS-ME who joined IISS in January 2015 after thirty-five years of service in the UK diplomatic corps, has repeatedly been accused of being an apologist for regional autocrats. His controversial views brought scrutiny to IISS funders earlier this year in Private Eye magazine. Commenting on Saudi Arabia’s execution of forty-seven prisoners in one day, the former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia said, “I can understand why the Saudis reacted in the way they did.” He went on, “Saudi Arabia would argue that its executions were different from killings by Islamic State (Isis), since Saudi Arabia is “a legitimately constituted state operating in a state system” and “In Saudi terms disavowing the Saudi state is almost as serious as taking up arms.” Furthermore, Jenkins, in his previous role as UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was charged with leading the review of the Muslim Brotherhood, soon after the Saudi regime declared it a terrorist organization. Senior British MPs questioned this decision, as they felt that the appointment of Jenkins may have led to Saudi Arabia (as an interested party) having undue influence over the exercise of a UK government enquiry.
Another IISS employee, Melanie Scarlett, was the Head of Political Internal and Press & Public Affairs at the British Embassy in Manama. During her four-year tenure (approx 2011-2016) in Bahrain, Scarlett would have been involved in a number unpopular FCO policies, including the infamous restraint from listing the country as a “country of concern” in the annual FCO Human Rights and Democracy reports. She would have also been involved in implementation of the funding and training of Bahraini government institutions, which cost UK taxpayers 2.8 million British pounds per year. One of the most extraordinary things done by the embassy in 2015 was to organize an FCO delegation to the UNHRC to practically lobby on behalf of Bahrain. In their meetings with various officials, they attempted to convince others that human rights in Bahrain were improving.
Melanie Scarlett is just one of many former FCO officials to immediately move on to an IISS position after leaving their government posts. Philip Barton is on official secondment from the FCO to IISS. Viraj Solanki, a research analyst, used to manage a joint program between the FCO and Kings College London. Sarah Raine, an IISS consulting senior fellow, worked for the FCO for eight years as a diplomat. Others, such as Mark Allworthy, moved from the UK Ministry of Defence to a number of roles in IISS, including Managing Director of the IISS ME Office and is still registered as signatory on behalf of a franchise company registered in Bahrain for IISS. Yet the moves flow in the other direction as well. Jonathan Croft, a former IISS Armed Conflict Database Researcher went on to work for the FCO and Cabinet Office. This remarkable crossover of staff reflects the movement of personnel between a Conservative government keen to extend trade ties with Bahrain, and a British institution with lucrative financial ties to Bahrain. Thus not only does IISS represent a foreign policy trade success for the UK, but also a reputation management success for the Bahrain government.
Don’t Mention the Uprising: The Politics of Omission
Given the significant proportion of IISS funding from the Bahrain government, as well as their revolving door dynamics with the British establishment, it is difficult to assert any notion of the IISS as “independent.” Certainly, what has been missing from all of the Manama Dialogue sessions since 2012 (note, the 2011 Manama Dialogue was cancelled due to the uprising) were any Bahraini voices that did not represent the Bahraini regime or some kind of regime-sponsored NGO. There has been no substantive discussion of the ongoing systematic human rights abuses in Bahrain, despite the documentation by many international human rights organizations. While some of the publications issued by the IISS make passing reference to a “political crisis” in Bahrain, the high-profile Manama Dialogue itself is void of any such topic. These forums have been replete with British officials, including former Foreign Secretary William Hague, current Chancellor of the Exchequer Philipp Hammond, and seven Members of Parliament. Most recently, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was the keynote speaker at the 12th Manama Dialogue, held 9-11 December 2016. Given Bahrain’s reputation for harassing, arresting, torturing, and/or deporting activists, journalists, and NGO workers, the kingdom seems an unlikely location for holding any event that claims to establish free and pluralistic discussion.
The IISS claims that it “alone determines the agenda of its conferences, the speakers at its events, the shape of its research work, the direction of its analysis and the nature of its conclusions.” Yet what Almuslimi and his colleagues were subjected to challenges this claim outright. Without control over Bahrain’s immigration and visa policy, IISS are clearly in no position to determine who attends its events, particularly if it wants to avoid the embarrassing situation of deporting delegates. What is more, the MoU on the Manama Dialogue is up for renewal this year. During the 2016 opening speech, Chipman announced that a new five-year deal with the Bahraini government will be signed this week. Nevertheless, one of the existing clauses is that the Bahraini government has the “right of first refusal” for hosting the forum even if either party chooses not to renew the MoU.. Thus Bahrain could stop funding the fourm but continue to limit the participation of delegates simply by exercising its right to host the event and implementing its border control and blacklist policies. One need only recall the details of the 2012 Manama Dialogue to understand this potential.
With the regime repression raging in Bahrain throughout 2012, the IISS media list was also getting smaller and smaller as the number of regime-approved journalists fell. This was somewhat ironic given that in the very first paragraph of the MoU stipulates the presence of “world class journalists” who could “sharpen public debate.” New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has openly called for an invitation since 2011, though his media visa was once again rejected last year. Wall Street Journal journalist Yaroslav Trofimov was also denied a visa. Hossein Mosavian, an Iranian ex-diplomat who had attended a previous Manama Dialogue, was also denied a visa in 2015. Even inside the IISS, staffers joke that it should be named the Manama Monologue given the increasing one-sided background of delegates. Therefore, the deportation of independent experts like the Yemeni contingent last year should not surprise anyone. Since 2001, Bahrain has denied access to nearly 250 independent journalists, NGO workers, suspected activists, and other observers. This, in a country who Reporters Without Borders ranked 162 out of 180 in their 2016 Press Freedom Index.
The 2012 Manama Dialogue is particularly instructive as it set the tone for subsequent meetings. It provided a venerated platform for the Government of Bahrain to put forward its own whitewashed narrative about the uprising—one that has been contradicted by an independent investigation completed a year earlier, that confirmed the government had, among other things, engaged in systematic torture of citizens. The crown prince, Bahrain’s well-spoken darling of the West, also delivered a lecture in 2012, but spoke in rather general terms about regional security. Claiming that “the Arab Spring” had “divided” the nation, he called for dialogue on “all sides.” He also expressed gratitude to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for sending their troops to Bahrain to assist in the crackdown on the protesters, especially problematic given many Bahrainis viewed them as “quwwat al-ihtilal” (occupation forces). Missing from the entire forum were not only the popular pro-democracy opposition leaders sentenced to life imprisonment but any voice that would offer domestic criticism of the regime, government, or security forces.
Like the crown prince, other members of the ruling family in Bahrain used the 2012 forum to propagate ad nauseum the government’s superficial commitment to reform and reconciliation. 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.” Yet Khalid Al Khalifa’s sentiments of inclusivity were rendered hollow. Only two days after his speech, once the international delegates had departed, the regime upheld the jail sentence of prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab for allegedly inciting protests.
Such dynamics characterized subsequent Manama Dialogue meetings and the financial investment made by the regime in IISS proved to be a worthy proposition. According to a list of delegates leaked to the authors, at the Manama Dialogue of 2015, out of 108 invited delegates from Bahrain, only one of them (newspaper editor Mansoor Al Jamri) could be described as not being “pro-government.” Ninety-five of the delegates (eighty-eight percent) were from the government of Bahrain itself, while thrity-one of the delegates (twenty-nine percent) were from the Al Khalifa royal family. Based on the names of the delegates, only a handful appear to be Shi‘a even though the Shi‘i population represents approximately sixty percent of Bahrain’s population. This is the politics of omission par excellence – a politics of silence is a form of bias in an of itself, and a virulent form of censorship. Rendering the visible, invisible. And making the bellowing hegemonic voice of power, even louder.
Why IISS Cannot be Independent
IISS claims one of its charitable objectives is to “promote the adoption of sound policies to further global peace and security and maintain civilised international relations.”ًً Yet the nature and terms of security propagated by IISS are determined through back channels and private bilateral meetings between authoritarian and imperialist government officials. This is regardless of the few token keynote speeches that are “livestreamed” and “on the record.” If there is one thing that IISS did not learn from the Arab uprisings, it is that the popular will of the people had grown tired of secret and non-transparent elite-driven, technocratic decision making. This, however, is precisely what IISS represents.
If independence means being able to select its own delegates, the Yemeni case at the 2015 meeting proves otherwise. Furthermore, for GCC countries that repress their civil society, the pool of available delegates to invite is limited by the autocratic policies that result in the imprisonment of numerous important actors. In this regard, when operating out of countries like Bahrain, IISS is in no position to control, as they claim, the independence of their delegates.
For the regime in Bahrain, the IISS is an important asset, along with the Formula 1 car race, to portray itself as modern, liberal, and progressive–an image that is defied by the countless human rights reports and torture testimonies. It is no wonder then that the regime is willing to spend so much money to ensure that both the IISS and the Formula 1 stay in the country. What visits by Prince Charles and Theresa May demonstrate is that the Bahrain-UK “friendship” is strong. Boris Johnson’s keynote speech at the 2016 meeting was an apt opportunity to officially declare: “we are back, East of Suez.” This of course comes in the wake of revelations of a new UK-Bahrain agreement to construct a UK Royal Navy base in Bahrain. Following Brexit, the United Kingdom is looking to shore up relations with other strategic allies, while the regime in Bahrain is desperate for partners who can help improve its battered international reputation and provide military security. Under these conditions, the two countries seem like a perfect match, making the IISS a convenient and useful vehicle for British and Bahraini foreign policy.
In a pitiful attempt at redemption, absent any apology or public acknowledgement of what transpired in 2015, the IISS sent both Almuslimi and Al-Hamdani an invitation to the 2016 meeting. According to Al-Hamdani, Almuslimi declined the offer, but she felt she wanted to make a point of going to assuage her detractors. She accepted the invitation, and the IISS booked her flight and hotel accommodation. Yet on Monday 5 December 2016, just four days before the start of the meeting, IISS sent her an email informing her that no Bahraini visa had been issued and that her reservations had been cancelled. IISS effectively withdrew her invitation. “We are very disappointed by the circumstances and we sincerely apologise,” said the email. Once again, the IISS never publically acknowledged the incident all the while continue to claim complete independence in its hosting of the forum.
As Al-Hamdani put it in an interview with the authors: “Providing an invitation but not being able to execute the invitation and to provide whatever is necessary to ensure access and safe passage is shameful of the IISS. The second invitation was supposed to show that they are not the reason why activists got kicked out last year, but now I am starting to think maybe they are the reason.” She goes further: “Since last year, I have withdrawn from politics. I do not want to be actively involved in this game, they will shame you and silence you.” This might be an inadvertent outcome of IISS policies and practices, but it is certainly inevitable in the larger scheme of what regimes like those of Bahrain have always sought to accomplish. There is a historical pattern of pacification: governments and allied organizations invite independent activists to allege inclusiveness while at the same time disinviting them in the last minute. What the leaked documents reveal is not so much how the Bahraini regime functions—a dynamic well documented and analyzed for those that actually care. Rather, what is at stake is the ways in which think tanks and other organizations producing knowledge on the region under the claim of independence are in fact complicit in legitimating, facilitating, and strengthening the lack of transparency and accountability that is a pillar of authoritarian rule in Bahrain and the broader region.