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Report: UK 'secretly' doubles funding to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is welcomed by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the kingdom, in March 2022. (File photo by AFP)

The UK government’s funding for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has more than doubled this year through Persian Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF) for unknown reasons, according to a report.

GSF spending for Saudi Arabia increased from £813,605 to £1.8m and from £710,028 to £1.8m for Bahrain in 2021-2022, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) disclosed in response to Freedom of Information requests made by Middle East Eye.

“The UK works with partners around the world to improve their human rights records, including in the Persian Gulf,” FCDO claimed in response to MEE.

“All cooperation through the Persian Gulf Strategy Fund is subject to rigorous risk assessments to ensure all work meets our human rights obligations and values,” it added. 

Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Persian Gulf, told MEE that despite previous concerns raised by the APPG about the fund, the increase in funding to the two Arab countries is “astounding.”

He reiterated a call he made last year to suspend the fund, saying the Select Committee should investigate the fund’s activities “as a matter of urgency.”

“The fact that the UK government has chosen to spend millions more pounds of taxpayers’ money on projects in the Persian Gulf during a cost-of-living crisis is astounding,” he said. 

“I will be writing urgently to the foreign secretary to raise my concerns regarding this alleged funding increase, and to ask for a breakdown of where and to whom this funding has been allocated.”

The report comes as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remain close allies of the UK despite widespread criticisms leveled against the two Persian Gulf countries over their human rights violations.

A Saudi court recently sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Ph.D. candidate at Leeds University and mother of two children, to 34 years in prison and a 34-year travel ban due to tweets that were critical of Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has also been leading an all-out war and economic siege against Yemen for many years in cooperation with some Arab and Western countries.

Also, the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, still remains in an aura of ambiguity.

Sayed al-Alwadaei, advocacy director of the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), said: “Despite an outcry in parliament, raising alarm over this fund’s support of Persian Gulf bodies implicated in serious rights violations including torture and whitewashing of war crimes, the UK government has chosen to quietly reward rich Persian Gulf states with millions more in taxpayer money.”

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at UK-based rights group ALQST, said that now is the time for the UK government to provide answers.

“The fact that the UK has increased its funding to Saudi Arabia at a time when the human rights situation in the kingdom has continued to deteriorate raises alarm bells about its impact,” she said.

“Whether the funding has gone to bodies directly implicated in abuses, or is now used to fund other activities, there are serious questions about the human rights measures it is contingent upon.”

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