MPs have accepted £828,211 in the form of all-expenses-paid trips funded by states in a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s war since 2015, The Ferret can reveal.
Our analysis of the MPs’ register of interests at Westminster found that 96 MPs have had trips paid for by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt over the last eight years. Politicians have also accepted gifts including an expensive watch, a £500 food hamper, tickets for a Burns Supper, and a day out at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
All these trips and gifts were registered by MPs in line with rules at Westminster. But critics said it was “absolutely shameful” they had accepted donations from states with poor human rights records in a coalition alleged to have committed war crimes in Yemen.
They accused the Saudi-led coalition of trying to buy influence at Westminster and said the UK government had “failed to show even the slightest restraint” in the transfer of weapons for use in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, despite “overwhelming evidence of violations of international law”.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) also accused prime minister Liz Truss of having an “appalling track record on UK arms exports“ and said her appointment was a “worrying turning point for the war”.
The Cabinet Office declined to comment. But the UK Government has repeatedly said it operates one of the most “comprehensive export control regimes in the world and that takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria”.
The Ferret’s investigation found that the Saudi Arabian government has been the biggest spender on British politicians spending at least £319,406 to facilitate visits to the kingdom since 2015. 42 MPs had taken up an invitation to visit. We also found that the government of Bahrain has paid out £197,985 to host MPs, while the UAE spent £187,251, Egypt, £66,695, and Kuwait, £56,872.
Those who have been guests of Saudi Arabia include former prime minister Boris Johnson, whose trip cost £14,000 in 2018. Former foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who is now a lord, was given a £1,950 watch after unveiling a statue, and former prime minister, Theresa May, was paid £115,000 for a 2020 speech she gave in the UAE.
Several members of the current cabinet have accepted trips including the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Nadhim Zahawi, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng. Cleverly visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 on a “parliamentary fact finding trip” as a guest of its government, which paid £3,187 to host him.
Kwarteng has made eight trips, costing a total of £25,450 since 2015. He visited Bahrain five times, Egypt twice, and Saudi Arabia once, on a fact finding trip. Zahawi enjoyed trips to both UAE and Bahrain in 2017. His trip to Bahrain was to attend the IISS Manama Dialogue – a forum for government ministers to discuss the Middle East’s “most pressing foreign-policy, defence and security challenges”.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs paid £7562 to host Tory MP, Tobias Ellwood, who went on a “fact finding visit” after an oil firm was targeted in an attack. Ellwood’s trips to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE between 2019 and 2021 cost £21,568 in total.
Some of the trips were in conjunction with a private company called the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC & MENA Ltd ) which organises delegations of MPs to visit the region.
Former Tory MP, Charlotte Leslie, is managing director of CMEC. Her seven trips to the five countries between 2015 and 2017 – mostly fact-finding and to “strengthen relations” – cost a total of £29,316. In 2017 she accepted a food hamper worth £500 from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London.
CMEC told The Ferret: “We are afraid there is little we can add to an article which is clearly a bit of a hatchet-job! CMEC exists to try and inform parliamentarians and others about the Middle East and that does, occasionally, involve going there.
“Charlotte Leslie lost her seat more than five years ago. All of this information has been publicly available for some time.”
MPS who accepted foreign trips and donations from arms firms
Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns – parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Education – visited Bahrain in 2016 for a trip which cost the Bahrain ministry of foreign affairs £4,753. Jenkyns was a guest of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in 2018, and accepted a £330 dinner from BAE Systems, an arms firm which works with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in 2019.
Her husband, Jack Lopresti, is Tory MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke. He visited Bahrain in 2015, 2016 and 2017, which cost £7,803. He was also a guest of Bahrain at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. In 2019 he accepted two dinners worth £660 from BAE Systems, and £320 in 2020 from US arms firm Raytheon, to attend a Burns Night supper with a guest. Raytheon makes smart bombs in Fife which have been sold to the Saudis.
Since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, the value of UK arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition amounts to at least £23bn, according to CAAT.
The coalition has been fighting a rebel group from North Yemen called the Houthis, using mainly air strikes. The Houthis, in turn, have used drones and missiles to attack both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both sides in the prolonged war have been accused of war crimes.
The Saudi-led coalition has used UK-made planes and bombs and its air strikes have hit homes, farms, schools, hospitals, weddings and funerals – prompting claims of war crimes and a legal challenge by CAAT over its arms exports.
The UN estimated the war had killed 377,000 people as of the end of 2021, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease – with 70 per cent of those deaths being children. At least four million people have been displaced by seven years of war. A tenuous truce has been held in Yemen since April.
Ross Greer, Scottish Greens MSP, said: “This is absolutely shameful. These regimes aren’t spending all of this money on lavish flights, hotels and gifts out of the goodness of their hearts. They are trying to buy influence at Westminster, as they have done for decades.
“Unfortunately, there is clearly no shortage of MPs willing to cash in and to help whitewash the terrible abuses inflicted on the people of Yemen.
“No amount of expensive watches or holidays can hide the brutality of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and seen schools, hospitals and even funerals targeted.”
Amber Rose-Dewey, a spokesperson for CAAT, claimed that all-expenses-paid trips from countries in the Saudi-led coalition to UK parliamentarians “play a key role in ensuring that UK arms exports for use in Yemen continue unabated”.
She added: “£828,211 is a very large amount of money, but it doesn’t even begin to cover the value to the coalition of extended periods of one-to-one time with influential UK MPs. This time is crucial in ensuring the political support of the UK for an eight-year war that has brought suffering and starvation to the people of Yemen, while UK arms companies profit.”
CAAT also condemned Truss for her previous role as secretary of state for international trade, when she led on military and security exports from 2019 to 2021. The human rights group claimed Truss reinstated arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2020 despite evidence of war crimes in Yemen, pointing out it took the government to court over UK arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition.
CAAT said that whilst the Court of Appeal found in its favour, in July 2020, Truss issued a statement saying the government had determined that any violations of international law were “isolated incidents”. CAAT said this statement was issued despite there being evidence of “hundreds of cases” where the Saudi-led coalition had targeted schools, funerals and homes.
Rose-Dewey added: “Truss has made it clear in her tenure as secretary of state for international trade that she has little concern for the people of Yemen. Clearly, Truss prioritises profit and trade over the lives of civilians in Yemen.”
The UK’s role in exporting weaponry to the coalition was challenged legally by CAAT because arms sales are prohibited by UK rules which say they should not be allowed where there is a “clear risk” that a weapon “might” be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
Since then it has licensed more than £2.2bn additional weapons sales in support of the war, said CAAT. The legal case is ongoing and another hearing at the high court in London will be held from 31 January to 2 February 2023.
The Cabinet Office declined to comment.
All the politicians named in the article were asked to comment but did not respond.
Cover image: Former prime minister Boris Johnson and former Saudi minister of foreign affairs Adel bin Ahmed in 2016. Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office