Row comes after Saudi Arabia foreign ministry oversaw threefold increase in lobbying of British MPs
Conservative MPs have accepted nearly £100,000 ($133,300) in luxury hotel stays, business class flights and hospitality from Saudi Arabia this year, prompting a complaint to Parliament’s standards watchdog for a potential breach of the rules on declaring financial interests, Middle East Eye can reveal.
The latest figures from the Register of Members' Interests show that 13 Conservative MPs, including the influential former chair of Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) Leo Docherty, have accepted a total of £87,467 ($116,600) in hospitality from the Saudi government this year, prompting concerns that MPs are being used to launder the reputation of the government in Riyadh.
One Labour MP, Liam Byrne, also accepted a donation worth £6,722 ($8,964), bringing the Saudi lobbying bill to a total of £94,189 ($126,939) for cross-party MPs this year.
It's bad enough seeing the government's constant failure to condemn Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record, but now we're seeing a growing band of Tory MPs enjoying free trips courtesy of the Saudi regime
- Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake
The hospitality included business-class flights, luxury hotel stays, fine dining and meetings with King Salman and senior officials. The register shows the figure is almost a threefold increase on Saudi government spending on hospitality from 2016.
One group visit came weeks before Docherty and other backbench MPs questioned Theresa May's government over defence co-operation with the kingdom and urged the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon jets from UK arms giant BAE Systems to Saudi Arabia, prompting allegations of "perks for questions” from campaigners.
The rise in Saudi Arabia's lobbying efforts come as the kingdom's relationship with the UK is coming under increasing scrutiny in Westminster after former Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell this week accused the UK of being "dangerously complicit" in a Saudi policy towards Yemen that is "promoting a famine and the collective punishment of an entire population".
According to the Register of Members' Interests, Saudi Arabia has intensified its lobbying efforts since the start of the Yemen war in early 2015, and Conservative MPs have accepted more than £130,000 ($173,300) in hospitality since the start of the conflict, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Docherty led a delegation of four backbench MPs to meet with King Salman at the al-Salam palace in a six-day trip in September. According to the Register of Members' Interests, each MP recorded donations of £7,800 ($10,400) from the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including business-class flights, luxury accommodation and unspecified food, transport and hospitality, for the visit to the kingdom.
The Commons code of conduct states that MPs must disclose any financial interest or benefit they have received, directly or indirectly, if speaking during relevant debates in the House or submitting questions.
But an investigation by MEE has revealed that Docherty, a former captain in the British Army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not declare his visit to Saudi Arabia when, the next month, he submitted two written questions regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia and in defence of the Ministry of Defence's support for a close relationship with the kingdom.
Docherty's failure to disclose the trip has prompted Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake to submit a formal complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and to call for the Tory backbencher to face investigation.
The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament states: "Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. They shall always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders."
In the letter to Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, this week Brake wrote: "Mr Docherty failed to draw attention to his Register of Members' Interests and his visit to Saudi Arabia when he asked these questions and I am therefore concerned that Mr Docherty has broken the Code of Conduct."
During the visit to Saudi Arabia, Docherty and his fellow MPs met with members of the Shura Council, an unelected body appointed by the king.
Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the Saud family since 1932 and the government restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties, according to the Freedom House monitoring group.
The use of torture and the death penalty remains common and authorities severely restrict rights to freedom of expression and assembly, often imprisoning peaceful critics, according to Amnesty International.
"It's bad enough seeing the government's constant failure to condemn Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record, but now we're seeing a growing band of Tory MPs enjoying free trips courtesy of the Saudi regime," Brake told MEE.
He added: "The job of an MP is to scrutinise the government and their relationship with foreign regimes. Being best buddies with those same regimes is hardly likely to lead to forensic scrutiny of the UK government's actions."
Calls for halt to arms sales
The recent trips come as the UK faces calls to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia and to pressure the kingdom to lift its blockade of Yemen, where it is accused of committing war crimes.
Last week, Save the Children warned that more than 50,000 children are expected to die by the end of the year as a result of disease and starvation caused by the conflict.
Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade, told MEE: "The Saudi regime appears to be exchanging hospitality and perks for questions and influence. By accepting these donations and those perks, MPs risk sending a message of support to the regime and legitimising its terrible human rights abuses.
"These MPs should be using their platform to condemn UK complicity in the ongoing destruction of Yemen and calling for real and meaningful change, not accepting gifts from one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world."
Docherty, a member of the influential defence select committee, did not reply to requests for comment from MEE.
Docherty also attended the controversial arms fair in Bahrain in October (screengrab)
He was joined in Riyadh and Jeddah by fellow Tory MPs Simon Hoare, Mark Menzies and Alex Burghart. In a statement to MEE, Menzies defended the trip as a "relationship-building and fact-finding visit" which took place as King Salman "made a proclamation which would rightfully allow women to start driving in the country".
Hoare and Burghart did not respond to requests for comment, but a source close to one MP who visited Saudi Arabia on the same trip said that "at no time" had the politicians been asked to table a question regarding Saudi Arabia in parliament.
One of the Arab world's richest countries is undergoing seismic changes that analysts say are almost unprecedented. The delegation of Conservative MPs visited Saudi Arabia as the country announced that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Enlisting visiting British MPs as a vehicle for shaping the reputation of foreign governments raises questions as to whether MPs are then still serving the UK public interest and whether it is UK interests that come first
- Duncan Hames, Director of Policy for Transparency International UK
However, analysts say progress in Saudi Arabia is mixed, and days after the visit authorities carried out an execution, bringing the total of people put to death so far in 2017 to 100.
Earlier this year, MEE reported that Conservatives Helen Whately MP and Simon Hoare MP were forced to make statements to parliament after they did not initially divulge they had each accepted thousands of pounds in hospitality from the Saudi government after they spoke in defence of the kingdom during a debate in Westminster.
Duncan Hames, director of policy for Transparency International UK, said: "Official declarations show how the targeting of PR campaigns on MPs by foreign governments has become rampant. Enlisting visiting British MPs as a vehicle for shaping the reputation of foreign governments raises questions as to whether MPs are then still serving the UK public interest and whether it is UK interests that come first."
Middle East Eye has contacted the Saudi foreign ministry for comment.