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Gulf leaders buy caviar, Rolexes and other gifts for UK ministers

Campaigners have criticised the gift-giving of countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE as a ploy to 'increase influence'
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud presents British Prime Minister Theresa May with the Order of King Abdulaziz in Riyadh (AFP)
By Joe Lo

Gulf monarchies have continued to shower UK foreign ministers with lavish gifts, according to newly released government data.

The data reveals that Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf Bin Alawi gave Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson six tins of Caspian Caviar, worth more than $1,000 in total, when they met in July. In the same month, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry gave Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt a Rolex watch worth nearly $8,000.

These are the latest in a long line of gifts which UK ministers have received from Gulf governments. These include luxury christmas hampers, rugs and a $2,600 designer briefcase given to defence minister Tobias Ellwood by the United Arab Emirates.

Responding to these revelations, campaigners told Middle East Eye they are concerned that undemocratic Gulf monarchies with poor human rights records have too much influence on the UK’s foreign policy.

"Whether it is caviar, expensive watches or luxury hampers, the message is the same," said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)."These gifts aren't being given out of any sense of generosity. They are being given to buy friends and increase influence."

"If repressive regimes and brutal dictatorships are giving gifts to MPs, then it is time for those politicians to think about the messages they're sending out, and to stop offering such intimate political support to human rights abusers."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: "Many of these regimes have consistently repressed democracy and violated human rights. These lavish gifts are a transparent ploy to influence the UK's foreign policy so that it favours the regimes rather than the people of the Gulf."

Both Oman and Kuwait have been accused by human rights campaigners of repressing freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch have highlighted the case of Kuwaiti blogger Ayyad al-Harbi who has been in prison since October 2014 for articles and tweets in which he accused the government of corruption and repression.

Campaigners from Amnesty International carry model missiles to Downing Street in central London to highlight the export of UK-manufactered arms to Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Amnesty International have been similarly critical. In a report on Kuwait's recent human rights record, the organisation said: "The authorities further curtailed freedom of expression and prosecuted and imprisoned government critics under criminal defamation laws; some were prisoners of conscience. Members of the bidoon minority continued to face discrimination and were denied citizenship rights. Migrant workers remained inadequately protected against exploitation and abuse."

Similarly, in Oman, Human Rights Watch has identified 23 journalists and activists who have faced reprisals for criticising the country's government. This includes Nabhan al-Hanshi, the founder of Omani Monitor for Human Rights, who had to flee the country to avoid 18 months in prison.

"The authorities continued to restrict freedoms of expression and association, arresting and detaining government critics and human rights activists," said Amnesty International, commenting on repression in Oman.

Whether it is caviar, expensive watches or luxury hampers, the message is the same ... these gifts aren't being given out of any sense of generosity, they are being given to buy friends and increase influence

- Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade

"Most were released within days but some faced prosecution and imprisonment, creating an environment of self-censorship. Women remained subject to discrimination in law and in practice. Migrant workers were exposed to exploitation and abuse."

Another frequent giver of gifts to UK ministers is the government of Saudi Arabia, which has splashed out on 20 luxury Christmas hampers for Conservative Party ministers since 2010.

In that time, the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia has come under increased scrutiny. This scrutiny escalated after March 2015 when Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen's civil war drew attention to the UK's supply of Typhoon fighter jets and Paveway IV missiles to the Royal Saudi Air Force.

These arms sales are currently being challenged in the courts by CAAT while Labour and other opposition parties have called for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be halted pending an investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law.

Since becoming prime minister, Theresa May herself has received several gifts from the Saudis including an ornament, a clock and a medal. This medal is likely to be associated with May's receipt of the Order of King Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Saudi Arabia's regional ally, the UAE, has also been providing the UK's ministers with christmas hampers and other gifts. In December 2012, the country's government was especially free-spending, buying William Hague a rug and Alistair Burt both a hamper and an Ipad.

Most of these ministers' gifts are retained by the government department or used for hospitality. However, ministers can choose to purchase the gifts for themselves. When Boris Johnson was given a $400 box of Wagyu meat by the King of Jordan, he retained four of the sirloin steaks for himself and let the department take the other meats and cheeses.

Governments outside of the Gulf do also give gifts to UK ministers. In July, the King of Spain gave Boris Johnson a $200 silver-plated bowl. However, Gulf governments seem to give the most frequent and the most extravagant presents.

At the time of publication, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had not responded to a request for comment.

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