18 Oct 2018

Dozens of MPs flown to Riyadh in Saudi charm offensive

Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds paying for British MPs to visit the country.

Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds paying for British MPs to visit the country.

FactCheck found that at least 33 MPs have been on Saudi-funded trips to the Kingdom, since its troops entered Yemen in 2015. On most occasions, all expenses were covered.

In total, British MPs have accepted more than £208,000 worth of trips since 2015.

Getting MPs to visit appears to be a growing priority for Saudi Arabia. Over the last five years, increasing numbers of MPs have gone – and the amount being spent on each person has gone up.

Since the intervention in Yemen, Saudi representatives have also given government ministers expensive gifts – including gold-plated, diamond-encrusted bookends, a silver horse ornament, and food hampers worth up to £350 each. The gifts were accepted, but not taken personally by ministers.

While he was Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond was also gifted a £1,950 watch, from a Saudi sheikh. He accepted the gift in his capacity as a constituency MP, rather than as Foreign Secretary – meaning he would be allowed to keep it.

Separately, Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, was even paid £46,000 of Saudi money over 23 months – working as an adviser for a Riyadh-based organisation set up by the Saudi royal family.

His work, “providing advice to the centre on its work on international relations,” ended around the time that Chishti became Vice Chair of the Conservative Party in January.

Saudi Arabia is under intense diplomatic pressure over the case of Jamal Khashoggi – a journalist who was allegedly killed after entering the its consulate in Turkey.

Saudi denies the killing, but reports say the UK is considering boycotting an international conference in the country. And Donald Trump said there would be “severe punishment” if it turns out that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents.

The country is also facing continued condemnation of its involvement in the Yemen conflict, where all sides have been accused of possible war crimes by the UN. The Saudi-led military alliance has repeatedly denied the allegations.

But the UK and US both enjoy close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which is seen as an important strategic ally and economic partner.

Theresa May recently agreed a £65 billion trade and investment target with the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, saying: “The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one, and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country.”

Reports say that around £4.2 billion worth of goods were exported from the UK to Saudi Arabia last year alone.

Despite the criticism of Saudi Arabia, many MPs have been happy to accept expensive trips over to Riyadh, paid for by Saudi authorities. They include high-profile MPs such as former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, former trade minister Mark Garnier, backbencher Philip Davies, and Sir Alan Duncan, who became a Foreign Office minister shortly after his Saudi visit.

This year, 13 different MPs were flown out to visit in the space of just four months.

Three Conservative MPs travelled there in January, courtesy of the country’s Ministry of Defence. At a cost of £8,257 per person, the MPs were taken to the Saudi-Yemen border region to see the “impact of ballistic missile strikes” and “gain a deeper understanding of the strategic importance of the Coalition operations in Yemen”.

At around the same time, Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell also went on a Saudi-funded trip for “meetings with the Government of Saudi Arabia about the situation in Yemen”.

In February, four more Conservative MPs were flown over – paid for by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the “fact-finding visit” they aimed to “gain a deeper understanding of the strategic links between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UK”.

Then, just one month later in April 2018, the Saudi government’s Shura Council paid for five Labour MPs to fly to Riyadh. The all-expenses-trip was worth more than £8,700 per person – including £750 on accommodation, and £480 on hospitality.

Of the 33 MPs who have been on Saudi-funded trips since March 2015, there were 28 Conservatives and five Labour MPs.

The number of MPs travelling to Saudi Arabia has gone up. In 2014, only six MPs visited – at an average cost of £5,300 per person. And no MPs accepted trips to Saudi Arabia in 2015. But there has been a spate of visits after that.

MPs visited 11 times in 2016, 12 times in 2017 and 13 MPs have already been there in 2018. The average cost of each trip has gone up to nearly £8,186 per person in 2018.

In total, 37 MPs have accepted 42 Saudi-funded trips to the country over the last five years, at a total cost of nearly a quarter of a million pounds.

During this time, several MPs have been more than once, such as Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski. Together, his two visits were valued at £12,000 and saw him meeting Saudi government ministers.

And Leo Docherty, the Conservative MP for Aldershot, visited in 2017 and 2018. He is now a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls.

Details of all the gifts and visits were declared in official registers of interests.

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, told FactCheck: “Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is well-documented, and no parliamentarian should go to the country without being prepared to publicly raise human rights.”

The 33 MPs who have visited Saudi Arabia since March 2015 are:

1. Edward Argar (Conservative)
2. Richard Bacon (Conservative)
3. Alex Burghart (Conservative)
4. Rehman Chishti (Conservative)
5. James Cleverly (Conservative)
6. Leo Docherty (Conservative)
7. Sir Alan Duncan (Conservative)
8. Mike Gapes (Labour)
9. Mark Garnier (Conservative)
10. Sir Edward Garnier (Conservative)
11. James Heappey (Conservative)
12. Simon Hoare (Conservative)
13. Philip Hollobone (Conservative)
14. Kevan Jones (Labour)
15. David Jones (Conservative)
16. Daniel Kawczynski (Conservative)
17. Seema Kennedy (Conservative)
18. Kwasi Kwarteng (Conservative)
19. Charlotte Leslie (Conservative)
20. David Mackintosh (Conservative)
21. Mark Menzies (Conservative)
22. Stephen Metcalfe (Conservative)
23. Andrew Mitchell (Conservative)
24. Mark Pawsey (Conservative)
25. Rebecca Pow (Conservative)
26. Keith Simpson (Conservative)
27. Royston Smith (Conservative)
28. John Spellar (Labour)
29. Andrew Stephenson (Conservative)
30. Martin Vickers (Conservative)
31. Helen Whately (Conservative)
32. Dr Paul Williams (Labour)
33. John Woodcock (Labour, but has since left the party and is now an Independent MP)