Exiles versus Oligarchs
Declassified UK, or DCUK for short, is a media organisation that seeks to uncover the truth about the UK’s role in the world, through evidence-based reporting. It focuses on British foreign policy on the grounds that it attracts relatively little critical scrutiny compared to the United States. DCUK is a small operation with just four staff, but it punches well above its weight and uncovers stories that are under-reported in the mainstream media.
On Wednesday 26th October, I attended the screening of the DCUK film Exiles versus Oligarchs, produced by Philip Miller together with exiled Bahraini photojournalist Moosa Mohammed. It only lasts 34 minutes and is well worth watching.
Britain as "Butler to the World"
Recently, much has been written about the way Britain serves oligarchs from around the world, and in March, Oliver Bullough published a magnificent exposé called Butler to the World: How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals. But by describing Britain as a Jeeves-like "butler", Bullough seems to have been sweetening the pill. Tim Adams, who reviewed the book for the Guardian, describes it as an account of how Britain “pimps itself to the world”.
Bullough showed how, since the end of Empire, the UK had found a new role for itself as an enabler of ill-gotten gains of dictators and plutocrats. It is a business that provides handsome profits for the City of London and its linked tax havens, and for British law firms that have grown fat by assisting with residency and laundering reputations. He also shows us how Britain allowed Gibraltar to become the low tax host to online betting companies - an arrangement that generates income from low-income British punters while denying the UK Government tax revenue that might be used for their benefit.
Bullough published his book after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an unusual time when the British Government felt the need to act against Russian oligarchs who held vast sums outside Russia, and were believed to owe fealty to Vladimir Putin. Indeed as far back as 2017, the investor Bill Browder estimated that they held $200 billion on behalf of Putin himself. The British government slapped sanctions on more than 1,600 individuals and businesses, including over 100 Russian oligarchs and family members. As part of the crackdown, it launched a new register of property owned by foreign entities, though this only applies to properties purchased since 1999.
But as the Economist pointed out, the clamp-down on Russian oligarchs does not end London’s role in enabling the flow of dirty money. Britain “has sought to attract footloose global capital for decades, and not just from post-Soviet countries: Chinese citizens have accounted for a third of the investor visas handed out since 2008. And noble attributes of Britain’s common-law system, which include independent courts and strong property rights, are attractive to illicit actors, too”.
Focus on Bahrain
Britain has had a longer and deeper involvement with plutocrats from the middle eastern states than those in the former Soviet Union. The DCUK film mainly focuses on Bahrain, but also mentions links to other Gulf states including Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia, noting:
Britain’s long-term involvement with the Governance and the security of those states since their birth, exemplified by the ex-MI6 controller for the Middle East currently Adviser to the King Hamad of Bahrain;
Its support for the Government of Bahrain since the Arab Spring of 2011, when it cruelly repressed the Pro-Democracy movement led by Hassan Mushaima, with a combination of killing, torture and life imprisonment. The UK’s posture contrasts with its strident condemnation of the repression of Arab Spring demonstrators in Libya, leading to Anglo-French military intervention and the overthrow of President Ghaddafi. It also contrasts with British actions towards Syria where it responded to Assad’s violent repression of demonstrators by engaging in a covert operation that (in the words of DCUK Editor Mark Curtis) has served to prolong and radicalise that country’s devastating war.
The role of the Saudi Arabian national guard, an elite UK armed and supported force, in crushing the Pro-Democracy movement in Bahrain. While Saudi Arabia is no friend of democracy, an additional consideration in its calculations was doubtless the fact that while Bahrain's royal family is Sunni, most of the citizens are Shiites, and that a democratic Bahrain would be more friendly to its arch-enemy, Iran.
Major British arms sales to the Gulf states. According to an article in Middle East Eye dated October 2018, the Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT) found that Britain had licensed over $100 million in arms sales to Bahrain since its 2011 clampdown.
Close and chummy relationships between Gulf royalty and the British royal family.
Massive investments by Gulf royalty, senior officials and civil servants in UK property – all seeking a secure home for their fortunes.
The film sees this through the eyes of Bahraini refugees in the UK, including the son of Hassan Mushaima, who are outraged that while the UK sanctions Russian oligarchs, they are protecting Arab oligarchs and their luxury lifestyles. Writing in the Guardian, Ali Mushaima protested: “Yet while the king socialises with dignitaries, my ageing father languishes in a cell in Bahrain, denied access to medical treatment for a range of serious illnesses". Ali and colleagues have been living a cat-and-mouse existence in the UK, intermittently demonstrating against the monarch and his representatives. They have shown considerable fortitude, as the Bahraini regime both threatens and exacts reprisals, including torture, against their families back home.
The film was followed by a Q&A session and discussion. There was general agreement that Britain’s involvement with the Gulf States was so deeply entrenched that there is minimal chance of any real change in the foreseeable future. As for a future Labour Government, it was noted that Keir Starmer’s only current objection to Gulf monarchies concerned Qatar, on account of human rights abuses towards LGBT people. This selective attention might owe something to Qatar being the home of the Al Jazeera news channel, which recently broadcast the Labour Files documentaries that revealed a host of unpalatable truths about the Labour Party under Starmer’s leadership.
A note on the geo-political context
Until the late 60s, the small Gulf emirates were governed according to the trucial system, whereby they enjoyed internal autonomy while the UK took care of foreign affairs and defence. Access to oil resources was also of importance to the UK.
During the 1960s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-colonial stance caught the imagination of people in the Arabian peninsula, and encouraged them to seek full independence, a source of great apprehension for the British. However, following a costly and ultimately fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden, and a currency crisis triggered by Gulf states selling their sterling reserves, the Government of Harold Wilson announced in January 1968, that all British troops were to be withdrawn from permanent bases east of Suez. This signalled the end of the formal arrangement whereby Britain took care of foreign policy and defence of Gulf states and arbitrated between rulers.
There ensued a feverish period of negotiations in which Britain sought to unite the trucial emirates, Qatar and Bahrain into a single unit that would fill the vacuum that Britain would leave behind. However, Bahrain and Qatar eventually dropped out of discussions, such that only six states came together to form with the United Arab Emirates, in July 1971, with another joining in 1972. During this process, Britain was also negotiating with the Shah of Iran who claimed Bahrain and seized three islands claimed by two emirates that had ruled them for over 70 years. Britain eventually ceded the islands despite their objections.
Britain’s continuing interest in Bahrain may be partly explained by a desire to reassert itself militarily in the Gulf. Indeed in 2021, Britain’s Conservative Government opened its first permanent naval base – on the island of Bahrain. Indeed, Boris Johnson claimed that the original withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia was a “mistake". Dr William James of the Oxford University Changing Character of War Centre, commented that “in reopening its base in Bahrain, Britain is further aligning itself with the forces of absolute monarchism in the region”, going on to say that "deepening partnerships with states that have questionable human rights records undermines Britain’s credibility in voicing concerns over Russian or Chinese breaches”.
Concluding comment: what can we reasonably expect?
While British policy towards Gulf States is unlikely to change any time soon, a reasonable ambition is to ensure British people become much better informed as to HMG’s dealings with them. The difficulty here is that Britain’s mainstream media is providing very limited coverage of the situation, a gap that DCUK is attempting to fill, albeit with slender resources.
Another reasonable ambition is to ensure that refugees and dissidents from Gulf states remain free to draw public attention to the problematic relations between their countries and the UK. However, there is a risk that increasingly draconian Government legislation, in the form of the "Policing Act”, coupled with an ever more hostile environment for refugees, may gradually stifle such protest.
 to do justice to Starmer, it should be noted that in March 2021, he called on Boris Johnson to stop Britain selling Saudi Arabia arms that could be used in Yemen.
The author of this blog is Jonathan Coulter, Secretary of CAMPAIN. See here for short bio.