A British MP who recently went on two trips to Bahrain paid for by the repressive Gulf kingdom's rulers is due to return the favour next week by hosting a reception in the House of Commons "celebrating" 200 years of Bahraini-British relations.
Last October, Bahrain's foreign ministry splashed out £3,050 ($3,950) for Jack Lopresti MP – pictured above – to attend the IISS Manama Dialogue, an annual event which brings together the "national-security establishments" of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries and "important outside powers" such as Britain.
In January, Lopresti was back in Bahrain again on a £4,750 ($6,150) "fact-finding" mission with the Conservative Middle East Council. Lopresti is not actually a member of the council and his trip, once again, was paid for by Bahrain's foreign ministry.
During the January trip Lopresti attended the Bahrain Airshow where it was announced that Bahrain would be placing a $3.4 billion order with the plane manufacturer, Airbus. Airbus employs 4,000 people at Filton, near Bristol, in Lopresti's parliamentary constituency.
Lopresti's House of Commons "celebration" of friendship with Bahrain comes at a time when the kingdom has stepped up its crackdown on civil society, media and basic freedoms. Earlier this week the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the latest wave of repression and a group of 10 rights organisations issued a statement highlighting recent abuses. These included:
- The arrest and prosecution of the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab;
- The suspension, announced dissolution and the asset-freeze of the country’s biggest opposition party, the Al-Wefaq Islamic Society;
- An increased jail sentence, from four to nine years, for the party’s Secretary-General, Sheikh Ali Salman;
- The imposition of travel bans on journalists and activists, including a delegation of human rights activists set to participate at the 32nd UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva;
- The forced exile of prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja;
- The suspension of several non-governmental and religious organisations;
- The withdrawal of citizenship from Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of the Bahrain’s Shia majority population.
Defending his trips to Bahrain, Lopresti told the Bristol Post: "Bahrain is one of our country's key strategic allies in the Gulf and the Bahrainis are in the process of building the UK's first naval base east of Suez since the 1970s."
The controversial decision to establish the new base – the first to be created "east of Suez" in 43 years – was announced in 2014 without consulting the British parliament and was seen as a major step in reversing a long-standing policy. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Britain's military withdrawal "east of Suez" – primarily from Malaysia, Singapore and the Gulf – had formally drawn a line under the UK's imperial past.
The government of Bahrain was reported to be paying construction costs for the new base, thus removing any need to ask Britain's parliament for the money.
In 2012, Lopresti faced criticism over a £6,600 trip to Saudi Arabia which was paid for by the Saudi embassy in London. In his declaration in the register of MPs' interests Lopresti initially said the purpose of his visit was "to meet with members of the Shura Council [the kingdom's unelected "parliament"], government ministers and various human rights groups". However, Oliver Colville, another MP who went on the same trip said the purpose had been "to promote defence exports".
Shortly afterwards, Lopresti amended his declaration in the register of interests to say that he had gone to Saudi Arabia "as part of the UK Defence Forum delegation to gain an understanding of the political and security framework as related to the Saudi government".
Lopresti was one of 138 Conservtive MPs who supported Brexit in the recent referendum. If Britain does eventually leave the EU it will need to compensate for lost trade with Europe – probably resulting in intensified efforts to do business with autocratic regimes in the Middle East.