The undignified predicament of the Conservative MP for Beckenham, Bob Stewart, charged with threatening behaviour and telling a Bahraini human rights activist to “Go back to Bahrain”, appears not unconnected with the concerns about foreign funding raised several times by Sarawak Report.
The incident took place outside the Bahrain Embassy last year, where Mr Stewart had attended an event held by the Ambassador of this controversial Gulf regime in his capacity as an MP who has developed ties with the oil-rich state following a considerable investment in cultivating his connection.
Stewart has been entertained a number of times by Bahrain and other Gulf states through his membership of the so called Middle East ‘parliamentary friendship group’ for the Conservative party, formerly known as CMEC (Conservative Middle East Council).
Under its President, the former Tory MP and now Lord, Nicholas Soames, CMEC has recently disaffiliated from the party to become a limited company, CMEC MENA & UK Ltd.
Sarawak Report has raised questions about such friendship groups developing ties with foreign countries, including CMEC. Those concerns persist now that CMEC (in keeping with groups such as the Conservative Friends of Israel) operates as an independent business promoting MPs’ ties with the region.
They include the provision for lobbying within the company’s stated business: the CEO, former Conservative MP Charlotte Lesley, denies lobbying but has conceded there is a fine line under existing rules. Also, the company’s refusal to declare the sources of funding for its operations focused on forging good relations between MPs and primarily the rich Gulf oil states.
Bob Stewart is one of those MPs. He has been entertained by the Bahrain Government both in the last year and also the year before that, when he was part of a delegation in November 2021 that was entertained in Bahrain as part of the so-called Manama dialogue – a forum held annually by the state to enable “national leaders, ministers and policymakers from the Middle East, North America, Europe, Africa and Asia to gather together to discuss the most pressing regional security issues and to share policy responses.”
That attendance by UK MPs was organised by CMEC with the trip costed at £5,349 per each of the four Conservative MPs who were entertained. The event is viewed by many as a PR event designed to provide respectability for yet another oil rich autocratic Gulf monarchy accused of a multitude of human rights abuses against democracy activists.
This clearly played into why in November last year a well-known civil rights campaigner, Sayed Ahmed Alwadae, exiled in Britain after suffering imprisonment and torture in Bahrain, confronted the MP as he emerged from the Embassy in London to ask him “why did you sell yourself to the Bahraini regime?”
Those troubled by foreign funding of MPs are concerned, after all, that CMEC received funds from Bahrain to employ its impressive connections to encourage these MPs to attend that event.
Whilst CEO, Charlotte Leslie, denies her undisclosed funding comes direct from foreign governments such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, she told Sarawak Report that the issue of indirect funding from such sources is “problematic”.
Leslie visited both countries whilst an MP, as a member of CMEC herself, and then supported these Gulf regimes prominently in parliament, castigating those she described as impotent moralists on the sidelines who had raised concerns about human rights in these super wealthy states.
Clearly those visits and her support for the Gulf monarchies positioned her for the job of managing CMEC when she lost her seat in 2017. Likewise similar contacts and ties present numerous opportunities for existing MPs still entitled to take up second jobs, consultancies and advisory roles with wealthy entities.
Indeed, Lord Soames, after years as President of CMEC, has himself now joined the flourishing consultancy, Frances Maude Associates (FMA), set up by the former shadow foreign secretary, Francis Maude, with a focus on Gulf clients.
Soames was also a guest at the latest November 2022 Manama Dialogue in Bahrain and earlier in the year he attended the Bahrain Grand Prix as a guest of the Crown Prince.
Bob Stewart is also none other than the Chairman of the so-called All Party Parliamentary Group on Bahrain.
He has held the role since 2015, and has doubtless, in the process, built up extensive connections with the regime which have clearly led him to sympathise more with the hugely wealthy autocrats in charge than with those seeking to promote human rights and democracy.
What these time consuming links have to do with his constituents in Beckenham, whom he is paid to represent, is less clear.
Amongst the insults he directed against Sayed Ahmed Alwadae (which he said were provoked as a result of having been taunted) was that the political exile was “taking money off my country, go away!”
Then “Get stuffed. Bahrain’s a great place. End of.”
He later added in a recorded rant: “Go away, I hate you. You make a lot of fuss. Go back to Bahrain.”
Under the circumstances Mr Alwadae might have made the rejoinder that clearly Bob Stewart has taken money off his country too, through entertainment funded by a regime that he would prefer to see elected.
Mr Stewart can at least argue against those who criticise his Bahrain ties that he is equally connected to several other Gulf APPGs, including the one fostering relations with Saudi Arabia (of which he is the Secretary), the one with the UAE (which he chaired till recently), Qatar (Vice Chair), Oman (Secretary) and South Yemen (Vice Chair).
He could make the further point that he is a member (usually in the capacity of a senior officer) of no fewer that 39 APPGs in total, most of them relating to small but wealthy countries and off-shore island states.
Bob Stewart’s prowess in this respect beats even the prolific memberships of Romford MP Andrew Rosindell who is linked to 36 APPGS, again mainly relating to small, off-shore and island states such as the San Marino and Montserrat APPGS both of which he chairs, and Gibraltar.
Constituents of such MPs must wonder how their local duties in outer London relate to such far flung activities by so many of the MPs in the present governing party?
Are such connections primarily related to an interest in making contacts with wealthy if sometimes insignificant nations seeking advocates in the UK?
If so, what, if anything, can MPs achieve in the public interest through such connections with foreign countries separate from the official government channels handled by the Foreign Office?
Perhaps it was the burden of so many competing interests that caused Bob Stewart to fly off the handle at a campaigner for representative democracy in one of the states where he has especially good relations.
It will now be for the Westminster Magistrates Court to decide what, if anything justified his acting as he did and whether his undignified outburst amounted to criminal behaviour.