Sandi Dheensa takes a look at how local MP Charlotte Leslie has represented the interests of Middle Eastern regimes and sheikdoms during her time in office.
Charlotte Leslie is standing for re-election as MP for Bristol North West, having served as the city’s sole conservative MP since 2010. As vice-chair of the Conservative Middle East Council, she has spent plenty of time away from her constituency on trips abroad – not least in the last six months.
Last year, the Cable reported on her vision for strengthening relations between the UK and United Arab Emirates (UAE). With another election around the corner, it’s a good time to revisit Charlotte’s relationship with the Middle East and actions as a Bristol MP. Here’s a snapshot of some of her recent political junkets:
- November 2016: Dubai, UAE. Falcon and Associates International Ltd coughed up £4313 for Charlotte to “gain a deeper understanding of the important strategic links between Dubai and the UK”. Falcon is a PR company for the UAE government, previously directed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s ‘media escort’. Former Conservative Foreign Office Minister, Sir Hugh Robertson, is now vice chair of the company, offering his services to the sheikdom.
- December 2016: Bahrain. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doled out £3250 for Charlotte to attend the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Manama Dialogue–“The Middle East’s premier defence security summit”. The IISS is a London-based think tank that apparently “promote(s) the development of sound policies that further global peace and security”. Two days before Charlotte’s trip, The Guardian revealed that the IISS had jeopardised its independence by covertly accepting £25m—more than a quarter of its income—from the Bahraini royal family. This donation paid for Charlotte to stay in a villa at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
- March 2017: Cairo, Egypt. With £1982 from the chair of the UK Egyptian Medical Society and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Charlotte held a fact-finding delegation with President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, MPs and ex-diplomats among others. Shortly after her “fact-finding” visit, Charlotte told parliament that in order to prevent a rise in extremism, all British flights to Sharm El Sheikh needed to resume following the bombing of a Russian airliner in November 2015.
- April 2017: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Shura Council—King Salman of Saudi Arabia’s advisory board—donated £6722 for a visit to strengthen diplomatic relations. Charlotte met with the Saudi parliamentary ‘Friendship Committee’ with the aim of enhancing bilateral cooperation and coordination. This Committee aims to “develop and strengthen the bonds of friendship and communication with sisterly and friendly countries”. (This trip built on a cosy relationship between the Bristol MP with the sheikdom. Back in 2016 the UK embassy of Saudi Arabia generously donated her a food hamper worth £500).
After all that talk of friendship, let’s see what these governments have in common:
- Political opponents and peaceful dissenters face travel bans; asset freezes; prosecution; arbitrary detention; loss of citizenship; and ‘forced disappearances’.
- Routine use of torture, for which officials are not held accountable.
- Systematic discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, and sexuality.
- Labor abuses and exploitation (unpaid wages, passport confiscation, excessive working hours), and denial of the right to unionise and strike.
- Membership of the Saudi-coalition in Yemen, which has carried out attacks that “may amount to war-crimes”, killing over 10,000 people and leaving millions displaced and starving.
But never mind all that. Defending Saudi Arabia and UK arms sales to the country, Charlotte says that we “must guard against falling into the moral luxury of blam[ing]” state actors. When talking about Egypt’s President el-Sisi, she argues that “we need to look at where the most human rights abuses take place: in a stable state or in a failed state”. And to those who criticise the UAE, she suggests they stop indulging in “a luxury…of impotent moralising from a far-off position”.
Charlotte is standing for re-election on 8th June. While it’s easy to be distracted by photos of happy locals on her website*, voters should remember that while she may represent the interests of her constituents, she certainly speaks up for the regimes and sheikdoms she visits abroad.
(*Her website funnily enough doesn’t mention her votes against higher benefits for those unable to work due to illness/disability, against creating jobs for unemployed young people, and for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits. Pretty relevant considering her constituency contains some of the most deprived areas of Bristol.)