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THE new generation of Tory MPs are quickly embracing the old tradition of friendly visits to Saudi Arabia.
Alex Burghart MP (Brentwood & Ongar) and Leo Docherty MP (Aldershot), both newly elected in 2017, joined Simon Hoare MP (North Dorset), who was elected in 2015, on a £7,800 per person five-day trip in September to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, paid for by the Saudi sheikhs. This was Hoare’s second Saudi visit this year. He went on a “fact-finding“ mission funded by the sheikhdom in April.
The latest register of MPs’ interests describes the trip as taken to meet Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, along with local officials and businessmen to “support and understand the British-Saudi bilateral relationship.” Before he was elected, Burghart was one of Theresa May’s advisers, and her “Policy Unit lead on social justice.”
Burghart’s willingness to go on a “support” trip to Saudi Arabia, where there is no “social justice,” suggests he doesn’t really have deep feelings about justice at all. This attitude of May’s “social justice” adviser perhaps helps explain why her attempts to carve out a “social justice” agenda have been so weak.
According to the official Saudi press release, Docherty and co met “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud” and they “reviewed the relations of friendship between the two countries and prospects of bilateral co-operation.”
However, while the “new boy” Tory MPs want to get in on the old tradition of visiting Saudi Arabia, the repressive desert kingdom is going through a dangerous spasm of change. This month one faction of the Saudi leadership led a purge against another; hundreds of leading Saudis were arrested. The richest ones were imprisoned in a luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, in Riyadh.
The November purge was led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, son of the Saudi king. He purportedly wants to “liberalise” Saudi Arabia socially and economically, moving beyond an economy based just on oil. But the November arrests of rival princes show he is trying to force “liberalisation” through by authoritarian means, an unstable mix which could easily go wrong.
Top Saudi officials joined the three Tory MPs and the king at their talks, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who has pressed Britain to stick with the Saudis on the war in Yemen and has helped negotiate many big Saudi arms deals. The supposedly liberalising Mohammad bin Salman is very keen on the Yemen war, because he thinks it will make Saudi even stronger in the region. This shows that his “liberalising” isn’t that liberal.
The MPs were also joined by Minister of State Ibrahim Abdulaziz al-Assaf in the talks. Assaf is on the board of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state oil firm which is negotiating to launch a share sale on the London Stock Exchange.
This sale is a key part of Mohammad bin Salman’s “liberalising” plan. He hopes to use the share sale to raise money to help “modernise” Saudi. The Saudis need to persuade British officials that Saudi Aramco is well run, transparent and well regulated before it can be launched on the stock exchange.
The Tories are keen on this share sale as well, so Tory MPs meeting a Saudi Aramco board member is a useful contact. Or would be except that Assaf was arrested in the supposedly “anti-corruption” November purge.
The Tory MPs met a Saudi Aramco boss who was, shortly after they came back to Britain, arrested on the orders of the son of the king. Which just shows what kind of regime they are trying to be friends with. It also shows that allowing Saudi Aramco to trade on the London Stock Exchange is a very risky idea. With its executives up for arbitrary arrest by supposedly “liberal” princes, Aramco is far from a stable, well regulated company.
Will the poachers go after the, er, poachers?
The Paradise Papers drew more attention to the way big companies and rich individuals avoid tax by artificial arrangements based “offshore” in tax haven islands. The Tories made noises about pressing down on tax avoidance, but they are unlikely to really deal with the “offshore” industry because they are so casually involved in it.
Take, for example, Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP for North Herefordshire. The register of MPs’ interests shows that Wiggin’s mind isn’t always on his constituents’ problems, or the rolling hills and market towns of the rural Midlands. He has distractions in sunnier climes.
He gets around £19,000 a year by moonlighting as “the director of two fund platforms in the Caymans, and two in Bermuda.” He runs these offshore financial schemes as part of his work as managing director of the Bermuda based company Emerging Asset Management, for which he gets another £39,996 a year.
So Wiggin is paid more than most of his constituents for a part-time job working in the offshore finance industry. Emerging Asset Management say their main job is helping people with a lot of money “on how to start a hedge fund and launch new funds in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Delaware” in the US. One of the principal advantages of setting up investment funds in these places is, according to the company’s website, that “there is no income, capital gains or withholding tax in Bermuda or Cayman.”
Even Wiggin’s local paper, the far-from-militant Hereford Times, doesn’t approve. Since Wiggin started his offshore work in 2015 they say that “many readers rightly questioned the reasons why someone earning far more than the average employee as a politician would seek to boost an already impressive salary by working with a company that helps the world’s richest to manage their tax bills in a more efficient manner.”
The paper adds that “many can – and will – argue that Mr Wiggin’s choice is a poor one at a time that many are still feeling the pinch of austerity and the NHS needs every penny it can get from the Exchequer.”
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