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What has Alan Duncan been up to in Oman?

SOLOMON HUGHES on Foreign Office Minister mysterious trip to the notoriously repressive Gulf state

BRITAIN’S relationship with the repressive Gulf state of Oman is so strong that when one Foreign Office minister was invited to a private, secretive £3,000 trip by Oman’s ruler, the rest of the Foreign Office begged him to use the time to suck up to the sultan even further.

Alan Duncan is currently a Foreign Office minister for Europe and the Americas.

But the former oil trader has strong Middle East links: in 2014 Duncan was David Cameron’s special envoy to Oman.

Duncan had a week-long trip to Oman on December 31 2018 to January 6 2019, paid for by the Sultanate of Oman.

According to Duncan’s entry on the register of MPs’ interests, the trip was for a “New Year reception and to attend strategic seminar with the government of Oman.”

Duncan made similar Oman-funded trips in January 2017 and 2018, all “in a non-ministerial capacity.”

I asked for documents about Duncan’s trips to Oman under Freedom of Information.

They showed how the Foreign Office knows nothing about what its minister discussed with his hosts on this one-week long expensive, Oman-funded trip.

A government minister flew 4,000 miles for a party, a seminar and a week-long holiday, all paid for by a repressive sultan.

The British government has no record of who met who, or what was said, but the Foreign Office appears to feel left out, rather than concerned.

The documents I was given show the Foreign Office had no timetables, notes or any other information about Duncan’s trip.

However, instead of being bothered about this secretive trip to meet a foreign government, the Foreign Office instead just urged Duncan to be obsequious to the sultan.

The Foreign Office “Oman desk” in London was keen to offer “top messages for him to draw on during his time in Oman, particularly if he meets with the sultan.”

It was so keen he get its “top messages” for the sultan that they both emailed them to his office and asked embassy staff in Oman to give Duncan a “hard copy on his arrival.”

Oman is an absolute monarchy, ruled over by 78-year-old Sultan Qaboos. The sultan was educated at Sandhurst and overthrew his own father in a British-backed coup in 1970.

Oman has no real political freedom: the sultan cracked down on “Arab Spring” demonstrations in 2011 and continues imprisoning and harassing political dissidents.

Migrant workers have few rights and are badly exploited. The British government says Oman is a “priority market” for arms sales. The British government has underwritten a £2 billion loan so Oman can buy BAE Typhoon jets and licensed the sale of tanks and many other weapons.

The sales are easier because “Oman is a key defence partner of the UK,” with Oman’s armed forces trained by British soldiers and airmen.

None of the Foreign Office’s “top messages” for Duncan to discuss with Sultan Qaboos concerned human rights.

Instead they wanted Duncan to tell Sultan Qaboos he was “deeply grateful to HM the Sultan” for working with the British army in November 2018’s huge Swift Sword military exercises in Oman, run jointly by British and Omani troops as this was a “pivotal moment to elevate British-Omani relations and deepen co-operation for years to come.”

The Foreign Office wanted Duncan to say he was “delighted” about joint military exercises that would help promote a new British-Omani “Joint Defence Agreement“ that ensures more military co-operation between the two nations, encouraging help further arms sales.

Bahrain Grand Prix

All the Gulf dictatorships can rely on friends on the right wing of British politics, but Bahrain doesn’t seem to have done as well with one of their main PR pushes this year, the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The basic formula is that the Gulf nations use their oil wealth to buy British arms to shore up their repressive sheikhdoms, and to invest in British infrastructure.

Lots of Tory and right-wing Labour MPs like this money-arms-repression-investment formula.

They especially like it because the sheikhdoms will also spend money entertaining them along the way.

However, it can get politically difficult for these politicians when campaigners point out embarrassing details like the nasty repression, reactionary laws or vicious wars launched by our Gulf “allies.”

In 2004 Bahrain found a new, imaginative way of creating international public relations to try make the sheikhs look nicer than they are — the Bahrain Grand Prix.

It’s expensive PR. According to Reuters, Bahrain pays the Formula One Group $40 million a year for the right to hold the race.

Bahrain can make a lot of money back through sponsorship and television rights. However, the main sponsor of the Bahrain Formula One is Gulf Air, the national airline owned by the government of Bahrain — so the government is mostly funding the race.

Bahrain uses the Grand Prix as “soft diplomacy,” a public relations push to draw attention away from the undemocratic and ugly side of its rule.

They use a number of Western PR firms to help, like Britain’s Dragon Advisory, which represents the Bahrain International Circuit, the state-run firm organising the race.

All this PR fell apart in 2011: the Bahrain government faced “Arab Spring” protests. It responded with a brutal crackdown, with some protesters killed, others imprisoned and tortured.

The 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled. When it tried relaunching it in 2012, the event was overshadowed by protests and boycotts.

This year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, held in February, didn’t attract as much protest. But nor did it do that well, politically.

“Celebrities” like David Beckham made high-profile visits. However, according to the register of MPs’ interests, only one MP went: Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson accepted a £1,300 trip to the Grand Prix from the Sheikhs.

That’s not a great gain for Bahrain. The only official government response I can find to the Grand Prix is that the British embassy in Bahrain hosted an “F1 Grand Prix Night event” in its gardens: a British embassy party with the sheikh who runs the Grand Prix is a pretty pathetic political “win” for a $40m event.

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