International Institute for Strategic Studies received cash over five years, partly to pay for Gulf conference at which Boris Johnson is due to speak
A British thinktank that bills itself as a global authority on military and diplomatic affairs has been accused of jeopardising its independence after leaked documents showed it has secretly received £25m from the Bahraini royal family, which has been criticised for its poor human rights record.
Confidential documents seen by the Guardian show that the country’s repressive rulers donated the sum to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) over the last five years.
The documents also reveal that IISS and the Bahraini royals agreed to “take all necessary steps” to keep most of the donations secret. The Bahrain donations make up more than a quarter of IISS’s income.
The disclosure comes as Theresa May, the prime minister, is on a two-day visit to Bahrain to discuss post-Brexit trade with Gulf leaders. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is due to give a speech in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, on Friday at a conference organised by IISS and paid for by Bahrain’s ruling family. The royals are footing the bill for all delegates to stay in villas at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The confidential documents have been obtained by Bahrain Watch, an independent organisation that seeks to promote democracy and social justice in the country. The group believes the secret donations undermine the independence of IISS, which says it is a non-partisan organisation that provides objective information about the world’s security issues. IISS has rejected the accusation.
IISS, whose headquarters are on the north bank of the Thames in central London, said its mission was to promote “sound policies to further global peace and security and maintain civilised international relations”. Its specialists are often quoted in the media.
The Bahraini donations have been used to fund an IISS office in the country, and to pay for annual conferences on Middle East politics attended by heads of state and other powerful figures. The three-day gatherings in the Gulf island state are called the “Manama Dialogue”. This year’s opens on Friday.
The documents reveal that IISS and Bahrain’s rulers specifically agreed to keep the latter’s funding for the Manama Dialogues secret. This amounts to £14.9m since 2011, the papers show.
Bahrain’s foreign minister and John Chipman, the director-general of IISS, agreed that they “shall not disclose the contents of this memorandum of understanding or any related information to any third party unless the written consent of the other party has been obtained and both parties shall take all necessary steps to keep confidential all classified information which is disclosed or obtained in relation to this MoU, and neither shall divulge such information to any third party.”
Bahrain gained independence from Britain in 1971 and is ruled by the Khalifa dynasty, which has been castigated by campaigners for presiding over deteriorating human rights. During May’s visit to the country campaigners have again highlighted the Bahraini state’s crackdowns on journalists and pro-democracy activists.
The campaigners have criticised Bahrain’s rulers for dissolving the main political party, jailing and torturing activists, and persecuting opposition supporters and clerics.
A burgeoning pro-democracy movement was brutally suppressed in 2011. In September that year the Bahraini royal family signed the secret agreement to fund the Manama Dialogue, which IISS had been holding in the country for a decade.
In the documents, Chipman and the Bahrainis hailed the annual conference as “the central pillar” of discussions about security in the Middle East, allowing delegations from 30 countries to talk about “sensitive regional issues”. The joint aim was to “consolidate the position of the Manama Dialogue as a regional security institution that drives multinational discussions and strengthens Gulf stability”.
As part of the memorandum of understanding, the Bahraini regime agreed to pay IISS an initial sum of £1m, and then £3.5m a year, to organise the gatherings from 2013 until this year. The Bahraini government said its agreement with IISS was “not out of the ordinary for … a forum of this scale and significance”.
Bahrain Watch said: “Any organisation should be concerned about receiving donations of such a large sum from a single donor, but they should be even more concerned when that donor is an autocratic government with such a terrible track record for human rights.”
“The Bahraini government is willing to spend so much on the IISS and the Manama Dialogues because they allow the government to portray itself as modern, liberal and business-friendly, in contradiction to the evidence of torture, abuse and political disenfranchisement that has been so well documented by countless credible organizations already.
“Although the IISS will claim that it has maintained its independence, the facts suggest otherwise. Almost 30% of the Bahraini delegates at the 2015 Manama Dialogue were members of the Al Khalifa royal family.”
In a statement, IISS said its agreement with the Bahraini regime “expressly gives the IISS full freedom to develop the agenda and invite participants in line with priorities it judges to be important to encourage strong debate on regional issues and facilitate important diplomatic contacts”.
It said that the gatherings that it organises in Bahrain and Asia “have brought greater transparency to the defence and security debate in the respective regions and have inspired sophisticated international discussion of the challenging issues these regions confront”.
“The IISS for a number of years has received funding from a wide range of governments for conferences and major international summits,” it added.
A second memorandum of understanding, signed in 2013, committed the Bahraini government to pay IISS the equivalent of £2.6m a year to fund an office in Manama for at least another decade. “The Kingdom of Bahrain and the IISS jointly recognise the huge success of the establishment of a regional headquarters for the IISS in Bahrain as well as the mutual benefits that such a presence offers,” the agreement said.
IISS said the HQ agreement gave “the IISS full freedom to establish its research agenda, develop its publications programme, hire the researchers it chooses and publish the conclusions they independently arrive at”.
• This article was amended on 8 December 2016, to clarify a sentence that previously said the Khalifa dynasty “has ruled Bahrain since it gained independence from Britain in 1971”; the dynasty’s rule dates back to 1783.