TEL AVIV — The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), where White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has been listed as a member for 11 years, quietly took in about $32.5 million in funding from Bahrain, a country whose constitution explicitly enshrines Sharia Islamic law as the governing doctrine.
The funding from Bahrain, a repressive regime with a dismal human rights track record but also an important regional U.S. ally, reportedly amounted to one quarter of the think tank’s total income.
A significant portion of this funding reportedly pays for the think tank’s annual conference in Bahrain, the Mamana Dialogue. The original agreement between IISS and Bahrain to finance the conference contained a clause calling for the memorandum of understanding to remain confidential, according to the document, which was leaked by a watchdog and published by the Guardian newspaper last year.
As a member of IISS, McMaster participated in the Sixth Mamana Dialogue summit in Bahrain from December 11 to December 13, 2009, Breitbart News found. He is listed in IISS literature as being part of the Mamana Dialogue’s four-person panel that year on “military transformation, intelligence and security cooperation.”
From September 2006 to February 2017, McMaster is listed as a member of IISS, where he served as consulting senior fellow. The IISS describes itself as a “world-leading authority on global security, political risk and military conflict.”
IISS has offices in London, Washington, Bahrain and Singapore.
As of press time, IISS did not return a Breitbart News request seeking comment on the Bahraini financing, although the organization already confirmed funding from the kingdom in response to last year’s Guardian expose.
The “donor” section of IISS’s website lists the “Kingdom of Bahrain” as a major host nation, but no monetery amount is publicly revealed. The Bahrain Economic Development Board is listed in the highest category of donations on the webpage – those who provided more than £500,000 (over $650,000).
Last December, the Guardian obtained confidential documents from a watchdog showing IISS “secretly” received £25 million (about $32.5 million) from the Bahraini royal family during the previous five years.
The UK newspaper reported that the Bahraini donations amounted to 25 percent of IISS’s income and included significant funding to the group’s Manama Dialogue events in the kingdom. The funding for the dialogue was reportedly meant to remain confidential.
The newspaper reported:
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 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.”
Bahrain Watch, an independent organization seeking to promote democracy in Bahrain, provided the documents to the Guardian.
According to the cited documents, which are fully viewable online, IISS agreed with Bahrain’s ruling family to keep the kingdom’s funding of the think tank’s Manama Dialogue strictly confidential. Those funds amounted to over $19 million since 2011, according to the documents.
IISS has been holding the Mamana Dialogue in Bahrain for over a decade. The next event slated to take place in Mamana is being billed under a different name, the Bahrain Bay Forum.
In 2013, IISS and Bahrain further signed a memorandum of understanding for $3.3 million per year to keep an office in Manama for a decade, the documents show.
That agreement, obtained by the Guardian, stated:
The Kingdom of Bahrain and the IISS jointly recognize 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.
In response to the Guardian expose, IISS did not deny the Bahraini funding. The think tank released a statement that Bahrain’s 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.”
“The IISS for a number of years has received funding from a wide range of governments for conferences and major international summits,” IISS added.
Sharia law, human rights abuses
Middle East Eye, an online news organization routinely cited by major news media outlets, expressed concern that IISS’s partnership with Bahrain could give the repressive regime international credibility:
The kingdom of Bahrain is not far short of being a dictatorship. It does not encourage freedom of speech and persecutes its own citizens, in particular the majority Shia population. …
The concern about the Manama Dialogue, and its surrounding activities, is that they convey an air of respectability to an increasingly authoritarian and illegitimate regime.
That is why we believe it is essential that the IISS should clarify its financial relationship with Bahrain.
The U.S. State Department documents how Bahrain’s constitution enshrines Sharia law, and that in practice the Shia Muslim population faces discrimination:
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings, in accordance with the customs observed in the country, and states that Islam is the official religion and Sharia (Islamic law) is a principal source for legislation. The constitution also stipulates that there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion; however, in practice, the Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favored status, and the Shia population faced discrimination. …
During the reporting period there were reports of mass arrests of Shia activists, including clerics, with some allegations of torture, censorship of religious sermons, and the revocation of citizenship of a prominent Shia religious leader and his family — although later restored.
The State Department documented that while the constitution allows for freedom of religion, “there was no further law to prevent discrimination, there was no procedure to file a grievance, and the Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favored legal and social status.”
The State Department further reported on the application of Sharia in Bahrain:
Sharia governs personal status, and a person’s rights can vary according to Shia or Sunni interpretation, as determined by the individual’s faith or by the courts. In May 2009 the government adopted the country’s first personal status law, which regulates family matters such as inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce.
Islamic studies are mandatory for all students. Media laws prohibit “anti-Islamic media” in the country.
Human Rights Watch documented the country’s track record of abuses:
Bahrain’s human rights climate has worsened in recent years. The country’s courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters and have failed to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations, including security forces’ disproportionate use of force to quell unrest. The authorities prosecute and jail prominent human rights activists and political opposition leaders, dissolve political opposition groups, and strip the citizenship of dissidents. Migrant workers in Bahrain continue to confront unpaid wages, passport confiscation, unsafe housing, and excessive work hours.
A 2016 Human Rights Watch report summary states:
There was a marked deterioration in the human rights situation in Bahrain in mid-2016, when authorities dissolved the main political opposition group, al-Wifaq, jailed the country’s leading human rights activist, and harassed and prosecuted Shia clerics who peacefully protested the arbitrary revocation of the citizenship of al-Wifaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qasim. This orchestrated crackdown on the rights to free expression, assembly and association undermined prospects for a political solution to Bahrain’s domestic unrest.
Authorities made little progress in holding officials accountable for the mistreatment and torture of detainees, continued to arbitrarily strip citizenship from Bahrainis who have been critical of the government, and subjected civil society actors to arbitrary travel bans.
Bahrain and U.S. policy
Despite Bahrain’s human rights abuses and its mistreatment of minorities, the kingdom has espoused moderation at times and is considered an important American ally. It has participated in the fight against the Islamic State, has aided U.S. defense efforts in the Middle East and Persian Gulf and has been a member of U.S.-led military coalitions. Bahrain is also designated by the U.S. government as a non-NATO ally.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, which affords the U.S. military a significant presence in the region. In 2011, Bahrain dispatched a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, to serve as ambassador to the U.S.
Bahrain has long maintained a tense relationship with Shia Iran, but in official comments it welcomed the international nuclear agreement with Tehran.
McMaster’s IISS Faces Controversy Over Financing
The resurfacing of Bahraini financing is the latest controversy to engulf McMaster’s former group, the IISS.
Earlier this week, IISS re-added George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and another Soros-financed group, the Ploughshares Fund, to the list of donors on its website in response to a Breitbart News request on the matter. Ploughshares was identified by the Obama White House as central in helping to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the public and news media. The Open Society and Ploughshares groups appeared on a previous version of the website’s donors list, but went missing in recent days. The groups re-appeared as donors following a Breitbart News request for comment on the unexplained removals.
On Tuesday, Breitbart News sent a request for comment about the additions to the website and received the following reply:
As well as the Open Society Foundation, we also accidentally removed the Carnegie, McArthur, and James Foundations, as well as a number of governments and corporate supporters, when we updated the page ten days ago. Your question brought this to our attention and the listing has now been corrected.
Earlier this week, Breitbart News also reported that IISS is bankrolled by multinational corporate firms doing billions of dollars in business in Iran.
The business deals are up for regulation by the U.S. government and the transactions are in direct jeopardy by the possibility of the Trump administration further sanctioning Iran or declaring Tehran in violation of the international nuclear accord.
The past affiliation may raise conflict-of-interest issues for McMaster, who is serving in a position of direct influence over U.S. policy with regard to Iran. Already, McMaster has been accused of purging the National Security Council of hardliners on Iran, and he is seen as a leading proponent of the Iran nuclear accord within the Trump administration. McMaster has reportedly urged the Trump administration to recertify Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.
IISS has supported the Iran nuclear agreement and defended Tehran against reports it has violated tenets of the deal.
Last month, IISS featured a piece by Mark Fitzpatrick, chief of the think tank’s non-proliferation and nuclear policy program, titled, “Three strikes against claims that Iran is violating the nuclear accord.”
The IISS piece argued that “criticism of Iran’s conduct in relation to the 2015 nuclear deal does not withstand scrutiny,” and that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement “would not convince other parties to re-impose sanctions, but could trigger a global crisis.”
In June, the IISS’s Fitzpatrick opined that “Critics are wrong: Iran remains in compliance with nuclear accord.”
An IISS strategic comment paper, titled, “Trump’s erratic Middle East policy,” argued that Trump’s confrontational approach toward Iran is “unlikely to lend needed stability to the region.”