Conservatives' influential Middle East forum unscathed by donor row

British establishment schism centres around two competing groups focused on regional policy

A high stakes and expensive legal dispute involving secret research notes and a blizzard of 40 formal legal letters has not derailed the work of one of the ruling Conservative Party's most influential voices in Middle East policy.

The dispute has spilt into the open between the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC), which has focused on the region for the last 40 years, and would-be rival Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa (COMENA).

CMEC officials have told The National there is no “vacuum” in British government policy amid the ferocious donor battle.

The very top of the British establishment has been dragged into the controversy, with Prince Charles drawn into questions over party funding, along with former prime minister Theresa May.

The dispute, which has led to questions over “cash for access” and behind-the-scenes deals allegedly shaped by Tory party chairman Ben Elliot, originates in the Tories' interests in the Middle East.

The COMENA project is the initiative of millionaire businessman Mohamed Amersi. He claims that during a dinner with Boris Johnson before he became prime minister it was agreed he should begin a new Conservative group to develop regional connections.

“Neither the Conservative Party, nor our friends in the Middle East have ever indicated to us that there is a vacuum in Middle East relations and the Conservative Party,” CMEC chairwoman Charlotte Leslie told The National.

The former Conservative MP has vowed the organisation will continue to maintain its mission to promote and solidify ties with the Middle East despite recent events.

“CMEC is proud to forge and maintain relationships that last decades, not days, between Conservative Parliamentarians and wider UK society, and the Middle East,” said Ms Leslie, 42. “CMEC engages across the Middle East, including the Gulf, to enable Conservative parliamentarians to better understand the region, its complexities and challenges.”

Mr Amersi, 61, had suggested that there was “a vacuum” in Tory interests after CMEC in 2019 ended formal affiliation with the party to allow it to seek wider funding.

CMEC's work of organising delegations of MPs to travel across the region has continued, as well as its other activities, such as holding events and debates in Britain. It also facilitates interaction between Parliament and Middle Eastern embassies in London. Regional leaders to have met its delegations include Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as well as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Many of the British MPs who have played an active role in CMEC have gone on to become Middle East ministers. Delegations to the UAE have seen at first hand the work to address extremism as well as consult with leading officials. “Our MPs have discussed the challenge of religious extremism and what the UK might be able to learn from the work of the UAE,” Ms Leslie said. “We are dedicated to enabling parliamentarians and wider UK society to forge a deeper understanding of the Middle East region, including the Gulf.”

The organisation was originally set up in 1980 during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership as a conduit for listening and forming British foreign policy in the Middle East.

Since then it has become a trusted and respected organisation at the heart of diplomatic relationships. The forum also has respected former Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, as its honorary president.

However, both the role of Sir Nicholas and Ms Leslie have been dragged into the public eye by reporting on the legal dispute with Mr Amersi and wider party fund-raising activity.

Mr Amersi, who has donated more than £750,000 ($1.04 million) to the Tory party, has said that COMENA could make promising introductions to major Middle East players, as there appeared to be a gap in British foreign policy.

His initial proposal was reportedly backed by former prime minister Ms May and other senior Conservatives. It appeared that COMENA was being fast-tracked for party affiliation earlier this year to play an influential role for Britain.

Mr Amersi, who in the past has had strong business dealings with Russia, set up COMENA as a private company late last year with himself as the chairman.

In January, Ms Leslie composed a memorandum on him which she sent to Sir Nicholas, who then forwarded it to Ben Elliot, chairman of the Conservative Party and nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall — Prince Charles' wife — and co-founder of luxury concierge business Quintessentially.

A short while later Mr Amersi had possession of the memo and employed lawyers. The two memos allegedly contained allegations about Mr Amersi’s Iranian connections, his attempts to get Conservative Party affiliation for COMENA and reference to Russian interests.

On January 18, according to the Financial Times, Mr Amersi donated £50,000 to the party.

Mr Amersi has now spent £300,000 on legal action alleging defamation against Ms Leslie and Sir Nicholas.

Ms Leslie confirmed to The National that she was in receipt of 40 letters from Mr Amersi, via the top libel law firm Carter-Ruck.

An attempt at mediation to avoid a full court battle was requested by Mr Elliot. At no point did the party chairman inform Ms Leslie that Mr Amersi was a member of his concierge business.

“We were surprised that Ben Elliot did not inform us that Mr Amersi was a client of his firm, Quintessentially.”

Ms Leslie learnt of the connection when it emerged that Mr Elliot had set up a dinner between Prince Charles and Mr Amersi. The businessman has subsequently donated more than £1.2 million to the prince’s charities.

“I highly regret that Prince Charles has been involved in this,” Mr Amersi was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday.

The affair has brought media attention to Conservative Party donations, an issue that was supposed to have been reformed after multiple past controversies.

The scrutiny has already led to a spokeswoman for Ms May confirming that she had agreed to be patron of COMENA but was no longer involved with the organisation.

Other Tory grandees understood to be affiliated with the new group have since declined to confirm their commitment to it.

Mr Amersi is also disheartened by events. “I sometimes wonder if I was white and my name was John Smith and I had been to Eton and Oxford I might have been treated differently,” he is quoted as saying by The Daily Mail.

A decision on whether the Conservative Party gives COMENA full affiliation is expected next month. In the light of a string of controversies over party funding, including renovations of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat, it is a decision the party is likely to consider carefully.

Updated: August 6th 2021, 12:19 PM