The UK is quietly boosting funding to help Gulf countries condemned for human rights abuses improve “public order” and implement crackdowns, including on children.
The regime in Riyadh has also provoked outrage by handing a 34-year jail sentence to a Saudi student and mother-of-two at Leeds University for retweeting posts by dissidents.
Bahrain, accused of abusing children detained without access to a lawyer or their parents, is being given funding for “the implementation of the juvenile justice law”.
One human rights group accused the government of “scandalously” rewarding “filthy rich regimes” guilty of ongoing human rights violations through its secretive Gulf Strategy Fund.
The vice-chair of a parliamentary group shining the spotlight on abuses in the Gulf vowed to “demand answers” from ministers as soon as Westminster returns from its shutdown following the Queen’s death.
And the UK Director of Human Rights Watch accused ministers of “shady aid for trade deals”, saying: “British taxpayers’ money is being sent to repeat and unrepentant human rights abusers.”
Pointing to funding for Bahrain’s ‘juvenile justice law’, Yasmine Ahmed added: “Human Rights Watch has documented grave abuses of children under this law, but the UK praises the initiative and provides more funding.”
The controversy follows criticism of Liz Truss’s failure, when foreign secretary, to name a single occasion when she challenged a Gulf state on human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, the UK is seeking a controversial trade deal with a six-nation bloc including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in its hunt for the post-Brexit agreements it promised.
Britain has more than doubled funding through the Gulf Strategy Fund to both Saudi Arabia (which is receiving £1.86m) and Bahrain (£1.8m), it emerged last month.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) pointed out Saudi Arabia used its terrorism laws to imprison Salma al-Shehab, the Leeds student, “merely for tweeting”.
“It is sickening to aid Saudi on countering terrorism whilst they execute unprecedented numbers of pro-democracy protestors,” added Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the group’s advocacy director.
“Bahrain’s corrupt judiciary and sinister so-called ‘human rights’ oversight bodies have been repeatedly involved in covering up torture against children and people on death row, as well as justifying unlawful executions.”
Lord Scriven, the vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf, said ministers “refuse to listen” to protests about the fund.
“They have responded by pouring yet more money into the moral vacuum of this scheme,” the Liberal Democrat peer said.
In Bahrain, the UK is also funding “criminal justice reform” and “capacity building of Bahrain’s National Communication Centre”.
The fund is bolstering “World Cup preparations” in Qatar, as well as “improved market access intelligence for UK companies”, the document shows.
Campaigners say human rights have deteriorated in both Saudi and Bahrain since the fund began in 2017 – with Bahrain ending its death penalty moratorium, leading to executions rising sharply.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to respond to the criticism, but has argued the fund also supports work for human rights and that assessments are carried out.