"Northern Ireland pulled out all the stops" – How Arlene Foster helped export Northern Irish policing expertise to authoritarian regimes.
Arlene Foster with Theresa May (Charles McQuillan/PA Wire/PA Images)
The DUP's leader, Arlene Foster, met Oman's most senior police officer in the private room of a Belfast cocktail bar in 2015, VICE can reveal. Papers disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act show how the DUP has forged a warm relationship with police in the Gulf kingdom of Oman. The meeting was part of a strategy to export Northern Irish policing expertise to brutal Gulf regimes.
Over dinner, the pair discussed public order training that Northern Ireland's police were giving to Oman. The police chief, Inspector General Hassan al-Shereqi, relayed "how content the Ministry of Interior [is] with the co-operation". Foster, who was then Northern Ireland's trade minister, gave him a pen as a gift.
The revelation indicates that Northern Ireland's largest party will enthusiastically support the Conservative government's trade policy in the Middle East. Theresa May has championed UK trade with Gulf regimes as part of her Brexit strategy, despite concerns about human rights. Arlene Foster, leader of the right-wing unionist Northern Irish party, is meeting with Theresa May to discuss the terms of a potential coalition government on Tuesday.
The cocktail bar rendezvous was the fifth visit from Oman's "Royal Office" to Northern Ireland in a year. The documents claim that "warm relationships" between Oman, Northern Ireland's police and trade department "have developed and are being nurtured".
The public order course began in 2014 and continued until as recently as March of 2017. Britain's Foreign Office funded the programme, which cost an undisclosed amount of taxpayer's money.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is the only force in the UK that uses water cannons and plastic bullets to deal with public order situations. Heavily armoured police Land Rovers regularly patrol Northern Ireland.
Hours before the cocktail bar meeting, Inspector General al-Shereqi watched Northern Irish police display firearms, close protection and public order tactics at a remote army base in South Down.
The crowd control training took place despite freedom of assembly being restricted in Oman, a country where the ageing Sultan has spent 46 years in power, making him the longest serving leader in the Middle East. He took the throne in 1970 in a palace coup orchestrated by MI6.
Arab Spring protests in 2011 saw protesters reportedly shot dead by security forces. Since then, allegations of torture in police custody have emerged, and last year a newspaper was shut down after reporting on corruption allegations. Three of its journalists were jailed on charges that included undermining the prestige of the state and "disturbing public order".
Civil servants encouraged the DUP leader to use her meeting at the cocktail bar to expand the range of police training on offer to Oman. Her briefing told her to "suggest it may be beneficial to look at other aspects of policing where there is Northern Irish expertise" when she met Inspector General al-Shereqi.
The British Embassy in Oman described the visit as "a great success and will have helped to cement the collaboration underway."
UK diplomats commented that "Northern Ireland pulled out all the stops" and thanked the DUP's Arlene Foster for the "very cordial and relaxed dinner that she hosted" with Oman's police chief.
The dinner had "whet the appetite… for broader co-operation with Northern Ireland particularly working with Invest Northern Ireland", they said.
Invest Northern Ireland is part of Stormont's trade department, which has been run by DUP ministers for the last decade. It seeks to promote foreign investment in Northern Ireland.
It owns a body called Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO), that sends former police officers abroad to deliver training. NI-CO organised the Omani police training, and the DUP has repeatedly promoted its work in the Gulf.
"Northern Ireland pulled out all the stops"
Earlier in 2015, Arlene Foster led a week-long Invest Northern Ireland trade mission to the UAE and Oman. Documents show that the Oman leg focused on "trade development work for Wrightbus, Bombardier and meeting to support NI-CO".
Foster met with the Royal Oman Police, accompanied by the British Embassy's Police and Security Attaché, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary officer called Duncan Wilson. The Police Attaché has "held 27 meetings or significant engagements (conferences, visits, exhibitions) with the Royal Oman Police since 2014", according to a freedom of information request.
NI-CO itself has also worked intensely with Oman since early 2014 and "hosted representatives from National Security Council to Northern Ireland on three occasions". This led to NI-CO securing the public order training contracts later in 2014. The Foreign Office has also shortlisted NI-CO for a youth justice project in Oman, the documents show.
The Oman projects are part of a wider push by NI-CO, Invest Northern Ireland and DUP ministers to generate work in the Middle East. The documents show that, "Following a change in strategy three years ago, NI-CO started to target project work in the Gulf States and by the end of 2014 the organisation had secured just over £1 million worth of contracts in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. These projects are [funded] by the UK FCO, except for those in Qatar which are funded directly by its Ministry of Interior."
The work in Qatar and Bahrain again involved public order packages for their police, who are also not fond of protesters. NI-CO's board papers show that this plan to "Expand the NI operation to new markets – particularly in the Middle East, Gulf States, Afghanistan and North Africa" is privately regarded as financially risky because of "Political instability in those regions".
However, the DUP has stood by the strategy and last year refused to suspend NI-CO's projects in Bahrain when challenged by human rights groups. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, and the death penalty charity Reprieve, warned that NI-CO's work with Bahrain's riot police and a torture watchdog had failed to prevent miscarriages of justice for political prisoners on death row.
DUP politician Simon Hamilton MLA, who had ultimate responsibility for NI-CO at the time, insisted that "NI-CO will continue to deliver programmes, sharing the learnings and experience of Northern Ireland to change attitudes, culture and behaviour, with the ultimate aim of aligning these countries to the relevant international standards."