One of the most powerful pro-Saudi lobbies in the UK is funded by Velocity Black, a celebrity-endorsed "app" offering luxury "experiences" to the rich, like swimming with blue whales or stays at luxury resorts.
The Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) promotes pro-Saudi ideas within the Tory party and arranges delegations of MPs to Saudi and other Gulf states.
It is run by top Tories: senior backbencher Sir Nicholas Soames MP is President. Former Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire MP is chairman, and other former Ministers including Crispin Blunt MP and Lord Astor are CMEC officers. Theresa May addressed their most recent "Gala Lunch", where she started speaking by "paying tribute to CMEC".
CMEC take a strongly pro-Saudi line. This month, dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Most likely he was killed and dismembered by a 15-man Saudi government hit squad. The killing has caused international outrage, but CMEC's main response to the killing was to talk about how Saudi Arabia, its ruler Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) and his father the Saudi King could deal with what they called "Khashoggi's death".
An "exclusive" article on the CMEC website said the "death" – in fact a murder – was the "toughest challenge" MBS had yet to face. CMEC's article praised MBS's "sincerity" as a reformer and argued that "brand MBS might be able to resurrect itself, but it will take time". They recommended that MBS's father, the King, should step forward and "may need teach his son a few lessons in statecraft while he does it".
CMEC have also strongly backed Saudi over their war in Yemen, despite widespread revulsion at bombing of civilians. Rejecting calls to stop arms sales to Saudi, a statement by CMEC said they "firmly reiterate our belief that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not only a longstanding and important ally of the United Kingdom but also a force for stability in a troubled region whom we must continue to support with absolute resolve".
This powerful pro-Saudi lobby group is funded by some figures with close links to the arms trade – and by the company running the luxury app "Velocity Black".
Velocity Mobile Ltd have given CMEC £30,000, with donations made this July and last November. Ex Goldman Sachs bankers Zia Yusuf and Alex MacDonald launched Velocity Black through their company, Velocity Mobile. In return for a £2,000 annual subscription, Velocity Black members can join what they call "the next-generation members club for innovators seeking the ultimate luxury". It is an app-delivered "concierge service" that links up rich members to expensive, exotic "experiences".
Velocity Black is promoted by celebrities including Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Poppy Delevingne and a slew of other models and celebrities you'll find on the MailOnline's side-bar of shame. They have praised Velocity Black on Instagram and other social media, in return for free membership. They are presumably unaware the company is funding one of the most powerful lobby groups promoting the repressive and murderous Saudi regime.
Velocity Black launched in the UAE this February, and the country is one of the firm's five regional hubs (their other hubs are London, New York, Miami and Los Angeles). Looking for super-rich clients, the firm has focused on Dubai, in the UAE, where the rich kids of the Gulf states spend their cash.
VICE asked Velocity why they were funding CMEC, and whether their celebrity endorsers were aware of their backing for the pro-Saudi political group. Velocity made no response. In a bid to improve its own image, Saudi Arabia has worked with various British media and PR organisations, including VICE, which is producing films with SRMG, a Saudi publishing group with ties to the Saudi ministry of information.
Other donors to the CMEC have links to the arms trade and the Gulf. Rosemary Said gave CMEC £50,000 this year, and has donated £220,000 since 2008. She is the wife of Wafic Said. He is a billionaire, often described as an "arms dealer" because he helped arrange the "Al Yamamah" deal – the multi-billion arrangement for UK-Saudi arms sales that ran for decades. David Rowland has given CMEC £465,000 since 2010. Rowland is a multi-millionaire British property developer and financier. He has been a major Tory donor as well. Rowland has close links to the UAE and to Saudi Arabia. His family business is setting up a bank with the government-owned UAE investment fund.
Update, 29th October: This article previously made an incorrect statement that Velocity Black’s largest shareholder was a Dubai based private family investment fund. We have removed this incorrect statement.
Following publication of this article, Velocity made this statement to VICE:
“Velocity is an apolitical, global business. Velocity Black is a platform that purchases tickets to many events for our members, some of which enable our members to get a better understanding of international politics and relations. Two of these events were organised by CMEC in London with Philip Hammond and John Kerry for an overview of international politics. Any ‘donation’ was not a donation in the way it is often understood, but simply the purchase of tickets to these events.”