Notes for editors
10 UK MPs have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on the UK government to follow the example of the Biden administration by blacklisting Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, after revelations that Pegasus software was used by foreign governments to hack UK peers, lawyers and refugees
Gulf states have received £53.4m in technical and military support since 2016, with MPs criticising UK government plans to establish a “cyber ambassador” for the Gulf states
Use of Pegasus by Gulf states on UK soil represents a “serious threat to our national security”
Signatories highlight cyberattacks conducted on UK soil by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, including attempt by ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum to “undermine” the UK’s judicial system by hacking estranged wife and her legal team
Other attacks targeted phones of activists living in the UK as refugees, including BIRD Director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei
11 November 2021 – Ten UK parliamentarians have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him to follow the example set by the Biden administration by blacklisting Israeli Spyware firm NSO Group, following revelations that the company’s Pegasus spyware was used to hack Gulf activists and dissidents living as refugees in the UK, as well as members of the House of Lords and British human rights lawyers, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) stated today.
In the letter, which was sent by Layla Moran MP, signatories argue that such cyberattacks “represent egregious breaches of domestic and international human rights law”, especially with regards to the use of Pegasus by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to conduct “transnational repression” against human rights activists and academics living in the UK, including BIRD Director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei. The letter also points to the hacking of the phone of Princess Haya of Jordan by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum during a legal dispute over custody of her children, described by the UK High Court as an “abuse of power” and “interference with the process of this court and the mother’s access to justice.”
MPs say UK government is "putting trade above security in spyware row"
— Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei (@SAlwadaei) November 12, 2021
Particular concern was raised over continued UK support for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states involved in these hacking incidents, which have benefited from at least £53.4 million pounds from the British taxpayer in technical and military support since 2016 through the Integrated Activity Fund (IAF) and its successor, the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF). Signatories also questioned the government’s recently announced plans to use GSF funding to establish a “cyber ambassador” for the Gulf region, as well as the sale of “millions of pounds worth of spyware and other surveillance equipment to Gulf regimes” between 2015 and 2019.
MPs also challenged the UK Government’s failure to publicly condemn the actions of both the NSO Group and GCC states implicated by the findings of Pegasus investigations, conducted by a consortium of media organizations including The Guardian since July 2021. As a result, signatories in the letter issued four main demands directed at the Prime Minister, urging to take substantive action in response to what they argue poses “a serious threat to our national security”. Demands included requesting that the UK government blacklist the NSO group by imposing trade sanctions on the company as well as a suspension of the GSF to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, in line with the recommendations of a parliamentary report published earlier this year.
The letter’s signatories represent MPs from all major UK opposition parties: the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party. The most notable names include:
Layla Moran MP, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, who will lead the initiative and submit the letter to the Prime Minister, she is the first UK MP of Palestinian descent and the first female Liberal Democrat MP from an ethnic minority background;
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Natalie Bennet), former leader of the Green Party;
Brendan O’Hara MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf
The letter was drafted in consultation with the London-based advocacy group the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), who also secured cross-party support.
Layla Moran MP, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, said: “The UK government’s credibility has been shot to pieces by its handling of the NSO surveillance scandal – a credibility already damaged by their cyber security programmes with Gulf states implicated in human rights abuses. Prioritising free trade deals with countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE must not mean handing them a blank cheque to commit abuses on UK soil with impunity; the UK government must end its cyber security programmes immediately and sanction the NSO group if they are at all serious about our national security.”
Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, commented: “The use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware by Gulf regimes against UK residents and nationals, including members of the House of Lords and refugees living under British protection poses a threat to our national security and reveals the contempt with which our so-called allies in the Gulf view our laws. As well as immediately sanctioning NSO Group, the Government must investigate the harms caused by these hacking operations and ensure consequences, starting with a fundamental reassessment of their relationship with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.”