DECLASSIFIED UK

Northern Irish police trained Gulf regime ahead of crackdown

By Rory Winters and Luke Butterly 16 June 2021

Omani riot police and special task force patrol in Sohar on 24 May 2021. (Photo: Supplied)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is facing fresh scrutiny over its long-standing ‘public order’ and security training of Omani police, following last month’s suppression of protests in the country.

Rory Winters and Luke Butterly

  • Four Northern Irish officers provided virtual public order training to the Royal Oman Police between December 2020 and February 2021 – months before the protests were put down.
  • The PSNI has been teaching Oman’s police “how to deal with protesters” since 2015
  • Amnesty International calls for a “rigorous, independent human rights assessment… before any future agreement to deliver PSNI training to an overseas police force”.

In recent weeks in Oman, thousands have protested against unemployment and corruption — in what has been described as the largest demonstrations the authoritarian Gulf state has seen since the 2011 Arab Spring.

Oman’s police adopted a heavy security response, with use of tear gas, deploying armoured vehicles and arresting protesters.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) confirmed that it provided “public order” training to Oman from December 2020 until February 2021, months before the protests were put down, a joint investigation by The Detail and Declassified UK has found. The PSNI’s relationship with Oman’s police force goes back to 2014.

In addition, UK defence minister James Heappey has told parliament there are approximately 230 UK military personnel based in Oman and that they have “regular contact with the Omani authorities…to share ideas and experience on all aspects of security including response to protests.”

Nabhan al-Hanashi, a political activist in exile who runs the Omani Centre for Human Rights, told us the Omani police response to protesting citizens can be “very extreme”, particularly if they call for a change of the regime in the country.

The Omani political exile added that if the PSNI “supports human rights, it shouldn’t be supporting Oman’s police who are oppressing people”.

It is a criminal offence to insult the Sultan in Oman, the country’s absolute ruler. 

Mr al-Hanashi said: “In Oman, if you campaign for political reforms it is a crime, if you want to call for a change in the regime, it’s a crime. These things are not easy to practice inside Oman.”

He also said that the British Government has “always protected the regime in Oman” and that “for some reason in the UK, nobody is hearing us”.

UK leader Boris Johnson with Oman’s Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq. (Credit: Oman News Agency)

Director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, Patrick Corrigan, said there are “important questions” about the PSNI’s role in Oman.

He told us: “According to the PSNI, these training programmes were supposed to help ensure human rights-compliant public order policing in Oman, yet the Omani authorities are continuing to unduly restrict free expression, arresting and prosecuting journalists and online activists.”

Meanwhile, policing spokesperson for the Social, Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Dolores Kelly, believes the actions of Omani security services against the protesters are “deeply concerning” and “entirely disproportionate”.

Ms Kelly, who sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said: “I have asked the police for an update on the training offered to security agencies in Oman, the weight given to human rights compliant policing and how the PSNI measures the effectiveness of the training it delivers.”

‘How to deal with protesters’

PSNI training operations in Oman are funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, via Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (Ni-Co).

Ni-Co is a not for profit, public body owned by Invest NI, which in turn is a non-departmental public body under the responsibility of the Department for the Economy (DfE).

The DfE has previously said that “Ni-Co’s purpose is to market, sell and share the distinct expertise and knowledge of Northern Ireland Government departments and public bodies developed as a result of our unique history and experience”.

Several PSNI training projects organised by Ni-Co have in the past also come under scrutiny, including in Bahrain, Qatar and Libya.

Discussions regarding PSNI training of Omani police began in 2014, when the then British ambassador to Oman wrote to the PSNI “requesting assistance to provide policing advice and guidance to Omani policing service”.

Documents we uncovered using Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation show approval was given in late 2014, to further the relationship with Oman.

The go-ahead was given by then Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI and now the Republic of Ireland’s police (Gardai) chief, Drew Harris. A scoping visit to Oman was then carried out in early 2015 by two officers from the PSNI’s training college.

The British ambassador wrote to the PSNI at the time saying that the main objective of this was for Oman’s police to “learn how to deal with protesters” using the most recent tactics and techniques in public order policing.

The PSNI received £900,000 to cover the costs of its work in Oman between March 2014 and March 2017 alone, for projects including protest training and youth justice initiatives.

PSNI officers have visited Oman, and Omani police have come to Northern Ireland on several occasions.

Training operations have been ongoing since then, as recently as earlier this year. Four PSNI officers delivered eight days’ virtual public order and public safety training to the Royal Oman Police between December 2020 and February 2021. 

‘Northern Ireland pulled out all of the stops’

Meanwhile, officials from the Royal Office of Oman visited Northern Ireland on five occasions in a 12-month-period in 2014/2015.

Former UK foreign minister Alan Duncan has described Oman’s Royal Office as “vaguely similar” to MI6. It controls the Gulf state’s external and domestic intelligence agencies.

One meeting took place at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast in 2015, between Oman’s police chief Hassan al Shraiqi and a Northern Ireland delegation, including Arlene Foster, then the minister responsible for trade and investment.

Omani security commanders led by Hassan al Shraiqi (circled) meet the PSNI. (Photo: Ni-Co)

A Ni-Co document relating to the meeting states “it may be beneficial to look at other aspects of policing where there is NI expertise”, including intelligence gathering.

We asked the PSNI if it provided intelligence-based police training in Oman. However, the police service did not answer this.

The same discussion points for the dinner also state: “Note that the Minister (Arlene Foster) is keen to discuss the Northern Ireland Government’s strategic plan to move from a public-sector led economy to one that is private-sector led.”

An email from the British Embassy in Oman to Ni-Co in March 2015, said that the Northern Ireland delegation “pulled out all of the stops”, and mentions how the dinner “whet the appetite” for broader cooperation with Oman and Northern Ireland, particularly with Invest NI.

Figures released to The Detail from the DfE show that exports from Northern Ireland to Oman have averaged around just under £10-million per year in recent years.

While these exports have not grown since the relationship started, the Gulf state remains a strategic ally to the UK in the Middle East.

Oman, a former British colony, has reportedly also ordered over £3-billion worth of weapons from the UK since 2007, according to research from Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Human rights assessment

The PSNI told us that the delivery of the public order training to Oman has been supported by the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB) and the Department of Justice (DoJ), with both organisations approving of this as recently as November 2020.

However, none of the PSNI, DoJ or NIPB provided us with evidence about how the PSNI training has improved human rights compliance in policing in the Gulf state.

We asked the NIPB and the DoJ, given their approval, whether they were content with these PSNI training operations in Oman, in light of the recent suppression of protests. However, neither answered this question.

A protester is arrested by Omani police in Sohar on 24 May 2021. (Photo: Supplied)

The DoJ said it had been advised that all upcoming “policing assistance” provided to Oman would be assessed under UK Government human rights guidance, but maintained it had “no role in evaluating the impact of training provided by the PSNI”.

Meanwhile, the NIPB confirmed that it sought and received assurances from the PSNI about the nature of the Omani police training, at a board resource committee meeting last November.

However, the details of these assurances are not included in the board minutes and have not been made publicly available.

Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan said: “The Chief Constable and the Policing Board can’t just rubber-stamp requests for the PSNI to deliver public order and firearms training to security forces from countries with a record of suppressing freedom of assembly and expression.

“The PSNI should carry out follow-up evaluation to ensure that any training offered results in an improvement in human rights and policing in that country, especially as there are considerable ongoing human rights concerns about policing in Oman.”

Mr Corrigan also said that police and security training “should be subject to the same level of regulation as the sale of arms and security equipment” and approval should be refused if it risks “facilitating human rights abuses”.

He added: “A rigorous, independent human rights assessment should be made before any future agreement to deliver PSNI training to an overseas police force.”

The PSNI told us it’s “often asked to support the development of international policing” and that it views “the development of global standards” as part of its responsibility.

A spokesperson also said: “Our work in Oman is human rights centred and is delivered in a way to ensure an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all involved. Our focus is always on the delivery of the highest standards of policing strategy and tactics.”

Ni-Co also maintained that all of the PSNI’s training in Oman has been “fully compliant with international human rights standards” and added that this Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)-funded work “strives to promote not repress democracy and equality”.

An FCDO spokesperson told us: “The FCDO remains committed to the promotion of universal freedoms and human rights. We continue to monitor developments on human rights in Oman, drawing on a range of information. “

We contacted the Oman Embassy in the UK but it did not provide a response. DM

Luke Butterly is a freelance journalist in Belfast​. Rory Winters is a journalist with Northern Ireland-based investigative news website, The Detail.

Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers the UK’s role in the world. 

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