Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 6:32 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for introducing this very important debate. It was a real pleasure to hear the noble Baroness's masterly overview of what she described as the most difficult international problem.

This has been an excellent and very wide-ranging debate. Clearly the two key issues were the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Iraq conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for the opportunity for plain talk. I think there has been plenty of plain talk today.

Any eventual solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem must be based on a peace process and dialogue, not conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, said, we must do all that we can to help get the parties together. A secure Israel, free from terrorism and suicide bombings, alongside a viable, independent Palestine: balance is the key to our approach. We must understand the fears and anxieties of both sides if we are to understand the dispute. Israelis feel vulnerable to terrible and regular acts of violence and, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said, threats to its very existence. Palestinians feel humiliated and stateless.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I am a strong champion of the survival and safety of Israel. But the war on terrorism cannot be won by military means alone. While terrorism must be effectively engaged, the deeper reasons for its existence must also be addressed. What are the resentments that lead people to be sympathetic to terrorist acts? Why are young men and girls prepared to blow themselves up? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry pointed out, religion can be a dangerous and tyrannical force. We must try to understand, and be tolerant of, other religions. Several noble Lords mentioned the killing of Sheikh Yassin. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, argued that the killing will not bring peace any closer—in fact, the opposite. Other noble Lords argued that his killing was essential for the security of Israel.

The noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Mitchell, mentioned the security wall. Israel has a right to defend its citizens against terrorist attacks. But while the wall may reduce the means available to Palestinians to commit terrorist acts, the hardship caused does stoke up the will to do so. Both the means and the will must be reduced in parallel, with security measures and dialogue to effect a long-term settlement.

Rebuilding the trust required for dialogue will not be easy, but it is paramount. I think all speakers tonight have made this point. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I share my noble friend Lord Howell's determination to be on the optimistic side. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, took a more pessimistic view.

In the event that a peaceful solution can be found, are Her Majesty's Government preparing plans for a stabilisation force? What role is envisaged for NATO, or the European defence army, in any peacekeeping operations to the Middle East?

Iraq has changed the geopolitical landscape. The action there has removed a regional threat, removed an enemy of Israel, the wider Middle Eastern region and any peace process, and also opened up Iraq's political and economic development. It has sent a message to other regimes—for example, Libya—and encouraged Iran to open itself up to IAEA inspections.

It is vital that we continue to build security and stability in Iraq, and rebuild the country's infrastructure. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of Iraqi optimism in looking to their future. Amid all the apparent gloom, there has been impressive progress there.

The Middle East is often viewed through the prism of these two conflicts, in a negative light. However, while the wider Arab world has much to wrestle with, there are positive developments. Much has changed, and is changing, in the Middle East. This we applaud and encourage.

In Saudi Arabia, we see the first stirrings of representative government, with moves towards elected local government. Crown Prince Abdullah has encouraged economic reform, and Saudi Arabia has applied to join the World Trade Organisation. This has involved opening some sectors of the economy, such as the gas industry, to foreign investment.

Syria is showing signs of adapting to the new geopolitical reality in the Middle East. It is a key player in helping to resolve the future of Iraq, and has announced its willingness to co-operate in restoring stability there. The relationship between Britain and Syria is developing steadily, and we should be positively engaging it to that end.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, pointed out that we should not be discouraged by the, hopefully temporary, setback in Iran. Democracy is still alive there.

Kuwait has bounced back economically from the Iraqi invasion. British exports to Kuwait were up by 30 per cent last year. Lebanon, which has for so long been synonymous with war and destruction, is now reasserting itself as an economic tourism and entertainment centre with a free market and liberal economy. Its democratic political system, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are nurturing a diversified political life.

Oman is a good example of a successful, measured and undemonstrative process of transition in the Middle East. Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman has been transformed into an economically successful, stable and highly prosperous country with a strong rule of law. It possesses a highly developed system of government, allowing for an ordered transition to an increasingly representative system. The pace of change is adapted to the needs of the country so that a balance can be struck at all times between modernisation and a preservation of traditions and values.

We must encourage transition to democracy throughout the region and wider. But, at the same time, we must make it explicitly clear that the export of cultural values is not part of our aim. The fear of their culture being diluted, or even replaced, by the encroachment and dominance of western ideas colours the attitude of many in the Middle East towards Europe and America. I do not share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that we are trying to do that.

There is political and economic progress in the Gulf states. Enormous trading opportunities are being created for British companies in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain, as examples. Dubai is planning to nearly quadruple the number of its tourism visitors from 4 million to 15 million in the next six years. Qatar has announced plans to build one of the world's largest airports, costing 2.5 billion dollars. It is also hosting the Asian Games in 2006.

In the past 18 months, world-class motorsport facilities have been built, safely and efficiently, in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain, creating new markets for high-performance motorsport engineering. I am fortunate to be President of the Motorsport Industry Association, which has been very active there from the outset. In May, we shall be hosting the first-ever DTI-backed motorsport trade mission to the Middle East.

This weekend, British engineering talent will be showcased to 200 million TV viewers as a result of the inaugural Bahrain Formula 1 grand prix. British companies have played a major role in that. We are warmly regarded in the Gulf region and we must build on that goodwill.

There are problems in the Middle East. Every effort should be made in the rebuilding of Iraq and in attempting to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. However, too often, the focus is on the negative. Many positive changes are under way in the region and we should recognise and welcome them.