Saudi Arabia: Human Rights — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 30th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Labour 3:30 pm, 30th March 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the political and human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My Lords, following events elsewhere in the region, there have been a few very limited protests in Saudi Arabia. However, the Government have brought in a reform process and a national dialogue initiative to keep pace with the people's wishes. We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We have made our views well known, including through the universal periodic review process, and we make those concerns clear to the Saudis at the highest levels, just as they are frank with us on issues that concern them.

Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Labour

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that thousands of detainees are held in Saudi prisons, without any charge, trial or representation-some for more than seven years, and a few for more than 13 years? The Minister will be aware of the recent concerns of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in relation to the arrests of peaceful demonstrators and the use of force against them. What is the position of Her Majesty's Government regarding arms and security sales, given recent events in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Will the Government review arms and security exports to Saudi Arabia until they are clear that UK equipment is not being used for internal repression?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

All questions on arms exports are under review, as the noble Lord may know, and we have grave concerns about the use of crowd-control equipment. Because of those concerns, a review of the whole policy and practice of Her Majesty's Government on the export of equipment that could be used for internal repression-in particular, crowd-control goods-has been commissioned and is under way. As to the noble Lord's question on Bahrain, the Saudi forces are there to protect installations-or so it is reported to me. That may not be 100 per cent accurate, but that is the intention. The Saudis share the same goals as the Government of Bahrain, which are, of course, to have a dialogue on reform and to address the concerns of the Bahraini people. That is very different from some other countries in the region. However, it is a tricky situation that we are watching very closely.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt be aware that the Saudi rulers have requested their clergy to issue a fatwa, stating that all democratic peaceful protests are un-Islamic. Does he agree that turning democracy into a religious issue sends a message to 1.5 billion Muslims that democracy is not an option open to them if they wish to adhere to their religion? Does he think that Saudi Arabia, given that attitude towards freedom, can any longer be trusted to pursue peace and stability in the Middle East?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Of course, as the noble Baroness recognises, there are attitudes that we do not like and seem to go against our values and views of how democracy should work. We do not miss any opportunity-in fact we take all opportunities-to put these matters frankly to the Saudi authorities and to other countries. One has to think in positive terms; the aim is to make progress by establishing trust, rather than by dismissing the efforts of certain countries and saying that they no longer qualify to operate or to make a sensible and responsible contribution to world affairs. The positive approach is the one that pays off in the end. While I recognise many of the worries that my noble friend articulates, I believe that the approach I am describing is the best one.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

In those discussions, how much emphasis has been placed on access to forms of justice in Saudi Arabia, and on the promotion of the rule of law?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I am sorry, but I did not hear the first part of the noble Lord's question.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

In the discussions with Saudi Arabia to which the Minister referred, how much emphasis is put on access to justice for the people of that country and on promotion of the rule of law?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

These are our values and these are the points that we put to the fore in our ongoing dialogue with the Saudi authorities. Because of certain relationships of trust and our close alliance, we are in a position to put those matters forward and get a hearing for them. I cannot measure precisely the amount of emphasis, but these issues are very much to the fore in all our dialogues.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, while it is true that Saudi troops have entered Bahrain simply to guard installations, does that not mean that the forces under the control of the Bahraini authorities are released from those duties and can engage in further internal repression?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

When I mentioned that a moment ago, I did say that this was reported to me. I do not know whether it is 100 per cent accurate. However, I would slightly query the logic of my noble friend's statement that this action releases Bahraini troops to indulge in internal repression. Bahraini troops may well have made some bad moves, which we ought to condemn strongly, but the overall strategy of the Bahraini authorities and the king is to establish a dialogue and address the grievances of the people. That is in total contrast to the pattern that we see, for instance, in Libya.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

How can we support Saudi Arabia's intervention in Libya when it has such difficulty with basic human rights? Are they not very important? The reaction of the Saudi Arabians is very little improved as far as that is concerned.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

It is very hard to generalise. There are reformers in Saudi Arabia who are anxious to take the country forward. There are also very reactionary people who are trying to stop them. It is the reformers whom we need to identify and support. If we do, we may be able to make progress, as, ironically, was being made in Bahrain, which was one of the few countries that had quite lively democratic elections.