Saudi Arabia and Iran - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 15 November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench 3:30, 15 November 2017

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking, together with international partners, to encourage Saudi Arabia and Iran to work to reconcile their differences.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, we urge the de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary condemned the attempted missile strike on Riyadh and expressed concern that Lebanon should not be used for a proxy conflict. He has spoken to the Saudi Arabian, Iranian and Lebanese Governments. The Minister for the Middle East, my right honourable friend Alistair Burt, expressed concern over reports that Iran provided the Houthis in Yemen with ballistic missiles. We are encouraging the Saudi-led coalition to ensure that humanitarian access remains open.

Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench

My Lords, bearing in mind that Iran and Saudi Arabia are important regional powers, does the Minister agree that their present relationship, involving proxy wars, could at any moment spark a wider conflict in the whole region, between Yemen and Lebanon, thus bringing hell on earth to an even greater number of long-suffering people in the Middle East? Bearing in mind Britain’s long-standing relationship and friendship with the Gulf countries and our active participation in the Iran nuclear agreement, will the Government take a much more vigorous lead with the international community, including countries such as Germany and France and perhaps Asian countries, to persuade these two important countries that it is in all our interests—including that of the United States—that Iran and Saudi Arabia should embark on a sustained dialogue to help build a more peaceful Middle East?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I agree with the sentiments of the noble Lord, who knows the region well. I think I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House and beyond when I say that we wish to see a resolution not just of the conflict in Yemen, where innocent civilians in particular are suffering, but of any conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is worrying not just to the region but to the whole world. This conflict is tribally based and has not just arisen since the regime took over in Iran in 1979; it is a deep-rooted, embedded conflict which goes back to the division in Islam between the Sunni and Shia communities. I assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government are using all means available to us to make bilateral representations. We remain very supportive of the nuclear deal with Iran. We are using all good offices to ensure, first and foremost, that the suffering of those in Yemen can be brought to a halt. Ensuring free access for United Nations and other agencies will be a first step in providing humanitarian relief to civilians in Yemen.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords—

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, we will hear from the Labour Benches and then from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we have to adopt a much more even-handed stance between Tehran and Riyadh in order to resolve the toxic instability afflicting the entire Gulf/Middle East region? We are seen to be allies of Saudi Arabia—I do not dispute the need for that—and to take the side of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Muslim faith against Iran and the Shia Muslim faith. We need to be equal-handed between the two in order to end the proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon, increasingly, Syria and Iraq.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I assure the noble Lord that we support the work that Saudi Arabia has done in the region. The stance we have taken on recent events regarding the Iranian nuclear deal shows the importance the UK attaches to bringing stability to the wider region. As for the two branches of Islam, let us not forget that there are 73 branches of Islam and Her Majesty’s Government are neutral in our interpretation of all of them.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House for seeking to blunder in ahead of him; it was most inappropriate. Even allowing for the fact of jihadist terrorism, is not the greatest threat to peace coming from the Middle East now the imminent danger of a conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias, led by Saudi Arabia and Tehran, in which the West is backing one side and Russia the other? In the light of this, is it not foolish for the United Kingdom Government to be supporting, tacitly and with arms, Saudi Arabia while it is committing such clearly illegal acts in Yemen?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

First, as the noble Lord knows, the UK is not directly involved with the Saudi-led coalition. He talks about alliances, and of course the alliance between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia is an important one. But at the same time—I have made this point clearly already—we believe very strongly that peace and stability in the region requires both Iran and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences and move forward in a positive vein. This is not about taking one side over the other. We make sure that any representations we make—including to the Saudis—on concerns we have, particularly about the conflict in Yemen, are made clear and at the highest level.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee, Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that one other product of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, in addition to the horrors in Yemen, is the stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which of course is undermining the whole solidarity of the Gulf Cooperation Council? Does he agree that the UK might be able to contribute to ending that dispute by looking more carefully at allegations that Qatar is assisting Iranian subversion and actual terrorist groups such as al-Nusra, establishing whether they true, and if so what Qatar’s motives are in pursuing this particularly destructive course?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

First, the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is of course a concern, particularly regarding the unity that we have seen across the Gulf Cooperation Council. On resolving that dispute, I agree with my noble friend, which is why we have been lending full support to the efforts by Kuwait in particular to find a resolution to all these issues—including the one that he has raised—to ensure that this dispute can be resolved as soon as possible. The concern remains with all these disputes, wherever they are within the region, that if we do not see a resolution, we will increasingly see instability across the region, which benefits no one—not just the region but the wider world.