Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 24 November 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Londesborough Lord Londesborough Crossbench 3:53, 24 November 2022

My Lords, I also would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for bringing this timely debate to the House. When I say timely, I refer to the World Cup currently being staged in Qatar, which though highly controversial, has at least brought the world’s wider attention to systematic human rights abuses not just in Qatar but across the Gulf.

Sadly, the World Cup has demonstrated that, even with a world-wide audience of 3 billion people, an extraordinary and grotesque spend of $220 billion to stage a four-week sporting event, its impact on human rights looks set to be very modest: notably for immigrant workers, women’s rights, and the LGBT community, despite the claims of a much-discredited FIFA. I will return to this subject later.

First, I have a quick word of introduction, as I am relatively new to this place. I do not claim to be either a Middle East or human rights expert, but I lived and worked as a journalist in Iran for a year back in 1978, which turned out to be the last year of the Shah. While Iran is not a GCC state, I learned at first hand that in this region, neither freedom of expression nor a free media was considered a human right. Indeed, one ill-judged word as a journalist and you were put on a one-way flight—if you were lucky. I also witnessed the extraordinary concentration of wealth, power, patronage and corruption, as well as the brutal suppression of opposition. Arbitrary arrest was commonplace in Iran—it still is—and there was next to zero accountability. Above all, the nation’s culture was dominated by a combination of absolute monarchy, or dictatorship, and the strong culture of religion—Shia Islam in the case of Iran, which even the Shah underestimated, leading to his downfall and the Islamic revolution.

In my subsequent years, I founded and ran a country risk information service on all developing regions around the world, which included Middle East Monitor and quarterly reports on every country in the Gulf. Interestingly, there was a very strong demand for these reports from national businesses in each GCC state, but the censors and customs officials ensured that delivery was virtually impossible, most notably in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Turning to the Gulf states and human rights in general, the culture and wealth of this region make it formidably difficult to make the sort of progress that we would all like to see. Culture is deep-rooted and resistant to change on many fronts, whether family, hierarchies, race, women’s rights, education or sexuality. We are also talking about six of the world’s richest states. In terms of GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity, five of the six are in the world’s top 20 wealthiest countries, with the exception of Oman, which sits in 27th place. Thanks largely to their huge energy reserves, they do not need our financial assistance. GDP per capita actually understates the issue, because the GCC’s distribution of wealth is one of the most uneven in the world. The top 10% of the region’s 54 million people own more than 75% of assets—this in a region that has an annual GDP of £1.2 trillion. That makes it all the more challenging for our Government and others to exert influence on their approach to human rights.

Returning to the richest of those states, Qatar, we are reminded of the concentration of power and money by two relatively trivial developments in the World Cup. I say trivial only in relation to other far more serious human rights issues, but they are illustrative. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, highlighted, we had the sudden ban on sales of beer at football stadiums, despite a $75 million sponsorship deal between FIFA and Budweiser. This turned out to be a last-minute decision from Qatar’s ruling emir, which, it is stated, is “non-negotiable”. FIFA, representing 200 footballing nations, simply caved in. We then had the absurd ban on European team captains wearing OneLove rainbow armbands, and Welsh supporters even having their official rainbow bucket hats confiscated at the turnstiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, put it so eloquently, they are terrified of diversity.

In terms of buying influence, we also have the profoundly disappointing sight of David Beckham, England’s former football captain—an incredibly wealthy man in his own right—being paid a reported £15 million per year to be an ambassador for Qatar, and declaring on a promotional video that this will be the first ever carbon-neutral World Cup. That is a ludicrous claim that has been emphatically dismissed by a chorus of scientists and climate experts—first sportswashing, now greenwashing.

As we know, Qatar is a country whose workforce is 90% dependent on immigrant labour, working on low pay and often in appalling conditions. Both Amnesty International and the Guardian have estimated that 6,500 migrant workers have died since 2010, the year Qatar was awarded the World Cup, in building World Cup-related infrastructure. When I raised the issue of migrant labour deaths in a supplementary question to the Minister last November, the Qatari head of the World Cup claimed, at that time, that the real number of such fatalities was a barely credible three.

I finish by addressing the challenging question raised by this debate: what steps might be taken by His Majesty’s Government to address human rights abuses in the Gulf? It is especially challenging in this economic climate. The UK’s trade with the Gulf stood at a significant £33 billion last year. At a time of declining trade with Europe post Brexit, the UK is in dire need of economic growth and an export-led recovery, and should be signing free trade agreements across the world. We are led to believe that signing an FTA with the GCC would add some £6 billion to our trade with the region and some £1.6 billion in net added value to the UK economy. However, the key question remains: do we want more trade at the expense of human rights? I ask the Minister: if we sign such an FTA, what priority would we give, and which terms or conditions would we apply, to human rights as part of the deal—or is it true that human rights have simply been dropped from the list of objectives?

The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, said:

“The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally and we continue to encourage all states, including our friends in the Gulf, to uphold … human rights obligations.”

I ask the Minister what this statement actually means in relation to the Gulf, specifically in relation to the FCDO’s £10 million per annum Gulf strategy fund. Like the noble Baronesses before me, I ask him why, in the financial year 2021-22, the UK has more than doubled its allocated funding from the GSF to both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, two of the region’s worst human rights violators, at a time when we were cutting our global overseas aid budget by some 30%. I appreciate that the GSF does not come out of the ODA budget, but the thrust of my question, and those of others, remains.