I beg to move,
That this House
has considered UK relations with the Gulf.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In recent months, I have been lucky enough to go on two trips, to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
For many years to come, any debate on the middle east such as this one will be prefaced by the phrase, “This could not be a more timely debate”—or at least until not a lot is going on in the middle east which, sadly, will not be any time soon. I am afraid that this debate, too, is particularly timely. Why? I could say economically, with the effects of the Iran deal to be seen in plummeting oil prices, making this a time of turmoil or of a renewables revolution for the region and all those who are linked with it.
I could say that it is a time for the west to be clearer to its historical allies about who its friends are. I could also argue for it to be a time to seize economic opportunities: in Dubai’s Jebel Ali port; the London Gateway collaboration; Emirates’ investment in London; and, we hope, the UAE’s investment in Portsmouth—after my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, who has just taken her place, lobbied the rest of the delegates on a trip so excellently, but wearingly, for UAE investment in her constituency.
I could also talk about security—Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the humanitarian crisis that such conflicts create, including their effect on Europe. This is a time to recognise the UAE’s increased military activity and high-level capability, and the implications of that in the region.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the UAE is a front runner in the area for use of airstrips and helping out the allies with their military air strikes against Daesh?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should be looking closely at how the UAE facilitates our shared battle against extremism, which I will talk about later.
I could also say that the debate is timely for social reasons. Amid human rights issues and questions about the role of Wahabism in extremism, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a time of enormous transition, against the backdrop of a changing Iran and an “Arab sprung”—now, rather, a perfect storm. I could also point to the little known role that the UAE plays in accommodating Syrian refugees. I will not say much about any of that, however, because I am sure my colleagues, such as my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), and many others present today, who have far more experience in the region than me, will cover those topics magnificently.
I want to talk about a path less trodden, starting with some lines from a musical. In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”, a newly dead Judas accosts a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus with some slightly aggressive questions:
“Every time I look at You, I don’t understand…why’d you choose such a backward time
In such a strange land?
If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in four BC had no mass communication.”
Those lines touch on something so fundamental to the Gulf and its politics that we cannot discuss the region without them. Yet western politics has such an inadequate currency of thought and language with which to discuss it: Islam and its values today.
Islam is a religion that is inseparable in its content from the Arab peninsula. In its own 1400s, it is now, perhaps, going through an enlightenment or reformation process that Christianity went through so brutally and bloodily in our own calendar’s medieval period. This reformation, however, is happening with AK47s, global travel and the internet—“mass communication”. As a result of global travel and mass communication, Islam’s internal challenges are not only the problem of the Gulf and the middle east, because Islam is now a European religion, too, so its challenges are challenges for everyone.
The west has been very good at debating political solutions using political institutions, and security solutions using military equipment. None of that, however, touches on what is going on at the heart of the faith of Islam—things that have become either a victim of language inflation through abstract noun overuse, or remarkably unfashionable: values. The UAE ambassador to Russia, his excellency Omar Saif Ghobash, put it to me strikingly, “We are politicising our ethics, when we should be ethicising our politics.”
In what could be called a western values vacuum, perhaps born of a bourgeois squeamishness about anything absolute in a relativist post-secular world, I have found that some of the most sophisticated understanding of extremism has come from the Gulf. In many ways that is not surprising, because Gulf nations have real skin in the game—the continuation of their very society in the face of the chaos around them.
Furthermore, Gulf nations are at home with, and understand in a way that the west finds hard to digest, the role of religion and faith and their values, as integral to politics and political thinking. For example, when I commented on the prevalence of conspicuous long-term thinking in the dialogue in the UAE, a Minister pointed out to me that it would be dishonourable for a leader not to leave a fine legacy of long-term thinking for the next generation. In Islam, the idea that man is here only for a season, and that it is his legacy that is important, is embedded in the way people think—a perfect of example of where political thinking and faith are inseparable.
We are used to discussing—it is right to do so—how emerging middle eastern societies can benefit from the experience of the west in forging relatively stable, free-speech societies that respect human rights. I know that colleagues will have that discussion. We are also used to debating the military and economic collaborations that benefit both partners—I look forward to that discussion, too, and many Members present have great experience of that.
I do not envy President Obama’s role, given the legacy he was left with—a legacy of just how disastrous short-term and arrogant thinking can be, from the west invading Iraq. I was very against the Iraq war and, sadly, my preconceptions then, outside this place, can be testified to now. The ongoing role of America and the middle east’s lack of trust in that country will be a challenge that we must all meet. I also pay tribute to the work of John Kerry in beginning to forge some kind of relationship there, which is extremely difficult.
Some of the most sophisticated understanding of extremism that I have come across was at the UAE Hedayah centre, which is dedicated to examining extremism and its causes. Hedayah has deconstructed several political common misconceptions: first, that extremism is simply born of poverty—it is not; it is about much more than only poverty. To equate ending extremism with simply ending poverty is misleading and dangerous.
After all, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian academic who inspired the takfiri thinking of al-Qaeda, was far from poor. I recommend anyone interested in the region and the birth of extremism to read him. His life and writings, from an early autobiography, “A Child from the Village”, to his later, explosive and famous book, “Milestones”, show that he felt isolated. A telling passage describes, in third person, his response to an event engraved on his adult consciousness. As a young boy, he spent just a day in a less progressive school than his usual one. He wrote, referring to himself:
“Our child’s soul was filled with repugnance at everything that surrounded him. He felt bitter, abject loneliness.”
Qutb’s response? To become, at age six, in his own words, a “Missionary” in what he calls his progressive school’s “struggle” against the less sophisticated school. That isolated and bitter, rather pampered and spoilt, primary school pupil later went as a student to America, where he felt even more isolated and bitter, and returned with a new struggle—as an Islamic extremist missionary. He attempted to execute Egypt’s president, whom he saw as a traitor to Islam, was imprisoned and executed by Nasser in 1966 and has become a celebrated martyr of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb has been credited as the creator of takfiri Islam, which provides the convenient clause that if someone—even a fellow Muslim—does not think in the same way, they are no Muslim and can be killed. The story of that privileged man illustrates well the simple point made by the UAE Hedayah anti-extremism unit that it is not all about poverty. Those who join extremist groups seek something that is not so different from that sought by any human being: identity, community and purpose. The mission, therefore, is how to provide something more attractive than Daesh that meets the needs of disaffected—often young—people. A way out of poverty is doubtless part of that, but we are completely wrong if we think that is the simple answer.
My hon. Friend says that extremism is not to do with poverty, but does she agree that it might be to do with underemployment? In some states, the nature of the economy means there is a large pool of young people who really do not have enough to do in terms of meaningful jobs.
Absolutely. That is a case for identifying illustrations of symptoms and their causes. Employment is crucial, because if someone is not employed, part of their identity—certainly their work community—and purpose is taken away. It is a manifestation of those things, but to understand what we are tackling we must understand the root underlying dynamics, of which my hon. Friend made the excellent point that unemployment, joblessness and poverty are a necessary part to understand, but not sufficient on their own.
The second reality Hedayah offered up was the prosaic observation that while tackling root ideology has a place, simply telling people strongly that their actions are wrong and that they should not do them is pretty useless—I will insert a quote from the “Life of Brian”: “Don’t do it again!”—and we cannot be surprised when that does not work. In a political world in which we can seldom find any initial response to atrocities such as those in Brussels and Paris other than to tell the perpetrators that we condemn them strongly, that rather unsurprising fact should be sobering.
Hedayah points out that for an individual to choose an alternative path, the alternative must match not only Daesh’s offer of identity, community and purpose, but the practical reality of security and welfare. If Daesh promises security to a frightened man who wants to feed his children, a viable alternative needs to be more than a moral lecture. The insights from the Gulf help clarify what our response should be and what our challenge is in forging that alternative to Daesh: a value system, identity, community and purpose that competes on providing welfare and a sense of risk and achievement. How do we build that compelling and exciting muscular moderation?
There is then perhaps an even more difficult question. Who is the forceful, charismatic leader of that muscular moderation: the daddy, the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Zarqawi, the bin Laden or the Sayyid Qutb? Who is the hero? Where is the leader in that new subversive movement that casts Daesh as the stale establishment and their hatred as weak and infantile and promotes a rebellious and resolute compassion for those who are different from oneself—even those who do not like us—as the strong and manly thing to do?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that in the middle east, and in the Gulf in particular, irrespective of the motivation of those of us in the west, we are almost always seen to be trying to impose some sort of external values? We need to see the intrinsic beliefs and views of the people in the region, who need to show leadership to take their communities out of the morass into which many of those nations have sunk in recent years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that good point. We often forget that the messenger is frequently more important than the message itself, because the message is fundamentally defined by who gives it. He makes a point that I will touch on later.
A third insight, which I found striking and relevant to our relations with the Gulf, was offered by His Excellency Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He talks of the dangers of a digital world, where
“my opinion has become my religion”.
That observation speaks not only to the role of the internet in spreading Daesh’s message—the mass communication that Tim Rice’s Judas so lamented the lack of—but to fundamental changes in digital technology that appear to have an effect on people’s thoughts. I have called that a change from cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, to sentio ergo sum, I feel therefore I am—or even to sentio ergo est, I feel therefore it is. In that, a person’s feeling dictates absolute truth.
As MPs, we have all seen—on social media in particular—that dangerous trend and false premise that says, “I am human. I think this. You do not think what I think. Therefore you are not human.” That is a seed of genocide and the beginning of a takfiri mentality that extends its blind intolerance way beyond the scope of Islam. We are beginning to see that in the hate diatribes of UK far-left groups who are sympathetic to Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist terrorist groups. That is a slippery slope.
All those insights are from the hard end of battling extremism in the Gulf. It is easy for the west to forget that the majority of Daesh’s casualties are Muslim and that Daesh wants to punish nations such as the UAE for “poisoning” the sacred Arab peninsular with pluralism. It is also easy to forget that Sunni Gulf states are concerned about the rise of an emboldened Shi’a militia as Iran re-enters the global economy.
The response of the Gulf to extremism may provide a learning opportunity for Britain. What assessment has the Minister made of the UAE’s clampdown on extremist teaching in schools and of its policy towards registering imams in Mosques? Are there lessons to be learnt from that? More specifically, will he keep an open mind on Britain’s classification of the Muslim Brotherhood? That would be an extremely good way of working out whether they are moderate friends who can be engaged with on political terms and whether they will renounce the writings, teachings and celebrated martyrdom of Sayyid Qutb. If they refuse to do so, we may need to reassess urgently what we think of them in our political context. We cannot afford to be squeamish.
I have talked only about what Britain might learn from its relationship with the Gulf.
I have listened intently to the hon. Lady. Will she join me in asking the Minister to look at the human rights abuses in the UAE, where 27 Britons are currently detained? Some of them have complained of torture and, indeed, I think that in the past five years, 37 British nationals have made allegations of torture or mistreatment there.
I absolutely would ask the Minister that. I was going to say that—rather unusually—I have talked about what Britain can learn from the Gulf, because I know that Members such as the hon. Gentleman will be able to speak powerfully on other areas that we must look at.
It is easy to carp morally from the sidelines on issues such as human rights, which are a huge concern to us all, but that is not always the best way—it is seldom good at all—to achieve the practical change we want. I argue strongly that, if we want Gulf nations to improve their human rights and their freedom of speech, which essentially will improve their security far more effectively, the way to do that is to engage.
His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan commented on how the UAE has achieved such pluralism while maintaining the Emiratis’ confident identity as rather conservative Muslims. This applies well to international relations and to the hon. Gentleman’s comments:
“Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity…Pluralism is not simply tolerance, but the active quest for understanding along lines of difference...Pluralism demands dialogue...Dialogue does not mean everyone at the table will agree with one another”.
There is much on which we can engage with the UAE—I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on human rights—and much to work with from our history with Bahrain. I know that we will hear some fascinating first-hand observations from colleagues who have visited Saudi and other Gulf states.
I will finish by repeating a point that was made to me by the exceptional Minister of State for International Co-operation, her excellency Reem al-Hashimy, one of the incredibly impressive women Ministers in the highly conservative Muslim society of the UAE. She emphasised that the UAE could not “export” its pluralism to neighbours simply by preaching. It could demonstrate the possibility of such a pluralism within a conservative Muslim state only by doing. I hope the debate will be in some way instrumental in Britain’s continuing to meet the challenge that it shares with the Gulf states across our differences, by listening, talking, understanding and doing.
It is my intention that we will start the winding-up speeches at half-past 10. Nine Members have indicated that they want to contribute. I do not intend to implement a formal time limit at this stage, but I ask everyone to restrict their remarks to four minutes. Otherwise we will have to impose a formal limit.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Nuttall, to morally carp on the sidelines about human rights, as Charlotte Leslie put it. None the less, I congratulate her on securing the debate, because the topic is important and is perhaps not debated often enough.
I will not use my position as the only Labour Member in the debate to speak at length, but I want to make one or two points that I hope the Minister will have time to respond to. Last night I read again the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report “Human Rights and Democracy”, which was published last month. Although it is a slimmed down volume and in many respects weakens the Government’s commitments on human rights—at least in relation to the death penalty—it does include three Gulf countries among the countries of concern: Saudi, Bahrain and Yemen. It does not include the United Arab Emirates, which I think is a significant omission. The Minister may want to mention human rights in the UAE when he responds.
I am glad that the countries in question are what are now, I believe, called priority countries—another slightly euphemistic term. However, I am afraid the language that is used, particularly in relation to the Gulf states, does not match the seriousness of the human rights issue or the task that needs to be done. The Bahrain section of the report says
“there was progress on human rights”,
and mentions that the UK is providing “technical assistance”—which in some cases it is being paid for. We have just established a naval base in the country for the first time in decades. The report mentions that
“allegations of ill-treatment in detention continue” and that there are concerns regarding
“freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”.
However, little more is said than that.
As I mentioned, the report is entirely silent about the UAE, and that is regrettable. It is slightly more candid in relation to Saudi, particularly on the serious issue of executions, reminding us that 158 people were executed in 2015, which is a more than 15% increase on the previous year. On
Reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International show a rather more serious situation in Bahrain than the impression given by the Foreign Office. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken of a clear realisation that
“little has been done in the fields of accountability and ending impunity, particularly in relation to violations committed against protesters and detainees, including alleged acts of torture”.
That has been going on since the Arab spring, five years ago, and there is continued oppression of the mainly Shi’a majority in Bahrain. There have been a number of deaths at the hands of the security forces. There was of course the notorious incident when medics who had treated those injured in protests were themselves tortured and prosecuted. Generally speaking, what the Bahrain Government have been best at is whitewashing what has happened by setting up commissions whose recommendations are not implemented, and mounting an effective PR offensive.
I pay particular tribute to The Independent and The Guardian, which have sought to expose what happens in Bahrain. Headlines from the last couple of months include “Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses” and “British arms sales to Bahrain total £45m since Arab Spring—while claims of torture and oppression continue”. There is a lot more I could say about that, but I think the Minister gets the impression. I do not say, and have never said, that Gulf countries are, in either scale or degree, the worst offenders, but I do say that the Government operate a soft touch in dealing with such countries. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Bristol North West that it is often better to comment on such things in private, which I think is what the Foreign Office says about Saudi. I think it is right to raise them in private, but it is also right to speak out, and the Government have a moral obligation as an upholder of international human rights to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is concentrating on human rights, but does he not attach any importance to the key role that the nations in question play in the battle against tyranny, and the long-standing support that they have given us and we have given them, historically? They are important allies of the United Kingdom and the hon. Gentleman is sending out the message that stability counts for nothing and that the only thing he is interested in is abuses by the authorities. I remind him that we have our own history. We took out 14 people on the streets of Northern Ireland. Does he regard that as a human rights abuse as well?
I think you will forgive me, Mr Nuttall, if I do not stray into talking about Bloody Sunday this morning. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his points in his own way. I am simply setting out these matters, perhaps as a correction to others that will be raised this morning, and I think that is perfectly legitimate and reasonable. Of course we must have a relationship with countries overseas whose human rights records do not match our own, and of which we perhaps do not expect exactly the same standards. However, if the hon. Gentleman is saying we should not raise the issues, I cannot entirely agree with him.
To deal briefly with the UAE, the recent case of David Haigh, the former Leeds United managing director—[Interruption.] I am being heckled because I am taking some time. I will take a little more time. I said I would not speak for a long time, Mr Nuttall, but if I continue to be interrupted, perhaps I shall speak for rather longer. We will see where that goes. I think, particularly given that the Foreign Office did not address the matter in its human rights report, that it is worth putting it on record. Again, I will simply read some headlines. The first is from The Law Society Gazette: “Solicitor claims he was tortured in Dubai jail”. Another headline reads: “Businessmen held in UAE were tortured into confessions, says UN report”. I have mentioned the number of British nationals—37 in the last five years—who have made allegations of torture or mistreatment in detention in the UAE and the fact that there are 27 such detainees there at the moment.
I recently asked the Minister the following questions. Will the Prime Minister review the UK’s special relationship with the UAE in the light of the report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling on the UAE to release several foreign nationals, including from Canada and the US, who it says have been detained arbitrarily, tortured and forced to sign confessions? Will the Government confirm that no further Arab Partnership Participation Fund moneys will be allocated to the UAE by the Foreign Office until a review has been conducted in the light of the recent statement by UN special rapporteur on torture, Professor Juan E. Méndez? His office has received credible information that detainees were tortured and forced to sign confessions, and his request for a country visit to the UAE is outstanding.
I mentioned David Haigh, a former managing director of Leeds United who I think is a member of the Conservative party. He was recently released from a UAE prison and, on returning to the UK, said that he had suffered ill treatment and abuse:
“I was punched around, I was hit, I was tasered. People attempted to sexually abuse me. I now have a problem with my eyes. You are constantly kept in the dark…it damages your eyes.”
He was imprisoned, incidentally, under the cybercrimes law—a particularly Orwellian statute that criminalises electronic abuse. There are well-documented incidents of human rights violations in the UAE.
The reason I am shaking my head is that many other Members want to speak. They want to hear what the Minister and, indeed, the Opposition Front-Bench Members have to say on these matters. Your guidance was very clear, Mr Nuttall, on speeches being four minutes. I was shaking my head not about the substance of anything the hon. Gentleman is saying, but because he has now been speaking for 10 minutes.
I hear what the Minister has to say about the time limit. I am sure that Andy Slaughter is about to draw his remarks to a swift conclusion. I am loth to impose a formal time limit but, reluctantly, that is what I will have to do. I look forward to hearing the final sentences of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution very shortly.
I will speak for half a minute on Yemen and then sit down, Mr Nuttall. I will just say, however, that I have been in Westminster Hall when Conservative Members have filibustered for an hour in order to prevent debates from taking place on issues of great importance to me. I do not intend to do that here. I do not think that a 10-minute speech for an Opposition Member is unreasonable, given the number of Government Members present.
Let me end by saying this. The Minister will be aware of the Select Committee on International Development report published today in relation to the need for an independent inquiry into what is happening in Yemen. UAE and Saudi forces are engaged, with British advice and support, in the civil war in Yemen. It is clear to anybody who reads what is written by those reporting from inside that troubled country that war crimes are being committed and that there are breaches of international humanitarian law. Will the Minister agree to the Committee’s recommendation of an independent investigation into what is happening in Yemen?
It is my view that we should have a suspension of arms sales to the countries engaged in that civil war, until it is demonstrated that breaches of international law are not happening. This country should not be complicit in matters of that kind and should certainly be asking for transparency in relation to what is happening in Yemen and in particular the involvement of other Gulf states in that country.
Thank you, Mr Nuttall. I regret that we have seen two contrasting speeches this morning: one informed and thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie, and one of an extraordinary lack of knowledge from Andy Slaughter, who I fear has travelled little to these areas. He may be able to read reports but knows almost nothing from his own experience. I declare my interest: I am chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council. I have taken an interest in the region for 30 years. I want to make, in the two or three minutes I have, one major point.
We are looking at a period of greater instability and danger than I think we have ever known. The last four decades have seen conflict, war and fluctuating oil prices, but never before, until the last five years, have we really seen countries completely falling to pieces. Now, around the region, entire countries are falling apart, and the centuries-old lines in the sand are disappearing. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya—and, for a moment, it looked like Egypt, too—have been unstable and disrupted as never before. We have seen the rise of non-state fanatics and space ungoverned by legitimate and decent authority. Sunni and Shi’a difference has been polarised by the fall of the Shah and the revolution in Iran. In addition to countries being pitted against one another, we are now seeing them completely fall apart.
That leads me to the one point I want to make—one that is totally lost on the hon. Member for Hammersmith. Our watchword should be stability. It is very easy to criticise Gulf countries from the ignorant comfort of a British armchair. It is very easy to slip into prejudicial judgmentalism, but these countries need to be understood. Their particular social composition, their historical origin and the nature of their regimes need to be understood. I suggest that that understanding sits on the Government’s side of the Chamber rather better than with the hon. Gentleman.
Our approach should be to hold the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council together, to show respect and understanding and to work with them. Where would the world be if they were not there governing as they do? They would be replaced by something far worse.
In the 30 seconds I have left, I add that I am the Government’s envoy to Yemen. I have been going to that country for 30 years. The hon. Gentleman has probably never visited it in his life. I have done so on a dozen or more occasions, and I look forward to continuing to work on the peace talks that are taking place in Kuwait at the moment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will do its best to ensure that those peace talks are successful.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. May I congratulate Charlotte Leslie on securing this debate? We are here to debate UK relations with the Gulf, but it will likely come as no surprise to the Minister that I would like to make use of my limited speaking time to focus largely on Saudi Arabia.
Although we maintain strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, our values are ever more divergent. In 2016, it is legal for same-sex couples to marry across most of the UK. In 2016, Saudi Arabia remains one of only six countries to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. In the Saudi kingdom, women still need to be accompanied by a male guardian whenever they leave the house. Although 2016 marks 51 years since the abolition of the death penalty in Britain, we were all shocked at the start of the year by the brutal mass public executions of 47 people in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia is concurrently one of the world’s most repressive states and one of our closest allies. It is clear that a relationship with Saudi is prized as being strongly in British interests, but at what cost? Concerns about British arms sales to Saudi still loom large, and they are concerns that I share. The ongoing Saudi operation in Yemen has seen a shocking number of civilian fatalities. In total, more than 6,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia launched a multinational campaign a little over a year ago. Around half of those deaths are estimated to be civilians.
Although Saudi Arabia has argued that it is making every effort to avoid hitting civilian targets, the UN believes that Saudi forces are causing twice as many civilian casualties as all the other forces fighting in Yemen. The UN describes the situation in Yemen as a humanitarian disaster, yet we continue to sell billions of pounds worth of weapons to the kingdom. One human rights organisation claims that UK-produced bombs were used in strikes on a ceramics factory in northern Yemen.
The alternative was to allow that country to be taken over by force. Does the hon. Lady not appreciate that among the Houthis who have taken over the country, 25% of those carrying guns are probably child soldiers?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but he and I are on two different platforms concerning our relations with Saudi Arabia.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen should shame us all. It requires an insurmountable effort to reconcile our aid efforts in the country with our continued arms dealings with Saudi Arabia. If there is any risk whatever of UK arms being used in breach of international humanitarian law, we should call an immediate halt to all arms sales until an in-depth, independent inquiry has been carried out.
No, I am sorry. More Members want to speak.
Saudi Arabia has a deeply troubling human rights problem. It would be remiss of me if I did not use this opportunity to speak up for Ali al-Nimr, Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher. These three young men were arrested and tried in the kingdom for crimes they allegedly carried out as juveniles. Although the Foreign Office has repeatedly assured us that it does not expect the death sentences to be carried out, they are still languishing in prison awaiting execution.
I do not expect us to impose our values and beliefs on another country, but I expect the UK to show some responsibility in our relations with Saudi. As our values widen even more, so does our responsibility to set a more progressive example. Today I ask the Minister to reconsider our dealings with Saudi Arabia. In February, the European Parliament voted by a large majority for an EU-wide embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but the Government have totally ignored that. I again ask them to heed calls for a ban on weapons sales.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie on obtaining this debate and on her excellent speech.
In the short time available to me, I want to focus on two issues. My right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan mentioned stability, which I believe is the key to our relationship with the Gulf states. We must not forget that that relationship is twofold. On the one hand, they have a huge commercial interest in this country, as we have in their countries. For example, Emirates, the UAE airline, is by far the biggest customer for Airbus A380 aircraft, which are manufactured in north Wales. It has been calculated that Emirates’ investment in this country, via its purchase of Airbus aircraft, indirectly accounts for some 7,000 jobs. Our relationship is important and should not be undervalued.
The other issue is security. We have a huge interest in developing our relations with the Gulf states. They are at the sharp end of the battle against Daesh, which is a threat not only to the Gulf nations, but to this country. It is essential that this country develops relations with the Gulf states. When I visited Bahrain a few months ago, I was delighted to see that the British Government are investing in a new naval base there—HMS Juffair—and restoring our naval presence in an important part of the world.
In the few moments available to me, I want to mention the occupants of the other side of the Gulf in Iran, whom we often overlook when considering the Gulf. Iran is undoubtedly a threat to the region’s peace. There is no doubt that it sponsors Hezbollah and the insurgency in Yemen, and is a threat to that region. Another role for the United Kingdom is to ensure that the Gulf states receive our assurances that we will be at their side in the ongoing battle against Iran and its threat to the stability of the region.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie on her thoughtful opening speech. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I was lucky enough to visit Bahrain and Saudi Arabia recently.
I have received some criticism for visiting those countries, but I feel very strongly that we should not be armchair commentators. I hope that everyone who has spoken this morning has taken the time and trouble to visit some of the countries we are talking about. MPs have amazing opportunities to do so. We are always aware that our visits are stage managed to some extent, but we learn a huge amount in the process. No amount of being told women’s rights are fantastic made up for me having to put on an abaya on the plane before walking off it. It was only a small thing, but for me it was part of the experience of being a women in these countries, in contrast with my male colleagues, who just walked out in whatever they were wearing.
I want to make three brief points. First, we must not be simplistic or naive in the way we think about these countries and our relationships with them. It is not just a case of goodies against baddies, liberals against dictators, or those who care about human rights against those who do not.
I am sure that we all care about human rights. I certainly do, and I particularly want to make life better for millions of girls and women throughout the middle east. However, we must not be naive about the alternatives to the Gulf Governments with whom we have important relationships. We must not think that if we can oust a ruling family we will suddenly and magically get a liberal western democracy. Recent events in other parts of the middle east have surely taught us a lesson. Colleagues have referred to the importance of stability. When there is a vacuum into which an organisation such as Daesh can move, there are atrocities on a completely different scale.
My second point is that we must be aware of the extraordinarily challenging times for Gulf countries at the moment. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by conflict in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, where it is controversially but understandably involved, and Iran, which is stoking conflict in the region. That is coupled with the plummeting price of oil on which its economy has depended for some 70 years. It is an incredibly difficult time for those countries to maintain stability and, if we do not want them to fall apart, we must be thoughtful about our relationships.
There are reasons for optimism, but I do not have time to go into that. We must have a positive and constructive relationship with the Gulf states, which is in our interest as well as theirs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie on securing the debate and on her powerful, thoughtful and eloquent speech, which was fantastic. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I joined my hon. Friend on her recent trip to the United Arab Emirates. I will not have time to say much about human rights and stability in the region. They are powerful issues that I cannot do justice to in three minutes. I will concentrate on one area: business relationships and our opportunities in countries such as the UAE.
During our recent trip, we visited the Emirates airline, which is headed up by Sir Tim Clark. He is a fantastic British businessman and I wish he were doing fantastic business in the UK. It is amazing to see inspirational business leaders expanding global businesses in places such as the UAE. With his UK links, Sir Tim recently did a deal to buy Rolls-Royce engines for the Emirates fleet. It was one of Rolls-Royce’s biggest deals. Our relationship with global companies around the world can tangibly benefit the UK.
We also went to Jebel Ali, the ninth biggest port in the world. It is owned by an Emirates company, DP World, which, as we have heard, also owns London Gateway. Who is the head of that? It is Simon Moore, another Brit, who has just gone back to Dubai to lead that organisation.
What that showed me was that we can have such entrepreneurship, coupled with the blank canvas that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and these countries have in their modern history, and a central location in the world as well. The Emirates are looking to move from an oil-based economy to a far more diverse economy. Their leading people are educated in the west and then go back, having been upskilled through the talent that they brought to the west. They will take on leading roles, but they will also look for other countries to trade with, for investment in and out of those countries. The UK is very well placed to do that—to offer services.
Bahrain has been mentioned. We have a 200-year relationship with Bahrain, the treaty of friendship having been signed in 1816. Again, that is something that we can capitalise on.
On women’s rights, it was fantastic to hear the example from my hon. Friend Helen Whately, who talked about her experience. Strong female politicians going to these countries and people seeing, for instance, Reem al-Hashimi and Noura al-Kaabi, the fantastic Ministers that the UAE has, and using them as examples of how women in government and in business can have such a positive effect will help to bring change in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie for her amazingly erudite speech, which I will not be able to emulate. I, too, recently went to the UAE as a guest of its Government. That is declared in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
My interest in this area started when I was a child. My father served in the Trucial Oman Scouts in the 1950s and, as an Arabist, spent most of his career in the middle east, in Suez, Yemen and the UAE, which was called the Trucial States in those days. The beginning of the close links between Britain and the UAE has been documented in his book, “Arabian Adventure”, in which he discusses events in the 1950s and ’60s, when he got to know Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the founder of the UAE, through his weekly visits and recognised him as
“undoubtedly the most powerful figure in the Trucial States”.
My father says:
“I used to visit him weekly in his fort, and he would always describe the local political situation to me in an excellent manner. I always came to him with great respect and I left him with even greater respect.”
I mention that because I want to reflect on our long-term and close relationship with the UAE, which was very obvious during our trip in April. Since 1972, when I left as a child, the UAE has developed incredibly. Out of the desert have risen several cities in each state, from Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman and Umm al-Quwain in the north, through to Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Fujairah in the east. Those states have come together and work closely, the richer states sharing their wealth with those that have not had the oil reserves but are developing in other ways.
It is with British help that businesses have become so successful. During our visit, as we have mentioned, we met Sir Tim Clark, who built up the Emirates airline, which now sponsors the Emirates Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth, and Simon Moore, who is running Jebel Ali, the port on which Dubai originally built its wealth. Dubai Ports owns Southampton port and has just built the London Gateway port. Investment is going both ways, including to the northern powerhouse, and my aim is to get more investment into the southern powerhouse and particularly Portsmouth. British people are leading at Masdar City, the first clean energy city.
We met British people working closely with counter-terrorism initiatives such as Hedayah and Sawab. Those organisations are identifying what is drawing our young people to Daesh and other terrorist organisations that have no state boundaries. Working together makes us more secure.
Many Emiratis have been educated in Britain, in our schools, universities and military colleges.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the family links that she has and, indeed, the wider expatriate community throughout the middle east region has are the reason why Britain can play such a key role in the future of that region?
Absolutely. There are 120,000 British people living in the UAE, compared with just 50,000 Americans. We are the most important country to the UAE, and that must be continued.
Some Emiratis were educated at the same school as me, the English Speaking School in Dubai, and many were taught by my headmistress, Miss Dorothy Miles, who spent all of her working life teaching generations of Arab and foreign children in Dubai and Sharjah.
It is the case that 70% of university graduates are women, and women are encouraged to build a career and to continue it even when they have children. The Speaker of the UAE Parliament is a woman. Women sit side by side with men in their chamber; there is no segregation. Women are quickly moving to the top of the professions there.
Some people are concerned about human rights, and we looked into that when we were in the UAE. I am a believer that it is better to work closely with countries that are developing than to ignore them, and I was pleased to hear UAE Ministers appreciating that work is being done in this area and will continue. We heard about a domestic abuse charity set up by a female MP and work being done elsewhere. We met Tristan Forster, who runs FSI Worldwide to ensure that workers are not exploited. We were allowed to challenge Ministers on these points, and they are well aware of our views.
Only by continuing this close relationship can we challenge our friends and not avoid the difficult questions. Our ambassador, Philip Parham, is working hard to build the relationship, and I hope we continue to build on a friendship that has been part of our joint history for many years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie on securing this timely debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also state that my wife works in the Cabinet Office and has a significant interest in the Gulf region.
The Government’s strategic approach to our country’s engagement in the Gulf is a rare spark of hope in that troubled region. Because of the significant potential gain that that fresh approach can give Britain, I strongly believe that we would do well to replicate it in the wider middle east and elsewhere. I do not want to overstate the region’s prospects. It faces vast challenges. The continuing low oil price is cutting Gulf economies off at the knees. In response, those countries with a relatively recent history of significant state subsidisation of their economies, such as Kuwait, are going through the very difficult process of readjusting the scale of state intervention. In doing so, their nascent democracies are facing a real test. The Gulf states also face a resurgent Russia, an Iranian regime high on the after-effects of its nuclear deal, Islamist extremism nibbling at the borders, and the threat of internal instability because the current social contract between rulers and ruled cannot be sustained. The population is mushrooming, and unemployment, human rights abuses and sectarian strife fuel the discomfort. Without doubt, vast reform—economic, social, religious and governmental—is urgently required.
I do not want to overstate our role, either. Our relationship used to be of a great power protecting small local powers. We are the region’s oldest and staunchest ally, marking 200 years of relations with Bahrain this year. Today, the relationship has changed. It is one of partnership. Our long-standing and deep relationship with Kuwait has become one of deep, mutual benefit—investment and knowledge flowing in both directions. Qatar’s fast emergence in the region, along with its strong desire to use its newfound wealth to play a significant and constructive part in the region and the wider world, should be welcomed by us.
Clearly, Britain’s partnerships have become critical to our mutual interests in the wider region. None is more vital than finding the settlements to sustain stability, for if we leave a less stable middle east to our children, we will have failed them—and if we are to leave a stable world to our children, we depend on the Gulf states. If we support our allies through gradual transformation, they can change peacefully; if we do not, they will not. If we withdraw, we must brace ourselves for the opposite, and we cannot kid ourselves any more that we would not feel the impact at home; we would suffer, too. The Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Qatar are an island of stability in a deeply unstable region. We have to keep them that way.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. More broadly than the UAE, across the whole region, the youth of the region is part of its challenge, but also part of the opportunity for the future.
I welcome the Government’s broad, deep and integrated approach—addressing what underpins long-term security, such as education, economic resilience and good governance, as well as increasing co-operation to address immediate threats from terrorism, organised crime and the like.
I want to mention three specific issues. First, tensions with Iran are at an ever increasing risk of boiling over following the nuclear deal. If in the long term the west is to get rid of the responsibility of helping to keep the peace in the Gulf—a responsibility that it would have little appetite to fulfil if tested—we must help the region to develop its own infrastructure for resolving such tensions.
Secondly, the Gulf states face extraordinary demographic challenges from growing youth populations at the same time as economic means are being slashed. We must gear our engagement to support economic diversification and entrepreneurship to grow and then sustain jobs for young people, and to engage in new ways via digital and social media. There are myriad opportunities in cyber, in space and at the forefront of science, technology and innovation that could enable them to leapfrog stages of development. If they are successful at doing that, we will all benefit.
The third issue is resource resilience and, in particular, access to water in a region that already faces the biggest water deficits in the world and increasing demand. The Gulf states’ existence is already a triumph of vision and wealth over the laws of nature. Human survival in that climate is a tribute to the miracles of air conditioning and desalination.
Finally, I am convinced—
It is a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow member of the Procedure Committee, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate Charlotte Leslie on securing the debate. Her speech was thoughtful and considered, setting the context for the debate. I understand the frustrations of Members who have not been able to speak for as long as they might have wanted to. Scottish National party Members have experienced that on a number of occasions since arriving in Westminster. I will try to keep my remarks reasonably brief so the Minister has time to respond to the various serious points that have been raised by all parties.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West made a number of cultural references, so I will chuck in one or two of my own. I recommend a book called “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson, which presents an alternative history of the world, imagining that the population of Europe is wiped out by the black death. As a result, the entire cultural, social and economic enlightenment comes from the east and from the Islamic world. The various reflections that the hon. Lady made about the role of Islam reminded me very much of that book and of the counter-history it suggests. Without giving anything away, the ultimate conclusion of the book is that some things change and some things stay the same.
While listening to some of the speeches, I was reminded of the television satirist Mrs Merton, who famously asked Debbie McGee, regarding her husband, “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” An element of that attitude is, perhaps, reflected in some relationships with small, oil-rich countries that have huge energy potential and industrious, increasingly well-educated populations. In Scotland, we were told that such a model would lead to nothing but doom and gloom but, evidently, it seems quite acceptable for the countries of the Gulf.
Much has been made of personal experience. I will not pretend to have much in the way of first-hand experience of the countries being discussed, other than transiting Dubai airport, incidentally in an Airbus A380. I looked out of the window and was struck by those magnificent buildings rising out of the desert in the distance, but the sight made me ask at what cost many of those buildings were constructed. What was the human cost and what were the labour conditions when such cities rose from the desert? What is the ongoing cost to the environment and the climate of using carbon and energy-intensive methods to build a western model of capitalism in that part of the world?
I will reflect briefly on economic relations, defence and human rights situations, and echo some questions that have been raised with the UK Government. Although I have not personally travelled to the region, a delegation from the SNP visited Iran at around Christmas time. Perhaps the agreement that has been reached with Iran presents something of a model of stability and transition. The point about stability has been well made and it is a perfectly acceptable point, but perhaps something can be learned about transition and opening up economic opportunities. Bilateral trade with the region is into the billions. We have spoken about Dubai as a transport hub and tourist destination. My city—Glasgow—benefits from direct flights to Dubai.
I have not heard mention of the 2022 World cup in Qatar so I will touch on that. I mentioned labour rights and building rights. It would be interesting to hear what continued dialogue the Government have with FIFA and with the Government in Qatar about the treatment of migrant workers and the continued reports of deaths and injuries on construction sites. The Government are committed to the sustainable development goals of promoting equality and leaving no one behind in the world. How do those goals apply to the Government’s relations with the Gulf states?
The issue of migration and security, including the ability of people to travel, was touched on. The Government have introduced visa waivers across the region, most recently in Kuwait. That contrasts quite interestingly with the crackdown in other areas—for example, the difficulty that people in sub-Saharan Africa face in obtaining visas for the United Kingdom. We have heard about defence contracts and the base in Bahrain. All I would say is that the arms industry is a choice. It is not inevitable. If we are to deal in arms and military contracts, we must ensure that they are not being abused.
I represent the headquarters of BAE Systems, which, for half a century, has had a very important relationship with Saudi Arabia. Does the SNP not understand that these Gulf states are allies of the UK, and that they face a threat, to which my hon. Friends have all referred? Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the UK should help our allies in the Gulf to defend themselves against that threat with British equipment, much of which is made in Scotland?
I am not entirely sure that now is the best time to talk about defence contracts coming to Scotland, given the concerns being expressed about the shipyards on the Clyde. The reality is that, if British weapons are being exported and traded, there is a responsibility under the international instruments to ensure that they are being used appropriately.
I will not give way because the shadow Minister and the Minister still have to respond. The Minister needs to respond to points that have been raised several times about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen. It may be that UK-built planes with pilots trained by instructors from the UK are dropping bombs that are made in the UK. That may be co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of UK military advisers. If that does not add up to some kind of UK complicity in the conflict and the alleged war crimes, I wonder what does.
Well, those are the points that need to be answered and investigated. Those are serious complaints. I met with people from Yemen who showed me pictures of the destruction that has been caused there. They allege that that has been caused by weapons manufactured in the UK. Those allegations need to be investigated.
There is a contradiction in UK policy. The Home Office now accepts that there is a risk of violence against civilians and says that deportations back to Yemen could be a breach of human rights. Yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to deny that there have been war crimes and says that Saudi Arabia is acting within humanitarian law. Which is the UK Government’s position? They need to have a joined-up approach, and that speaks to the wider questions in the region. If we want to promote stability and find an alternative to Daesh, we must find a way of leading by example. We have that opportunity in this debate. Those are the questions that we would like answered.
I echo an awful lot of what Andy Slaughter said. We must not allow ourselves to be blinded by wealth glimmering off the desert sun. Economic gain should not be at any cost. The Scottish First Minister said, in China, that human rights and economic development should be two sides of the same coin, and that promoting equality and human rights is the best way to promote and empower populations, and to grow economies. We should use the stable and strong relations in these Gulf states to encourage democracy and promote human rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate Charlotte Leslie on securing the debate. She gave a thoughtful speech and was, at times, very witty when she referred to “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”. She mentioned the internal challenges faced by Islam and discussed how that reflects on the region and on the wider world.
I am pleased that we are having a debate on the broader thematic issues in British foreign policy and our wider strategy in the region. As we have heard, Britain has a long and close relationship with the Gulf. As many hon. Members have said, that is probably more important now than it has ever been before. The Gulf states are vital partners of the UK in trade and economic co-operation, defence and security, and cultural ties. It has been interesting to hear about the great deal of experience and knowledge of the region that hon. Members have brought to the debate.
On the economic relationship that we enjoy, the Gulf remains a key source of foreign direct investment into the UK and a market for our own exports. We heard about Airbus in particular. We only need to look at the London skyline to see Gulf investment in the UK, as the tallest building in Europe is the Qatari-funded Shard at London bridge. We should also recognise that one of the key benefits that the UK offers to the Gulf states is access to EU markets, and we would be vulnerable to losing much of that investment to other EU states if we were to leave the EU.
We have also heard today about the importance of defence co-operation. Several Gulf states are partners of the UK in the fight against Daesh. Many Gulf states send troops to train at Sandhurst, and the Gulf is one of the largest markets for UK defence exports. I am particularly pleased to see British support for the development of the port in Oman, which will help Oman’s economy and will provide a vital berthing point for our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Intelligence sharing supports our fight against terrorism at home and abroad, and that co-operation is underpinned by strong governmental relationships. The Gulf states are not just long-standing allies of the UK; we have formal relationships with states such as Oman, Qatar and Kuwait that facilitate regular dialogue and co-operation.
Those economic and governmental ties, built on years of co-operation, are what provide the strength of our current relationship with the Gulf states, but it is frustrating that the Government are reluctant to use the strength of those relationships to push for vital reforms. When it comes to human rights, democracy and environmental protections, we should expect the highest standards from our friends and allies, yet the Government appear reluctant to prioritise any of those issues. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter spoke eloquently about human rights and democratic reforms. We would like a greater pace of reform in all the Gulf states, but two countries are of particular note.
First, not only is the pace of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia very slow but there are widespread and severe human rights abuses, with high levels of corporal punishment, including the death penalty, and very limited freedom of expression, as illustrated by the case of Raif Badawi. There are also high levels of torture, and the position of women is still abysmal, yet the current British Government have been extraordinarily reluctant to criticise the Saudi Government. I have mentioned the benefit to the UK economy of arms sales, which must come with tight controls. There are serious and sustained concerns that Saudi-led action in Yemen has included possible war crimes and, therefore, has breached the conditions of the current arms export licences.
I will continue, because I want to make these points. Again, the Government have been slow to engage with those allegations. First, they seemed to back an independent inquiry, and then they supported the Saudis’ own investigation, but now they are calling for the inquiry to be speeded up. The Opposition remain convinced that the Saudi investigation will not be sufficiently independent or transparent, and we think it is right to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia while the investigations are conducted.
The second state is Bahrain. Although the pace of reforms in Bahrain is greater than in Saudi Arabia, there are still serious concerns about the position of opposition and civil society groups, the detention of political prisoners and the use of torture in the justice system. The reforms introduced by the Bahraini Government, although highly welcome, have not been fully implemented, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about the situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the UK Government have been working with the Bahraini Government on those reforms, so we should be prepared to recognise where the reforms have not been fully implemented and to publicly push the Bahrainis to go further.
I will continue. In the recent UK-Kuwait joint steering group, for example, human rights, women’s rights, democratic reforms, support for the humanitarian crisis in the middle east and labour rights for migrant workers were not discussed, nor was trafficking. The US State Department singled out Kuwait as having one of the worst records on human trafficking. I know the UK Government take that issue seriously, so I am surprised that it was not raised with the Kuwaiti authorities.
The situation is equally problematic in Qatar, where exploitation and trafficking remain commonplace, including on the World cup construction sites, as exposed by the recent Trades Union Congress investigation. A similar story could be told on environmental issues. The British Government could do more to make that clear and to push the Gulf states to meet their international obligations on CO2 emissions.
I want the Minister to have ample opportunity to respond to all the points raised in today’s debate, so I will conclude by saying that we need from the Government a broad strategy for the region that recognises the strength of our current relationships and looks to utilise those relationships to support British aims in the region, including more democratic and open societies.
I am grateful for your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. Before I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie on a formidable speech and on securing this debate, as others have done, I thank Diana Johnson for a measured and appropriately balanced speech that pressed the Government while illustrating the many areas where there are synergies between what the Government and the official Opposition believe. The Gulf is an important part of the world for us, and we are grateful for the depth of knowledge that she has illustrated today, which underlines why we need to understand the region before we can comment on it.
That takes me nicely to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, who articulated the reasons why it is important not only that we debate such matters here but that Britain continues this vital relationship. She has just come back from a series of visits, and speeches from both sides of the Chamber have reflected the importance of our engaging with and understanding the region. I encourage all hon. Members to do what they can to visit the region as frequently as possible, because that helps to dispel myths and allows us to have the frank conversations that we need in order to advance democracy, human rights and the rule of law—all the things that matter so much.
I will make some progress first and then, time permitting, I will be delighted to give way. There are a lot of issues to cover, but I will give way if there is time.
I welcome the breadth of knowledge that has been displayed in this debate, and I ask for that to continue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West spelled out some of the challenges with which the middle east, with its diversity, is having to contend in a modern setting. We have obviously had the Arab spring and its aftermath, and the drop in oil prices is having an enormous effect on all countries in the region. The growth of extremism is hugely challenging in that neck of the woods, and then there is the advance of the internet in a culturally conservative part of the world that is suddenly having to deal with a very liberal way of sharing information and making comment. That has to be mapped out with a growing youth population, which is looking over its shoulder and saying, “We want a very different set of views, values and outlook on life from our parents or the generation before them.”
The Gulf is going through immense challenges, which provides opportunities, but it also means that the Gulf’s friendships outside the region are all the more important. Without mentioning any names, there are other parts of the world that have disengaged somewhat from the middle east, and it is therefore all the more important for us to remember our strong bonds, which are not just about today or about the visits. As has been said, the bonds go back to historical agreements over 200 years that established maritime, trade and diplomatic relationships and allowed us to develop the enormously strong bonds and bilateral ties that are evident today.
The Gulf’s stability is our stability, and we must recognise that the Gulf states have been the custodians of much of the world’s oil and gas supplies in recent decades, helping the world to keep the lights on. The region’s security is tied to our security, but the region’s prosperity is also our prosperity. That was reflected in the last security and defence review, and it has been illustrated today by a number of hon. Members today who referred to our commitments from a military perspective right across the Gulf.
However, we also must recognise that it is not just on security and hydrocarbons that we have established strong relationships; our relationships are now diversifying. I can share with the House that we now have six-monthly bilateral working groups with every single Gulf nation—I will go with a team to one of the countries or they will come here. The last one was with Oman, and we go through the entire relationship, from security, defence and hydrocarbons—those norms that we understand—to, now, education: how the British Council can do more work on getting English taught in schools or developing the curriculum. We also discuss how we can help work with police reforms, ombudsmen, processes to allow women’s rights to be established, and so forth.
Many of these things are happening behind the scenes, because that is the way those countries prefer to do business, and we have success; we are able to move forward, which is very positive. I stress to the House that just because people do not see the headlines or hear us shouting out about things, that does not mean they do not happen. That is very important to remember that. Any hon. Friends or hon. Members who have taken the time to visit the region will be aware of that themselves.
On that point, there has been much talk today about visiting the region, so will the Foreign Office guarantee my safety if I decide to go and visit Saudi Arabia?
I am not sure how helpful that comment is. Anybody travelling to the region needs to read the travel advice. I encourage the hon. Lady to go to Saudi Arabia, because—as others have found—she will come back having learned something. She will discover, especially if it is a visit endorsed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that she will have access to many of the programmes that are taking place in what is very much a culturally conservative society.
There is a desire in this House for immediate, 21st-century change—to slide across our values, our standards, our processes and our democratic systems all in one. That is not going to happen quickly, in the same way that it did not happen quickly in this country, from giving women the vote to getting rid of slavery. The other day, I went back to my old stomping ground of the London Stock Exchange, where I worked—I made a visit there for a listing that was taking place with Morocco. Women were not allowed on the trading floor in the UK until the 1970s. Our first female ambassador was not appointed until 1976. These things take time.
Of course, in the 21st century we expect countries to take advantage of best practice and of the support and programmes that are available, so that they do not have to take the 800 years that we have taken since Magna Carta to develop the standards that we enjoy today.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to put on record the gratitude that is felt by a number of countries in the Gulf that have benefited from former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—very distinguished members of the RUC, from Northern Ireland—who have gone out to Gulf states and improved their human rights records in policing?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. That is a great example of countries using that experience of dealing with diverse groups and communities that have been broken in the past and that need to heal and move forward. That experience and knowledge can be taken to countries in the Gulf, so that it can be shared. I pay huge tribute to the teams who have gone from Northern Ireland to the Gulf. In fact, it is not only in the Gulf where they are doing such work; they are doing it even further afield. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point and putting it on the record.
My hon. Friend the Minister was talking about the role of women. Does he agree that the Bahrainis themselves have shown remarkable foresight, as their previous ambassador here was not only female but a Christian? Does that example not illustrate the kind of diversity that we see in Bahrain, which is one of our closest allies and best friends?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Change is happening, but of course we want to increase that change, so we are doing our best to advance it and expedite it. On the Shura council in Saudi Arabia, there were no women before; now there are women on it. In municipal elections, the most recent of which have just taken place, previously there were no women involved; now there are women being elected. In fact, when women were first elected to the Shura council, guess what happened? They were placed behind a glass screen, because the men on the council did not want them in the room. However, the women banged on the glass and said, “We want to be part of the actual debate,” and the chairman had no choice but to invite them in. When I visited Saudi Arabia a couple of months ago, I was delighted to meet some of the women connected with the British relationship—the British grouping—we were all able to sit in the same room together and have a conversation. That might seem quite small, but in the period that I have been honoured to have this role, it was an important step to allow those voices to come across.
There is even debate now about women drivers, partly because there is an economic cause. The drop in oil prices means that if a country has a workforce capable of driving, why not take advantage of it? The reasons for such a debate happening are not perhaps the ones we would want, but the fact is that the debate is now happening and that is very much encouraged.
I simply make the point that we have developed the strengths of our democratic society over many, many years, but as nation states the Gulf countries are very new. Saudi Arabia was not really formed, as such, until 1932. Oman and, indeed, the other Gulf nations did not gain their independence until the 1970s. It is from that starting point that those countries then had to develop from a centralised model of governance and move forward to provide change at a pace that is acceptable to their people. If we try to expedite the pace too quickly, we will find that the religiously conservative groups will not accept it, and we will end up seeing what we have seen in Syria taking hold in other parts of the region. That would mean that change had gone too fast to be accepted.
It is important that we stand with the Gulf countries. We encourage change—we do not step back from it at all—and we use the strength of our friendship and the trust bestowed upon us. However, there is also an expectation, because of the depth of the relationship, that we are there with them—that we have these conversations—and we do that better with them, rather than shouting from afar and expecting change to happen.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the challenge of extremism, which is something that Gulf nations are working incredibly hard to address. All the nations in the Gulf are part of the counter-Daesh coalition and are playing a formidable role in providing funds to tackle the movement of foreign fighters, in making efforts to stop the flow of money that is going into Daesh accounts and in helping with humanitarian support. All the Gulf nations have taken refugees, but again that is not shouted about perhaps as much as one would anticipate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned the Sawab centre and the Hedayah centre, which are important aspects of allowing imams—the grand muftis and so forth—to recognise that there is a responsible way of preaching the Koran and of ensuring that the word of Allah is shared correctly, because it is among the vulnerable where Islam is misused, with the false promise of paradise that then encourages people to become suicide bombers and continue extremism. The United Arab Emirates is doing is an incredible job in challenging extremism as it grows.
Time is against me, so I will end shortly, because I want to give my hon. Friend at least a minute to comment on this debate. I will just say, finally, that our mature relationships with our Gulf partners are deeply rooted in our shared history, and our future security and, indeed, prosperity are closely linked with theirs. The Gulf states have significant regional influence that they can bring to bear on issues that affect our national security, such as regional conflicts and violent extremism, so it is in our national interest to deepen co-operation with them, building on our existing relationships with them to our mutual benefit.
I want to pay tribute to the Minister, who in many ways—through the style of his delivery and his experience—sums up what for me has been the thing to take away from this debate, which is the enormous value of experience and the nuance that it gives to consideration of this topic, versus the arrogance of ignorance. There are practical benefits of understanding the region—of actually being practical—versus the luxury, and it is a luxury, of impotent moralising from a far-off position.
I am so sorry that we did not get to hear about the enormous wealth of nuanced experience of so many hon. Members, which could actually serve to change things that we all want to change in the region—because we care about the people—and I hope that in time to come that that experience and those practical benefits will trump the arrogance of ignorance.
Motion lapsed (