The Gulf — [Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 4th May 2016.

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Photo of Charlotte Leslie Charlotte Leslie Conservative, Bristol North West 9:30 am, 4th May 2016

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.