The Gulf — [Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:14 am on 4th May 2016.

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Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 10:14 am, 4th May 2016

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.