The Gulf — [Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 4th May 2016.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 10:45 am, 4th May 2016

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.