Human Rights in Saudi Arabia — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:59 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 2:59 pm, 18th July 2019

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It does not only apply in this area. When I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, I served on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, which made a report about the inadequacy of accountability in the conflict, stability and security fund, for example, and the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the integrated activity fund. We ought to have accountability for public money; it is a basic requirement of our responsibility as we levy taxes on our constituents.

Having made the case for co-operation with Saudi Arabia, I recognise the flipside. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Saudi Arabia, I feel particularly pained by the current situation. In my 22 years as a Member of this House, I have defended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s important relationship with the United Kingdom. A few years ago, I had hoped that the Kingdom was taking a bold new step forward when Mohammed bin Salman—first as Deputy Crown Prince and then as Crown Prince—effectively assumed the majority of the Executive power in Saudi Arabia.

The moves of the Crown Prince towards economic reform, with Vision 2030, were accompanied by wider apparent social reform: the removal of arrest powers from the religious police, the formal preparation of legislation to ease male guardianship laws and granting women the right to drive. There is genuine potential for modernisation under that programme. However, if the price turns out to be the closure of any emerging political space, any overall societal gain will be heavily reduced, if not negatived altogether.

We must be beyond disappointed by the series of events over the past two years that have led to where we are today. There is a wretched contradiction between the recent societal liberalisation in Saudi Arabia and the detention of the people who campaigned for those changes. Saudi Arabia has been commended for allowing women the right to drive, for the opening of cinemas and other entertainment places and, as I said, for ending the religious police’s power of arrest. They were all immensely important to the freedom one has to conduct one’s life in Saudi Arabia, but if in parallel the activists who for years had advocated those changes are arrested, such incredible detention and this disastrous series of events must be challenged, not least by the friends of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who recognise the importance of that nation as a regional ally. Pushing for successful reform should not lead to prison. The Crown Prince would be well advised to recognise the truth of the aphorism used by President Ronald Reagan that there is no limit to what we can achieve if we do not mind who gets the credit.

This year, I have worked with the hon. Members for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on a detention review panel for the female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. I accepted the task because I believed that I would command the confidence both of Saudi Arabia and of its critics for fairness. I am trying to demonstrate in this speech that I hope to see both sides of the question. However, I was disappointed that the Saudi Government did not welcome independent oversight of the detainees’ conditions in detention when, by all measures, the Crown Prince ought to be proud of his fellow countrywomen for sharing his desire to advance reform in Saudi Arabia. I am sure the Saudi Government wish to resolve the issue. I can at least record my pleasure that, to date, the Saudi Arabian authorities appear, temporarily at least, to have released four out of the 11 women detained last year. Hopefully more will follow, as the Saudi Government must realise that the decisions leading to the activists’ detentions and the appalling circumstances and death of Jamal Khashoggi must be rectified to save the country from itself. If the lessons are to be learnt and we are to honour Jamal Khashoggi’s life’s work by ensuring a more open society in Saudi Arabia where criticism is seen as an asset to good policy making, and where there is a more open press to report criticism, it can come only if there is a change of approach from the very top. Such disasters must be used to learn lessons on the necessary limitations on Executive power.

The enrichment of Saudi Arabia has led to the education of its citizens, particularly women, which inevitably has led to and will lead to a desire for progressive change. Western nations, particularly the United Kingdom, have to stand by the current constitutional framework, which must find within it the capacity for progressive change in respect of the growing role and responsibility of Saudi citizens in their influence on policy. Of course, that means the United Kingdom faces a difficult situation.

We could choose to ostracise the kingdom, as implied by the policy proposals supported by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, with the cancellation of the Just Solutions contract. I ought to declare an interest as I was the junior Minister most enthusiastically in support of setting up Just Solutions in order to get its methodology away, so I treated the cancellation of that contract as disastrous and an immense personal disappointment. If we followed the prescription of the hon. Gentleman, we could turn the kingdom into a pariah and push it into the arms of Russia and/or China which, incidentally, are two other human rights priority countries for the United Kingdom. Populist diplomacy and noisy condemnation will always be heard, humiliating the key decision makers at the top. Cynically, if its target audience is just the domestic media and NGOs in the United Kingdom, in those terms it would be successful. But in terms of effecting support for human rights and advancing them in Saudi Arabia, and advancing and securing the position of Saudi Arabia within those nations committed to the current rules-based international order, I suspect the policy advocated by the hon. Gentleman might not be quite so successful.