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

The most obvious one that springs to mind is the influence of American and British officers in the targeting cells for the operation in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was unanimously approved by the United Nations in order to deal with the illegal usurpation of authority, and we all supported the necessary military involvement to restore order in Yemen. It is an awful place to try to advance by military means the political objectives that the world supported the Saudi coalition to put together. That campaign has been of immense difficulty. Rightly, the coalition was properly criticised for the way it appeared to be conducting the operation yet we should note that there has been a significant improvement. That operation has continued because of the quality of advice coming from the United Kingdom and also the United States in making sure that the military operations were conducted within the remit of international law with regard to human rights. I point to that as an area where there has been effective influence.

Domestically over the past two years within Saudi Arabia, I concede to the hon. Gentleman that what we see and what is reported about the execution of the 37 and the rest, and the detention of the women detainees that I and two of our colleagues inquired into, has been profoundly disappointing. I assume that the Saudi Arabian Government would reflect on the issues I have already mentioned—women being given the right to drive and the ending of the powers of arrest of the religious police—as an overall improvement but if, as I will come on to, Saudi Arabia simply closes down the political space and everyone is far too terrified to offer a critique, it will not help a consultative monarchy to advance good governance in Saudi Arabia. The picture is mixed, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that we have no influence whatever.

We have enormous leverage over Saudi Arabia as far as defence is concerned, until and unless we cancel our defence contracts with it. Such leverage would disappear and Saudi Arabia would be faced with the enormous expense of re-equipping itself from another supplier. It would be catastrophic if that supplier was in either Russia or China and provided it with the defence capability that it needed. We would certainly then say goodbye to any influence that we had over Saudi Arabia at enormous economic cost to ourselves. In that sense, we are engaged in a contest for influence, and its human rights is a very important part of trying to advance that agenda. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is difficult, as I am sure the Minister will recognise. If we give up on interdependence, we will pay a very heavy price, as will the people of Saudi Arabia. We need to stand as much as we possibly can alongside them, and this debate and oversight of what is happening in Saudi Arabia should be part of that.

There is a degree to which it should be true that public shaming and the isolation of offending regimes can occasionally be a spur to progress, but it is better to offer a solution, to engage, and to assist by using our centuries-long hard-won experience of accountability for the rule of law. Rather than tell the Saudis sanctimoniously what their values ought to be, we should have these debates to challenge our friends and encourage them to see the merits of an open civil society, for the benefit of their nation’s policy making if nothing else. Given such a process and our influence, we should be able to agree that they could do nothing better than to release the female detainees straight away.

Previously, change came slowly to Saudi Arabia. It was a conservative country with a cautious monarchy. That caution appeared to be swept away with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but expecting it to suddenly transform into a fully-fledged accountable democracy overnight was never going to happen. Britain remains in a position to help the Crown Prince move away from the path of a leader lethally intolerant of dissent. As our ally, there is a necessity for Saudi Arabia to uphold the highest standards of a consultative monarchy by better engaging with its citizens. There remains an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to set a course for a better future for its society and its economy, learning from the human rights disasters of 2018. Those are the terms used by Saudi Arabia’s own Foreign Minister about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi—it was described as a disaster.

The alternative to a consultative monarchy is an absolute monarchy, and down that route lies disaster and probably eventually revolution. Before that disaster and revolution lies terror and repression. In the west we need to ask ourselves whether we want a penitent reformer in charge of Saudi Arabia or a rolling back to a hard-line clerical domination that reflects the values of centuries earlier or some other revolutionary horror. To reapply the words of Talleyrand, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was not only a crime; it was a mistake. We must help Saudi Arabia to deliver accountability for the crime, and for its future, we must do our best to ensure that it does not compound the mistake.