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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 4:00 pm, 18th July 2019

It is a great pleasure to follow Fabian Hamilton and a number of extremely fine speeches. Although it is a Thursday afternoon, it is a pity more hon. and right hon. Members are not here, but I am sure that does not reflect the interest the House of Commons has in these matters.

I thank Mr Carmichael for securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate the UK Government’s approach to Saudi Arabia which, as we have discovered in the course of this afternoon, is complex and nuanced. In the points I make in response to colleagues, I will attempt to explain why that is. In doing so, I want to be completely frank about our significant concerns. Ultimately, we believe that progress will be hastened through constructive engagement with the kingdom, so I will highlight work we are doing to support human rights in Saudi Arabia.

People often suggest—Members have done so today—that there is a contradiction between UK interests in Saudi Arabia and our democratic values. They suggest we choose to put our interests above human rights. Those are simplistic arguments based around a false premise, and they miss the point. It is precisely our shared interests and our extensive ties with Saudi Arabia that give us an effective platform to raise our concerns and to encourage human rights progress. If there is no dialogue with those we seek to influence, the debate is purely among ourselves and we become a deluxe debating society. As such, I find common cause with my hon. and gallant Friend Crispin Blunt, and commend him for two things: first, his work for women’s human rights defenders, about which he was very modest; and secondly his very fine speech.

I also thank my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis for his typically fine speech. He balanced our desire to ensure that we encourage progress in Saudi Arabia with being unashamed of our norms, values and realpolitik. He raised the spectre of what might happen in the event we did not engage in the way I believe we are. It is a choice that Members make. We either bring down the shutters and give ourselves a warm feeling and do virtue signalling, which makes us feel good, or we engage, understanding the sense of frustration, unhappiness and awkwardness it gives us, while giving ourselves at least the prospect of having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia. I choose the latter, though I am tempted by the former, since I rather like the absolutist, black and white way of approaching some of these matters. It would be fairly straightforward. We could all stand here and in the Chamber and make fine speeches about the evils and wickedness of regimes with which we do not see eye to eye, but it is not clear to me how that will move things on for our intended beneficiaries, which in this instance are the people of Saudi Arabia, the people in the wider region and, ultimately, ourselves.