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

I was about to say lots of nice things about the hon. and learned Lady in respect of raising this issue, but I might have to change my mind.

I was going to say that, although some might consider this to be a trivial matter, it is really quite extraordinary in the context of what we know to be the nature of Saudi society—a deeply conservative society, particularly outside Riyadh and Jeddah—and it is totemic of wider societal changes within the kingdom that have to be encouraged. It underscores my previous point, which is where we should draw the line and what approach we should have, as a country, towards this nation state—whether we decide to go off in a huff and have nothing to do with it, and perhaps apply a more prurient approach to Riyadh, or whether we engage fully with it, as I believe we are doing. The point I am trying to make is that, although we have to be eternally vigilant, it seems that the balance is about right. Indeed, it is a balance that was struck under previous Governments, including the Government in which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland served.

I was going to go on to celebrate the fact that women are undertaking new roles in Saudi Arabia, which I would hope the hon. and learned Lady would applaud. Women now sit on the board of the Hajj Authority, and can train as prosecutors and pilots. The first female Saudi ambassador has just been appointed to Washington. The steps taken to curtail the powers of the religious police and to reduce the scope of the guardianship system, which has been mentioned, are also cause for applause. We welcome those positive steps, but our aim is still to see the end of all gender discrimination. We will continue to encourage the full participation of women in Saudi life. As we are listened to by Riyad, I hope that we will have some success in that endeavour.

We welcome recent statements by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on returning Saudi Arabia to a more moderate Islam that is tolerant of other faiths. To build momentum, it is important that religious voices from across the spectrum are not excluded, and that inclusive dialogue is encouraged.

Under Vision 2030, social and cultural opportunities are increasing. After a 35-year ban, the first cinema was opened, in March 2018, and there are now 15 cinemas in the kingdom, with more planned. Again, some might think that a trivial point given the human rights abuses that have been the bulk of our discussion today, but it is not; it is totemic of a broader societal change in the kingdom.

In 2018, the General Authority for Entertainment organised more than 5,000 live shows, festivals and concerts, including art and cultural events across 56 cities —an extraordinary and remarkable thing. Again, we should resist the temptation to dismiss that as trivial against what we have discussed, because it is an important indicator of progress and of a leadership that is prepared to change within the constraints of a conservative social system.

This Government firmly believe that our relationship with Saudi Arabia continues to be of utmost strategic importance to the UK. That relationship helps us to address global security challenges, such as Iran’s malign behaviour. Our co-operation also supports security inside the United Kingdom for the people we represent. Our common interests and our long-standing partnership give us the platform to raise our concerns and the influence to encourage further developments in the Kingdom.

As we have discussed, rights and fundamental freedoms are severely limited in Saudi Arabia. Progress has been gradual and is not close to where we want the country to be. That is why Saudi Arabia will continue to be a human rights priority country—not a club that any country wants to be a member of. It is right that we continue to be confident about our values and norms and that we promote them globally. It is right that we should express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way, and we do that with Saudi Arabia at the highest levels, both in private and in public.

My hon. Friend John Howell made a fine speech about modern slavery. As he will know, at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, Saudi Arabia endorsed the Prime Minister’s call to end modern slavery. I take that as a positive sign.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly raised the issue of UK funding for police operations in Saudi Arabia. I have covered the tone of that point in my remarks, but to be specific, he will know that the Government complete rigorous human rights assessments of that training and other elements, such as materiel. More specifically, he will know that the overseas security and justice assistance assessments are done before undertaking justice and security operations, to ensure that all work meets our international human rights obligations and our values. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate is an expert in those matters, and I commend him for the work that he did when he was in office.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also asked about the integrated activity fund, which is a relatively recent fund. All IAF projects undergo assessment and review. We cannot disclose information about particular IAF projects in greater detail, as we have a duty to maintain the confidence and confidentiality of our partners, but I am happy to enter into a correspondence with him, if he would find that helpful.

The hon. Member for Leeds North East asked about funding extremism—I think it was him. I am pleased to report that Saudi Arabia attained full membership of the Financial Action Task Force last month, committing the kingdom to countering terrorism financing and money laundering. That is a positive move. We of course await further developments on that front, but it is again cause for supposing that Saudi Arabia is making progress—not at the rate he wants or I want, but at a Saudi pace. Working with an instinctively conservative country, he will understand that that has to be how this rolls out. Any more than that, and we will head for the sort of difficulties referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate.

We will continue to work with like-minded Governments and organisations, and with human rights defenders, to engage with the Saudi Arabian Government to bring about positive change and to promote and defend universal freedoms. It is important to get that right, not just for the country but for the region and, ultimately, for our own security. I believe that that is the right approach.