Skip to main content

Saudi Arabia

Volume 983: debated on Thursday 24 April 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the return of our ambassador from Saudi Arabia.

Our ambassador has been asked to leave by the Saudi authorities, as a direct result of the damage caused to the relationship between our two Governments by the film "Death of a Princess ", which was shown by ATV on 9 April. It might be helpful to the House for me to set out the course of events which led to the Saudi request that our ambassador should return home.

On 3 April, the Saudi Foreign Minister summoned our chargé d'affaires in Jedda to tell him of his Government's concern about the film and to warn of the very serious consequences which could ensue for our relations. In the light of this message, I recalled our ambassador, Mr. James Craig, from leave, and he returned to Saudi Arabia with messages from my right hon. and noble Friend and myself. We stressed that the British Government would regret it deeply if our close relations with the kingdom were damaged by an event for which neither Government were responsible. I should like to take this opportunity to reiterate that expression of regret.

After the film was shown, there was considerable press comment, and the Saudi embassy in London issued a statement which was highly critical of the film and ATV. There has been widespread protest from all over the Arab and Muslim world, and attention has focused on plans to show the film in other Western countries. Yesterday, the Saudi Foreign Minister told our ambassador that his Government had re-evaluated Anglo-Saudi relations and decided that it was not proper to maintain them at their present level. They would therefore not proceed with the despatch of their ambassador designate to London and they would have to ask our ambassador to leave for the time being. The Saudi authorities have also made it clear that a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which had been planned for 30 April, would no longer be appropriate, and other high-level visits have been cancelled.

I should like to stress once again that the Government attach very great importance to our relations with Saudi Arabia, and we regret that they should have been damaged in this way by an incident outside our control. We have a close political and economic relationship from which we both benefit. There is a community of about 30,000 British people working in Saudi Arabia. We share a common concern that the vital Gulf area should develop in stability and peace without interference from outside Powers. In view of present external threats to the area, we should be drawing closer together, not drifting apart.

The Government hope and believe that with good will on both sides the present misunderstanding can be overcome and the normal course of relations resumed. The wide range of bilateral contacts will not be interrupted on our side and I hope that British citizens working in Saudi Arabia and British business visitors will not be deterred by these events. We wish to see the minimum disruption in our relations and a speedy return to the friendship which has characterised them in the past.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in an oil complex area such as West Lothian many of the families of the 30,000 reside? What assurances can be give to those families?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but we have no reason to believe that as a result of what has happened the presence of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and other British subjects is any less welcome than it was before this latest development. As he will be aware, this incident does not mean the end of diplomatic relations. We have recently increased the number of consular staff to serve the increasing expatriate community, and the departure of our ambassador will not affect the staffing of the embassy or the consular and commercial services which it has always been able to provide.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this incident would be damaging enough in its own right but that, when seen against the background of the serious situations in Iran and Afghanistan, it is a matter of the gravest importance that our relations should now be damaged with the most important of the Arab oil States? In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend consider whether it would be wise for him personally to seek to visit Saudi Arabia for the purpose of discussing Anglo-Saudi relations with the Government of that country? Does he further agree that one of the conditions of freedom of the press, which we all support, is that there should be responsibility of the media, too?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this incident, which would have been regrettable at any time, is particularly regrettable in the light of events in Iran and Afghanistan. Obviously we shall do all on our side to try to make this interlude in our relations as short as possible. As at present advised, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go, but any other member of the Government and myself are at all times ready to do what we can to bring this disruption to an end.

I agree entirely that we have freedom of communications in this country with which the Government, like, I trust, other Governments, have been careful not to interfere. That must be balanced on the other side, I agree, by a degree of responsibility by those who make films that are shown abroad.

While endorsing the wish for continued close relations with Saudi Arabia, may I ask whether the Lord Privy Seal will take every opportunity to make plain to the Saudi Government that the press and television in this country are not subject to ministerial dictation? While we should, and do, respect the cultural traditions of their country, we expect an equal respect for our own, of which freedom of the press and opinion is a vital part.

I agree with that. We have made clear to the Saudi Government from the word "go", and before the film was shown, that we do not control the media in this country and have no wish to do so.

The hon. Gentleman shows his characteristic ignorance.

We all applaud the freedom of the press, but the House will no doubt be aware that this film is subject to considerable criticism. Those who saw it will be aware of that. Mrs. Penelope Mortimer, who cannot be accused of having prejudices reflecting those on the Government side of the House, wrote a letter to the New Statesman pointing out that the film is open to objection. The whole genre is something to which the IBA and the BBC should be giving considerable attention. The dressing up of alleged fact in fiction is not only objectionable to our foreign relations but strongly objectionable in films relating to this country.

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call two more hon. Members from each side.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this regrettable episode—it is everyone's hope that in British and Arab interests its effect will soon be overcome—will not interfere with the proposed British and European initiative in the Middle East, which will do much to reassure countries there of our interest and friendship?

This will not have a general effect on our foreign policy, although it would be idle to deny, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, that a lowering of relations between us and one of the most important countries in the Middle East is a setback. We shall try to see that it lasts for as short a time as possible.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the irresponsibility and the self-interest of some of the bright boys of the media, both in television and in the public prints, who make political attacks under the guise of entertainment, frequently damage British interests and, indeed, Western interests?

Like most hon. Members, I am not a television critic; I do not watch much of it. I did, however, make it my business to watch this film. I believe that the so-called dramatisation, or fictionalisation, of alleged fact and history is extremely dangerous and extremely misleading. It is a matter to which the broadcasting authorities must give close attention.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us on the Government Benches would wish to apologise to the Saudi Arabian Government and to the Saudi Arabian Royal Family for the insult and discourtesy shown to them in this film? Is he further aware that the producer of the film, Anthony Thomas, has a history of producing inaccurate and biased films? Will he make approaches to the Independent Broadcasting Authority to ensure that the Left wingers do not have the power to undermine the best interests of the United Kingdom?

There were undoubtedly incidents in the film, as we know from Mrs. Penelope Mortimer, that had virtually no factual basis at all and were based on innuendo and rumour. They should not have been shown. On the other hand, I do not think that it is for the House to make an apology for something for which it has no responsibility. Nor do I think it right to make representations to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. I have no doubt that it will have taken note of what has happened arising from this incident.

Would not the Lord Privy Seal agree that most of the comment this afternoon has made a bad situation worse? Instead of indulging in the kind of character assassination heard from both sides of the House in the last few minutes, it might simply be pointed out to the Saudi authorities that legislation is going through the House at the moment that would allow an individual, including a Saudi, recourse to a tribunal of investigation if he claimed that a film had maligned him in any way.

I am totally against character assassination. I think, however, that the Saudi Government at present would take limited comfort from what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Order. I remind the House that after the Business Statement, there is to be another statement, and private business begins at 7 pm. In the scheduled three-hour debate on the cost of living, which will now last less than three hours, there are four Front-Bench speakers. We need to try to make business questions as short as possible.