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Relations with the Arab World

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

The highlight of my parliamentary career is undoubtedly the wonder goal that I scored for the House of Commons football team at the Stretford end at Old Trafford—the Manchester United theatre of dreams. The goal has passed into history, but less well known is the fact that the little inside forward who supplied the final pass, in a move involving the legends Pat Crerand and Sir Bobby Charlton, was the Minister whom I face in today’s debate.

The Minister and I have always had civilised—indeed, friendly—relations. I hope that they survive the next 30 minutes, for I am going to say some pretty harsh things about the Government’s policy. As Minister for the middle east, he will have to come in for his share of criticism, but nothing personal is intended, as I am sure he knows.

The Minister is highly qualified as a Minister of the Crown, but the least of his qualifications was the most important in his being made a Minister at the Foreign Office: he was previously a luminary—indeed, a leader—of the Conservative Friends of Israel. That is an indispensible condition in Britain; in the 25 years I have spent in the House, and I suspect for much longer than that, no one has been able to be the Minister for the middle east without being a member, preferably a leading one, of either the Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel. That is the first problem I want to deal with today.

The fact that one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east speaks volumes about the absolute unwillingness on the part of the British state, the British Government and the British Parliament to face up to their responsibility to the Palestinian people. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people was authored in this building, when our Foreign Minister, then Mr Balfour, promised on behalf of one people a second people the land that belonged to a third people, when we did not even own the land of Palestine even as an imperial possession.

That is the original sin of Britain—all the blood that has flowed under the bridge since that declaration was made, and the fact that we do not recognise our special responsibility to the Palestinian people. On the contrary, one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east. That is central to our problems and our credibility in the middle east.

As a result of Mr Balfour’s declaration, the Palestinian people had their country wiped off the map. We hear a lot of talk in the middle east about people threatening to wipe other people’s countries off the map, but the only country that has been wiped off the map in the middle east is Palestine—go to your atlas, Mrs Brooke, and you will see. The Palestinian people were scattered to the four corners of the earth—stateless, paperless and passport-less, hunted from pillar to post and regularly subject to massacre and attack of one kind or another. All the responsibility for that originates here.

Instead of recognising that special responsibility, we do precisely the opposite. If someone is not a known and celebrated supporter of the country that supplanted Palestine and drove the Palestinians out of their country into the four corners of the earth, they will have no chance of becoming the Minister for the middle east.

I could adumbrate the perfidy at great length, but I do not have the time. I shall give only one example: Israel illegally holds hundreds of nuclear weapons, undeclared and subject to no treaty or inspection of any kind. It was a British Government who transferred the heavy water technology that made that illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons possible; it would have been impossible otherwise. We know that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons because the brave Jewish whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu told us, for which he was kidnapped in Leicester square and ended up serving 18 years in solitary confinement in an Israeli dungeon. When brought to court, his jaws were wired together, like Hannibal Lecter, in case he told us any more about that illegal mountain of weapons of mass destruction.

Israel has a mountain of weapons of mass destruction. Iran has no weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran has no nuclear weapons and that there is no evidence that it is trying to build them. Yet it is Iran that is subject to endless sanction and threat, while Israel has the red carpet endlessly rolled out before it.

Successive British Governments, both Labour and Conservative—the last one were even worse than this one; Mr Blair is now in almost permanent residence in occupied Jerusalem—have consistently backed Israeli crimes or failed to sanction them properly. Even when our own citizens’ passports were stolen by the Israeli intelligence services to commit murder in Dubai and we called in the Israeli ambassador and deported the Mossad representative from the embassy in London, the new Mossad representative to London flew here on the return flight and is ensconced still.

If this was a debate only about Palestine, I would have much more to say, but the proximate cause of my application for this debate is the ludicrous situation that occurred at Prime Minister’s Question Time a couple of weeks ago. The Minister will have come briefed, I am sure, for this point. I asked the Prime Minister whether he would adumbrate for the House the key differences—just the key ones—between the “hand-chopping, throat-cutting” violent, Islamist and extremist jihadists we were now going to Mali to kill, and the hand-chopping, throat-cutting, violent, Islamist, fanatic and extremist jihadists to whom we were giving money to help kill Christians and other religious minorities in Syria. There was a reply, but it was not an answer; it was a brief ad hominem attack—that if there was a brutal Arab dictator anywhere in the world left standing, he could no doubt count on my support.

As psychologists would say, that is just about as good an example of projection as it is possible to imagine. The Prime Minister projected on to me the sins—indeed, crimes—of which he himself is manifestly guilty.

One of the reasons why I voted against the Iraq war, like the hon. Gentleman, was that I was worried about the fate of Christians in Iraq. They have had a terrible fate since the invasion. Many of them went to Syria, and their lives have been made a misery now; they are the people in between. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is essential that we do not send, or countenance sending, indirectly or directly, any arms into Syria? That would make the situation far worse.

I agree wholeheartedly. The Christians in Iraq have effectively been wiped off the map of Iraq. Most of them are in Syria, where they live in daily terror for their churches and of their clergy and devotees being slaughtered by the hand-chopping and throat-cutting al-Qaeda elements to whom we are giving money.

However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong—we are already giving them weapons, and we are giving them money, which is the same as giving them weapons. If we give al-Qaeda money, what do we think they buy with that money? Are they buying Elastoplasts and other medical supplies? No, they are buying weapons with which to terrorise not just Christians, but Muslims and other ethnicities—Kurdish people, for example—on a daily basis. The Minister and the Foreign Office know that, and they must give an answer, if not to me, then to the British people.

What are the differences between the jihadists we are killing in Mali and the jihadists we are financing in Syria? I know why the Prime Minister did not answer my question; there can surely be no logical answer to it, for there are no differences. Al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda, and the al-Qaeda mindset is the al-Qaeda mindset wherever it is found.

I demand an answer to that question. The people in this country deserve an answer—after all, it is their money that is being given. I put a question to the Prime Minister:

“Has the Prime Minister read ‘Frankenstein’, and did he read it to the end?”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 906.]

Does he not know that Dr Frankenstein’s monster broke free and out of control, which is why it is called a monster?

As a case of projection, the Prime Minister’s response is pretty difficult to beat. In The Guardian, an American journalist by the name of Glenn Greenwald—the day after, if not the day after that—wrote:

“Cameron’s attack on George Galloway reflects the west’s self-delusions. In an act of supreme projection, the British PM accuses a critic of lending support ‘wherever there is a brutal…dictator’: the core policy of the US and UK”.

Who can doubt that?

The Prime Minister has travelled with his sales bag and a retinue of arms salesmen to one brutal Arab dictatorship after another. I do not know where he is today, but it will be a red letter day if he is not trying to sell weapons to a brutal Arab dictator. Saudi Arabia is our best friend in the middle east. We sell billions—tens of billions—of pounds of weaponry to the Saudi dictatorship, some of which is used in other countries. In 2009, the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter bombers in attacks in Yemen, which killed hundreds or possibly thousands of civilians.

The Saudi army is in occupation of its neighbour, Bahrain, where the democracy protesters are daily being gunned down with guns bought from us, by soldiers trained by us. We have a military training mission in Saudi Arabia, the darkest tyranny in the entire middle east. The most brutal dictatorship in the entire middle east is in occupation of its neighbour, killing people because they demand the right to vote.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Yemen. Does he agree that it is important that we work with the Government of Yemen to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, where it is causing so much damage and harm to people?

It is important that we work with the Government of Yemen, who came to power as a result of a popular revolution against a dictatorship supported by British Governments—this one and the last one.

Before I leave the subject of Saudi Arabia, I should say that we have sold it £15 billion of weapons a year. According to a report I have, Saudi Arabia, with which we want to broaden and deepen our relationship—the UK-Saudi relationship is already very broad and deep—is the UK’s largest trading partner in the middle east, with annual trade worth £15 billion. How does the Minister think people in Syria feel when they are told that we are giving weapons to jihadists to bring democracy in Syria, given that our best friend in the region is the darkest tyranny of them all?

I will close on the tragicomic, the absurd—the subject of brutal dictatorships. I never met Muammar al-Gaddafi, and I have never met any of his grisly family. I had nothing to do with Gaddafi or his regime, but the British Government did. First he was a mad dog, then he was our new best friend. The then Prime Minister of Britain kissed him several times in the tent. The LSE or Libyan School of Economics—the London School of Economics—was encouraged to take large sums of money from the Gaddafi dictatorship. Gaddafi’s son had help from No. 10 Downing street to complete his PhD thesis, so that he could become Dr Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.

We had the closest possible relationship with Gaddafi’s brutal dictatorship. We sold Libya £100 million of weapons. Worse than that, we sent it dissidents to be tortured on Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was not me who sent them; it was the then British Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as the courts will soon decide—though perhaps in secret, if the Government get away with their secret courts legislation.

The letters are there: the man who was tortured discovered them in the British embassy, with their gloating at his safe delivery to Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was the British Government who trained Gaddafi’s secret police and his military officers at Sandhurst. It is the British Government who support dictatorship in the middle east, not me.

I wish I had more time for this debate, but I do not want to cheat a Minister whom I personally respect by leaving him too little time to reply. I close with this: Britain’s relationship with the middle east stinks to high heaven. Indeed, in the Muslim world—1.7 billion-strong —we are seen as hypocrites, as occupiers and as people who support and prop up brutal dictators with weapons, with money if they need it, and with diplomatic and political support if they do not. It is a pity that this Foreign Office Minister, fine man as he is, has done nothing to better that reputation; instead, his tenure has seen that reputation get steadily worse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I place on the record my sense that the Stretford end incident, as we shall call it, was certainly one of the finest amateur goals that I have ever seen and the best that I was ever any part of. The hon. Gentleman’s generous notification of that, in publications or this sort of debate, has always been touching. The relationship forged on that common interest has sustained us over the many years during which we have been in Parliament together.

Of course, that is where it all diverges. Although I have always admired the hon. Gentleman’s passion and his rhetorical ability to hold an audience, the gentlest that I can say is that I think, on occasions, his passion and commitment can cloud his judgment. He said a number of things today that I shall endeavour to correct, as I think that he took a particular point and extrapolated it to a position that is genuinely untrue in terms both of fact and of the United Kingdom’s position.

In the short time available, I want to put on the record our interests and relationships in the Arab world, because they are difficult and complex, before dealing with some of the specific points. As the House knows well, it is complex region. Some of the most difficult foreign policy challenges faced by the world—nuclear proliferation, the middle east peace process, the appalling war waged by the Assad regime against its own people, ungoverned spaces providing havens for terrorists and extremists—are found in the region.

The United Kingdom’s security and prosperity are intertwined with the Arab world. A mere nine miles separate Europe from north Africa at the Mediterranean’s narrowest point. Many countries in the region are important partners in tackling terrorist threats. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs are linked to trade and commerce with the wider middle east. It is fundamentally in our national interest that the region becomes more stable, more open, more free and more prosperous over time, and we have a part to play in that.

Our relations with the middle east are designed to further Britain’s security and prosperity, to deliver opportunities that will create jobs in the UK and to ensure the safety of British nationals overseas and at home. That is the heart of our foreign policy, but we seek to do it in a way that upholds and promotes our values—our belief in universal human rights, in justice, and in equality for women and for minorities—at all times. We do so as a matter of principle, but we also know that it reinforces our other interests.

Over the past two years, the region has seen momentous change with the Arab spring. That change has been led at its core by the region’s people in a demand for dignity, a voice and a fair prospect of employment. That change was always going to be a long process, yet much has already been achieved. Tunisia has its democratically elected parliament; Morocco has its free elections; and Yemen is undergoing a political transition. All those are genuine achievements. In a region where almost 60% of the population is under 25, the Arab spring has demonstrated the aspirations of the region’s citizens for a voice and a right to share in the prosperity of the 21st century. They share that aspiration with their peers in other parts of the world. Arab exceptionalism has gone.

The UK has been clear in its support for those strengthening the building blocks on which inclusive, accountable societies are based. We are supporting those who strive to deliver a strengthened rule of law, a thriving civil society, political systems based on genuine citizen participation and a plural, balanced media. Through our Arab partnership initiative in Egypt and Libya, we have supported free and fair elections by assisting domestic observer missions. In Tunisia, we have strengthened legislative protection for the freedom of expression; and in Morocco, we are supporting anti-corruption initiatives.

The support is based both on our values and a clear understanding that, in the long term, a more inclusive, accountable region is more likely to deliver lasting stability and security for the region and for us all. However, bringing together our values and interests can at times be a difficult balancing act. Conflicts sometimes arise. Although we have many mutual values with countries of the region, there are also differences between us. We have different cultures, histories and traditions and we cannot underestimate the significance of that. All that has been done in the past may not have been good, and we are paying a price in the courts and in public opinion.

Where we do not agree on values, however, we need to work that through, dealing with the differences honestly and frankly. We do not see eye to eye on all our values with countries of the middle east or in any part of the world. In an increasingly interconnected world, security concerns pay no regard to borders. We speak of the global economy and British nationals live in all parts of the world. Although we may be an island, isolation and disengagement is not an option. We need to work with countries, in spite of their different beliefs, faiths and value systems, in a way that upholds human rights and values, and that can be difficult.

Dialogue is the most effective way to find common ground on areas where we can work together, to encourage where necessary and to challenge other Governments to policies that are respectful of human rights, justice and equality. That is the approach that we are taking, but I do not pretend for a minute that it is without conflicts and difficulties. Consistency is not an easy aim, and it is not always possible in practice because of the differences in different places.

I will deal with one or two of the specifics that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On Israel, yes, I have been a Conservative friend of Israel for all the time I have been in Parliament, but it does not preclude being a friend of others in the region as well. When I was last with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he said that he knew of no other politician who was pursuing the case of the young man killed by a tear gas grenade in Nabi Salih at the hands of the Israeli defence force a couple of years ago and that my visits to the family had meant a great deal. I do my best to ensure that our concern for rights and the needs of those in the occupied territories are represented by the United Kingdom.

I am aware of the tensions, and those who know of my past have been perfectly accommodating of it. It enables me to speak toughly to the Israeli Government. It was I who called in the ambassador recently over settlements. It is in my time as Minister holding this job that we were able to support a motion at the United Nations condemning the settlement building, against both the United States and Israel. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not accept from him that my background with Israel leads me into a difficult position. I remind him that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who held my position some time ago, was no particular noted friend of Israel and was able to do the job as effectively as I am trying to do.

Do not be hurt by what I said, because it is a qualification to be the Minister for the middle east. It is not the Minister’s fault. Why did the British Government cowardly abstain in the overwhelming vote to recognise Palestine as a member of the United Nations? Why will they not bring sanctions to bear on Israel—like the sanctions they brought to bear on Iran—for holding illegal nuclear weapons and occupying other people’s territory and refusing to leave it? Why not?

In my answer, I was indicating that a friendship with Israel is not a requirement for the job, which is what he was indicating. I was pointing out that one of his colleagues had held the job without such a qualification. The reason why we did not support the vote, which was not for membership but to advance the cause of statehood for the Palestinian Authority, was that we had explained that what we believed was most in its interest was not a vote at the United Nations at that time. Our commitment to statehood for the Palestinian people in due course is very clear, however, and I reiterate it again today.

Without wishing to stay on that subject, I will briefly cover the others. On Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran is still acting in defiance of multiple International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions, including the most recent resolution adopted last September, and no fewer than six UN Security Council resolutions. The IAEA has expressed its serious concerns about the possible military dimension to Iran’s programme. Anyone who mistakes what is going on in Iran and believes that it is purely peaceful is missing the point. If it is purely peaceful, that is not difficult for Iran to demonstrate. We still hope that it will take the opportunity to do so this year. The IAEA has made reference to the possible military dimension of that programme.

On Syria, the hon. Gentleman again went too far. It is not true that the United Kingdom is supplying al-Qaeda with either money or weapons. I do not believe that to characterise what is happening in Syria as an attack on the Christian minority is accurate. There are jihadists involved. It is the wish of the United Kingdom and our partners to ensure that they are not supplied with weapons. That is why we are so determined to see the success of the Syrian national opposition coalition, so that it has legitimacy and an opportunity to represent the future of Syria in its political transition. We are more than well aware of the danger of jihadists becoming involved in what was originally a clear expression of reform and opinion against the Assad regime. That has turned into something different, because of the length of time that the situation has been unresolved, which is not through lack of effort by the United Kingdom with the United Nations. We are extremely concerned for the Christian minority and for others, which is why there must be an effective rule of law, but it must cover all.

Can the Minister give me a categorical assurance that no British taxpayer’s money is finding its way to jihadists through indirect means? Money is being given, but not arms, and it may find its way to them. Will he give me that categorical assurance?

I can give a categorical assurance that it is not the intention of the United Kingdom, in any efforts being made to support the Syrian people, that any money goes to al-Qaeda or any of its acolytes. It would be logically ridiculous of the United Kingdom to do that, which is why we give our support in the way that we do. No one can be absolutely certain about my hon. Friend’s suggestion, but it is absolutely clear that the United Kingdom has no interest in doing that. It is totally contrary to our interests and is not what we are doing. For him to say that that is clearly what we are doing is simply wrong.

I have to finish, because we are running out of time. It is a complex issue with a complex set of relationships. It is essential that we are able to deal with this issue in a way that examines the facts, and polemics sometimes get in the way. The hon. Member for Bradford West and I share a sense of justice for what must happen in the region. The policy objectives that we have set out are not always simple to achieve, but they are clear. I hope that we can continue to debate in a manner that allows the truth to be got to, even though opinion may vary.