Skip to main content

Saudi Arabia

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabian Governments.

The Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, has mattered to the UK for generations. Our relationships there are among our most enduring in the world. The Gulf is critical to our foreign policy objectives of security, prosperity and support for UK nationals overseas.

Turning to Saudi Arabia specifically, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoy a deep, long-standing history of friendship and co-operation. December marked 100 years since the signing of the Darin treaty between the United Kingdom and King Abdulaziz, who founded modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1932. As hon. Members are aware, Saudi Arabia is an influential voice in the region. It is the only Arab country to be represented among the G20. As the home of Islam’s two holy mosques, it has enormous global religious influence.

Today, the UK and Saudi Arabia co-operate in areas as diverse as education, healthcare, culture, defence, and, of course, counter-terrorism, as well as on the shared challenges facing the middle east. Some 25,000 Britons are proud to call the kingdom their home, and a further 70,000 visit each year as pilgrims. More than 15,000 Saudi students study in some of the UK’s world-class universities.

A strong relationship with Saudi Arabia matters. Our collaboration has foiled terrorist attacks, directly saving British lives. British-Saudi co-operation has specifically resulted in the foiling of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that would have caused substantial destruction and loss of life. An example of this co-operation was the discovery at East Midlands airport of a “printer bomb” on board a US-bound flight in October 2010. The initial alert came from the Saudi authorities, which have been quick to provide information to protect British interests on this and many other occasions.

We should not ignore Saudi Arabia’s important and growing contributions to regional stability. We work together to tackle regional threats. We both want stability in the middle east. Saudi Arabia’s role in the region is essential to solving the crises in Syria and Yemen and to defeating terrorism.

The Saudi Arabian Government have been at the forefront of international efforts to defeat Daesh, from which the country has suffered first-hand. The king and the religious establishment continue clearly and publicly to condemn Daesh, and to emphasise that its poisonous ideology does not in any way represent the teachings of the Islamic faith.

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to participate in airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. It also co-leads the global coalition’s work to cut Daesh’s resources and has established the Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism. We are grateful to the Saudi Arabian Government for hosting a successful conference of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh last month to agree a common political platform and to start to form a negotiating team for UN-brokered peace talks with the Syrian regime, due to take place in Geneva on 25 January.

The recent escalation in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran is deeply concerning. I urge all parties in the region urgently to show restraint and responsibility, and to work towards resolving tensions. I was very concerned to hear of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad on 2 January. We know only too well the impact of this. It is essential that diplomatic missions are properly protected and respected, in accordance with the Vienna conventions. The Foreign Secretary, myself and our representatives in the region have been in touch with all sides to urge calm and to de-escalate tensions.

I make it clear, however, that the UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia does not mean that we shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns. We make this point very clearly in public and in private. The Saudi authorities are well aware of our views. I raised them most recently myself with the Saudi authorities yesterday, following the execution of 47 people over the weekend, 43 of whom were Sunni.

As I said in my statement on Sunday, the UK is firmly opposed to the death penalty. Our opposition extends to all circumstances and all countries. We remain firmly committed to advancing the global abolition of the death penalty. Regarding recent articles on the FCO’s “Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015”, I would like to clarify that this document is a general policy guide from 2011, rather than a case-by-case list of countries where the death penalty is applied. A full list of countries of concern was published in March 2015 in the annual human rights report; that includes Saudi Arabia and its use of the death penalty. The Saudi Arabian Government are well aware of our views. We will continue to raise our concerns with them.

We also raised the case of Ali al-Nimr with the Saudi authorities again over the weekend. We expect that Ali al-Nimr and the two others who were convicted as juveniles will not be executed. We will continue to raise these cases with the Saudi authorities.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, not only because of the use of the death penalty, but because of restricted access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. The UK’s position on human rights in Saudi Arabia is a matter of public record.

Founded just over a 100 years ago, Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country and we recognise that change cannot happen overnight. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and, as such, needs to move at a pace that is acceptable to its society, but we believe that we will be more successful in discussing cases privately with Saudi Arabia. We use the strength of our relationship and engagement to encourage reform. We believe that it is more effective to work with other countries to improve and reform their systems than to criticise from the sidelines. We take this approach with Saudi Arabia, as we do with other countries around the world.

When it comes to reform, there has been some recent incremental progress. December’s municipal elections were the first in which women were allowed to stand and vote. Some 21 women were elected. A law on non-governmental organisations was passed in December to create an official channel to enable the formation of NGOs and charities within the kingdom, but there is, of course, much progress still to be made.

Our prosperity relationship is important, but it is only part of the relationship, not our key driver. Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s largest trading partners in the middle east, and the leading middle eastern exporter of goods to the UK. In 2014, exports of goods reached over £4 billion, and exports of services in 2013 reached over £5 billion. UK companies, with the assistance of Her Majesty’s Government, have delivered projects worth over £2 billion so far this financial year in the transport, healthcare and education sectors, but this does not come at the expense of human rights; we can, and do, raise these issues with the Saudi Arabian Government.

Only by working with them are we likely to bring about the change we all desire. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it. He is right to refer to the long-standing relationship between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, to our trade relations, to the vital importance of intelligence and security co-operation in countering terrorism and to the efforts that both countries are making to defeat Daesh brutality. But with the region already in ferment, with the brutal civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the threat from Daesh not only in Syria and Iraq but in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, the Minister must recognise that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other people has caused a major diplomatic and political crisis. Surely the basis of any close relationship must be that the two parties can be honest with each other.

We, too, oppose the use of the death penalty in every circumstance, including what has happened in Saudi Arabia. But we on this side of the House believe that the Saudi Government were profoundly wrong to execute Sheikh al-Nimr, a Shi’a cleric, and three young Shi’a men whose alleged offences appear to have involved taking part in political protests and demonstrations against the current Government. The House will have noticed that neither the Prime Minister’s comments nor the Minister’s statement today mentioned Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by name, and that is a matter of great regret.

These mass executions have caused dismay and outrage around the world. Amnesty International has described Sheikh al-Nimr’s trial as “seriously flawed”, and reported that he was denied the most basic means to prepare for his defence and was not represented by legal counsel for some of the proceedings because the authorities did not inform his lawyer of some dates of the hearings. Does the Minister share those concerns? Can he confirm the basis on which he has just told the House that the Government still believe that the sheikh’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, who was convicted and sentenced to death as a juvenile, will not now be executed, given that his uncle has only just been put to death?

In the last few days, the Saudi embassy in Tehran has been attacked and there has been a breakdown of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Gulf states. This is a very dangerous moment. In agreeing with the Minister’s call for calm and restraint, may I ask what he thinks the implications of this crisis will be for the Vienna talks on Syria? What are the prospects for the urgently needed ceasefire there, and does he still think that face-to-face negotiations between the parties will start by the end of this month? What is his assessment of the impact of all this on the Yemen peace talks, given that the Saudi-led coalition, which has been bombing the Iranian-allied Houthi movement in Yemen for nine months, announced on Saturday the end of a ceasefire that only began on 15 December?

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is increasingly desperate, and many civilians have been killed in airstrikes. There have been reports of potential breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi military, which uses British-supplied weapons, among others. Before Christmas, in the light of those reports, I called on the Government to launch an immediate review of arms export licences relating to Saudi Arabia. Will the Government now carry out an independent investigation into whether there is a risk of UK arms being used in breach of international humanitarian law? I ask this because the Government say that they have urged Saudi Arabia itself to investigate any such breaches of international humanitarian law. Will the Minister tell the House what investigations have been undertaken by the Saudis, and what assessment he has made of their credibility?

Following the cancellation of the proposed UK prison contract, will the Government now publish the memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation signed with Saudi Arabia on 10 September 2014? What discussions have taken place since then, and does the Minister think it would be appropriate now to suspend any co-operation on judicial matters with Saudi Arabia in the light of these mass executions?

Finally, it has been reported that in 2013 the UK assisted Saudi Arabia in its candidacy for a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Can the Minister confirm whether that was the case? If it was, why did the UK Government take that action, given that his own Department’s human rights and democracy report lists Saudi Arabia as one of the countries of human rights concern, relating not only to its use of the death penalty but to access to justice, to women’s rights, and to the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief—all of which this House and our country are deeply committed to?

Before I reply to the right hon. Gentleman’s important questions, may I just say that I am delighted to see him in his place today, following so much speculation? He commands a great deal of respect, and Parliament is all the wiser for his expertise in foreign affairs. I am pleased to see him back in his place.

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of questions, some of which related to the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He mentioned the importance of the work being done in Yemen and in Libya and also in Syria. It is fair to say that we ended 2015 in a better place—marginally—than we started it, so far as the middle east is concerned. We had a ceasefire in place in Yemen. We had agreement around the table from adversaries from Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States and France, and from other participants and stakeholders in Syria, after waiting four years for all the necessary players to work together and agree on the requirements for a ceasefire and a transition process and on the necessary steps to put in place an 18-month approach towards elections. That could not have happened had Iran and Saudi Arabia not come to the table themselves.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out the involvement of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It leads a large coalition—he is fully aware that it is not just Saudi Arabia that is involved there—and had that action not been taken, the Houthis would have moved all the way down to the port of Aden. The consequences of that would have been dire. So yes, Saudi Arabia has participated in the push-back, but it is following resolution 2216, as he is also well aware.

Saudi Arabia is bringing together the opposition parties that have not been at the table at the Vienna talks, and that is absolutely critical. That illustrates the work that Saudi Arabia needs to do. I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees that we need to de-escalate the tensions. We have had confirmation from Saudi Arabia that it wants to continue to participate in the Vienna talks, and I am pleased that the President of Iran has condemned what happened at the Saudi Arabian embassy and at the consulate. That condemnation is important if we are to see a de-escalation of tension.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned arms sales. He is aware that Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself and to participate in UN-approved actions in places such as Yemen. We have in place a robust system of licensing and scrutiny. We will look at any aspect of this where we feel that UK arms have been seen to be used inappropriately. We are working to make sure that the coalition, comprising not only Saudi Arabians but Emiratis, Jordanians, Egyptians and all those who are involved, tries to follow the standards of military engagement that we honour in this country as well.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically asked about—or made reference to—judicial co-operation under the memorandum of understanding. I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), that there is no agreement on judicial co-operation in that MOU.[Official Report, 11 January 2016, Vol. 604, c. 3-4MC.] We are working behind the scenes with Saudi Arabia and we are endeavouring to improve the situation in Saudi Arabia, but this country is pivotal to overall peace in the middle east. Only with agreement to de-escalate the current tensions will we see Iran and Saudi Arabia come back to the table to make sure that we can build on what we did in 2015, in Yemen, in Syria and in places further afield such as Libya.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although this is a complex relationship, the Saudis are often very difficult allies and they often find us very difficult and inexplicable, too? Does he also agree that in a region racked by civil war and political upheaval, they are essential and very long-standing allies and friends, and are not just to be cast aside like President Mubarak?

My right hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this area, makes a very important point. I made reference to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a young state, created in 1932. There was no sense of nation state before that. There was no sense of central Government; rather, there were powerful tribal structures. It remains a mostly socially conservative society, where today’s leadership is on the liberal end of opinion—we must not forget that. We will therefore continue to work with Saudi Arabia to make sure that it moves towards its programme of reforms and modernisation.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. The Independent recently reported that a legal adviser to the Foreign Secretary stated that it was “not at all clear” whether UK weapons sold to Saudi Arabia have been used on civilian targets in Yemen, and a recent legal opinion published by Matrix Chambers has further cast doubt on the Government’s action. I await a response from the Minister to my letter of 3 December, in which I asked for specific reassurances from him that international arms treaty laws have not been breached in the sale of these weapons. I hope he can use this opportunity to give that reassurance to the House.

At the same time, the Minister should explain why the work of this Government on the export of weapons and military equipment has not been subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny by the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Why have they been reluctant to have transparency on this vital matter? We must have a full explanation as to why Saudi Arabia was excused from the UK Government’s five-year strategy towards abolishing the death penalty worldwide, despite its having one of the world’s worst human rights records. Why did that happen? Following the execution of 47 people in a single day last week, does the Minister regret that decision? What representations did the Government make to Saudi Arabia before and after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr?

Finally, let me say that this Government are fast losing any credibility when it comes to supporting human rights around the world. The question has just been asked, but not answered, as to whether they supported Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN Human Rights Council. What role did the Tory-Lib Dem Government play in that process? In addition, and of paramount importance, does the Minister support Saudi Arabia’s continuation in the role?

Let me answer that last point about Saudi Arabia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council first. The UK does not publicise how it votes, and that has been the case under all Governments, but I should say that this election was uncontested so it was very clear what the actual outcome would be. This appointment was made via an internal nomination of the consultative group, and the UK is not a member of that group. I hope that clarifies the British position in relation to Saudi Arabia and the UN Human Rights Council.

I thought I had answered the question about the five-year strategy. I specifically made it clear in my statement that that was written in 2011 and is no longer relevant in relation to the countries of concern, including Saudi Arabia. In dealing with a point about Ali al-Nimr made by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), which I did not answer fully, I can only repeat what I have said over the weekend, as have the Foreign Secretary and our ambassador in Riyadh: there are no reasons why Ali al-Nimr should face execution, and nor should the other youths convicted while they were juveniles.

There should be much to be welcomed from more dynamic Saudi leadership and decision making, but not if it comes at a price of fomenting conflict with Iran. That relationship is key to conflict resolution in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and to stability in Lebanon and Bahrain. The rest of the international community is going to have to pick up the pieces and the costs if the Saudi-Iranian relationship does not have both parties trying to work towards co-operation, not confrontation. Will the Minister assure the House that the United Kingdom’s view that both countries must be working hard towards co-operation and repairing this relationship is our absolute expectation?

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the work that he has done and his interest in this area. I am aware that the Committee visited Tehran recently and has first-hand knowledge of what is happening there, following the nuclear deal. That is crucial: what message are we sending to the people of Iran with this opportunity, after the cold war that they have been through, to participate more responsibly in the region? We want to send a clear and positive message to the people of Iran, which is why it is so important to de-escalate the current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Is it not clear that the Saudi authorities will continue with executions, including beheadings, stonings and even crucifixions, with the British Government saying, in effect, “Naughty, naughty” and continuing to be one of the main suppliers of arms? The record between this country and Saudi Arabia is one that should bring shame to Parliament.

I think I have answered that question very clearly. We do not differentiate in respect of our arms sales; they very much go hand in hand, and we do exert influence behind the scenes, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in other countries. I am sorry that things are not as in the public domain as the hon. Gentleman would like.

It can never be said too often that in highly contested areas of this sort one often has to choose the lesser of two evils. The Minister has painted a convincing picture of the way in which important intelligence tip-offs against Daesh are furnished to this country, but can he use his and the Government’s influence to say to the Saudis that their protestations of opposition to Daesh would carry more weight if there were less support from Saudi Arabia for the spreading of extreme Wahabist ideology through mosques and in countries around the world?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are facing extremism, not just from Daesh, but from a series of extremist operators, including the Khorasan group, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Ansar al-Sharia and al-Nusra. They have one objective in common: to harm the west. It is important that everybody recognises that we will win not on the battlefield, but by winning hearts and minds. Nothing is more important than countries such as Saudi Arabia recognising the work it can do, which it is starting to do, in persuading the extremists and everybody else who might be encouraged to join those extremists that that is not what Islam is all about.

The executions over the weekend, including that of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, must surely raise fundamental questions about the United Kingdom’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. People in the UK have every right to want to know what arrangements we are entering into as a country with another country that has acted with such brutality and with such disregard to the impact of its actions on co-operation across the middle east, especially in the light of the Vienna process and the ongoing conflict involving Daesh. Will the Government now commit to publishing both the memorandum of understanding on security, which was signed by the Home Secretary on behalf of the United Kingdom, and the memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation, both of which have been withheld in full despite Freedom of Information Act requests? Bearing in mind the Saudi Government’s appalling record on human rights, especially the rights of women, will the Government call on Saudi Arabia to step down from chairing the UN Human Rights Council? The Minister carefully avoided condemning the actions of Saudi Arabia over the weekend, so will he do so now? Clearly, Saudi Arabia has a great influence over this Government. Will this Government now prove that they have some influence over Saudi Arabia?

I have made it very clear that we oppose the death penalty—I think that view is also shared by the Opposition—and we continue to engage on the matter at the highest level. Saudi Arabia is aware of our views. The UK is also committed not just to abolishing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but to advancing the global abolition of the death penalty. As a first step towards that objective, we should continue to work with our EU partners in applying the EU minimum standards. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Vienna talks. He seems to want to have his cake and to eat it too. Saudi Arabia is playing an influential role in the Vienna talks. Indeed, one could argue that those talks could not happen without Saudi Arabia at the table. It is very important that we continue to engage with Saudi Arabia and to de-escalate the tension that currently exists between Saudi Arabia and Iran so that we can ensure that the Vienna talks are able to proceed as expected later this month.

One country that is working increasingly with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and particularly Yemen is Sudan, and there are growing relations between Khartoum and the Gulf states. Will the Minister use his influence with Saudi Arabia to put further pressure on the Sudanese President over the human rights abuses in Darfur?

We have wandered away a little bit from Saudi Arabia. None the less, I did have the pleasure of attending the signing of the South Sudanese peace deal in Ethiopia. Clearly, human rights issues were very much at the forefront, and, yes, we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia to encourage change in Sudan.

The Minister made it clear in his statement that there are conservative social values in Saudi Arabia. Does he also agree that there is no excuse whatsoever for the brutal executions, the lack of access to justice and the treatment of women? What confidence does he have that the way in which we are engaging with Saudi Arabia will bring about a visible improvement in its human rights record in the coming months?

I made it very clear in my opening statement that we had concerns about governance, rule of law, human rights and women’s issues. Saudi Arabia is making small progress and taking incremental steps. We will continue to work with it to ensure that it stays on that path.

I commend the Minister for saying that he raises human rights concerns with the Saudi authorities and that he did so yesterday, but will he tell us what he has done to support the Sakharov human rights prize winner and the PEN Pinter prize winner, Raif Badawi, bearing in mind that the Pinter prize is given to somebody who tells the truth about our lives?

The House will be well aware that Raif Badawi is the blogger whose case has been a source of concern for Members across this House. We have raised the case with Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions. I have raised it myself, as has the Foreign Secretary. We understand that Badawi’s case is still in court, but let me make it clear that we do not expect him to receive the lashes that he has been sentenced to receive.

If the name of the game is de-escalation, bringing people around the table and making some progress in this situation, have Ministers made it clear to the Saudis that they could not have done anything more provocative than the 47 executions, particularly the one involving Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, to make the situation worse?

The right hon. Lady’s points are now on the record. Our focus is to de-escalate those tensions. We have a number of regional challenges in which Saudi Arabia plays an important role, and that is what we will focus on now.

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, I have a problem with my hearing.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was clearly a real blunder, strategically, politically and in all senses, and everyone in this House believes that is so. Will the Minister outline what he thinks is good about Saudi foreign policy that helps peace and security in the region?

My hon. Friend allows me to underline the important role that Saudi Arabia is playing in relation to attempting to control a ceasefire under UN resolution 2216 and to supporting the UN envoy Ismail Ahmed’s work in trying to bring peace to that area. Obviously, that is one area of concern. Syria is the other area of concern, and Saudi Arabia is playing a vital role in that regard too. We must also understand Saudi Arabia’s important role and efforts in countering the poisonous message and ideology of Daesh.

I think the Minister owes the House an explanation of why Saudi Arabia was omitted from the 2010-2015 strategy document. He has dismissed the question on the basis that there has since been another list published, but why was it not in the strategy document? Was it an oversight?

I think that the document has been misinterpreted. It was not an exhaustive list as such, as I made clear in my opening statement. Saudi Arabia remains a country of concern, and we remain committed to encouraging and improving human rights in that country.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is indeed a very important ally of the United Kingdom in the region. Although internal order must be a matter for the Saudi authorities, as internal order is a matter for the authorities in the United Kingdom, the draconian crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia has already had very serious ramifications across the region and potentially has serious ramifications for the relationship between our country and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I urge my hon. Friend to impress on our Saudi friends that this is a serious matter and that, in showing leniency, particularly to these young juveniles, they will be doing a favour not only to us but to themselves, and they will be promoting the country as a better example than currently, sadly, is the case.

I am pleased to repeat our concern about Ali al-Nimr and the other youths who were convicted when they were juveniles. We have received reassurances from the Foreign Affairs Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, and from the Saudi Arabian ambassador in London that they will not face execution.

Does the Minister recognise that huge numbers of people across the country will be genuinely shocked by his inability to say that he condemns the actions of Saudi Arabia over those executions? Will he now strengthen his language on that matter? Has his Department assessed the legal opinion published last month by Matrix Chambers which concluded that the Government have misdirected themselves in law and in fact in continuing to grant authorisations for the transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia that are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen?

We have one of the most vigorous export licensing schemes in the world. Indeed, it was set up by the previous Government. If there are any genuine examples of the misuse of weapons systems that have been sold to any country, the process is in place to ensure that they are examined. If such examples are brought forward, we will certainly look at them.

As someone who has visited the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and who perhaps has more constituents working in the kingdom than any other Member in this House as a result of the relationship through the defence sector, may I urge the Minister to impress on our Saudi friends the importance of working with the moderate influences within the kingdom to ensure that peace and stability prevail throughout the region?

My hon. Friend rightly underlines the importance of this bilateral relationship, which is not only commercial but includes academic and medical perspectives and so forth. The more we are able to engage and share ideas, the more we will be able to encourage change, modernisation and adaptation of international standards and the rule of law.

What preparations has the Minister’s Department made for the potential legal action which the Government now face owing to the fact that arms have been exported to Saudi Arabia which, it has been reported, have been used against civilians in Yemen?

I repeat what I just said. Saudi Arabia has a legitimate right to purchase weapons systems. It also has a legitimate right under UN Security Council resolution 2216 to provide legitimate support to the President Hadi in Yemen. Had actions not been taken, as I said, the humanitarian catastrophe in that country, which the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench spokesman rightly mentioned, would be worse than it is, as would the challenges that we face. A port off the Red sea called Al Mukalla—a town bigger than Bournemouth—is now run by al-Qaeda. That is the threat that we face in Yemen. So yes, we must be concerned and aware of any weapons systems that we sell across the world. We have robust systems in place, but let us keep in check how they are used and what the consequences are in the country where they are used.

For any nation to welcome 2016 with a display of mass execution more fitting of 1016 is profoundly wrong. Will the Minister confirm that, as in the case of our deal on nuclear issues with Iran, our relationship with Saudi Arabia will not prevent us from continuing to press human rights issues, in particular the oppression of religious minorities, and that all nations in the region which are expressing concerns about that in Saudi Arabia should look to eliminating it in their own jurisdiction as well?

My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to his understanding and knowledge of the area. We are working with Saudi Arabia across a wide range of issues, one of which is religious tolerance.

We have seen a very weak response from the UK Government tonight. We find ourselves allies with one of the world’s biggest human rights abusers. It comes as no surprise to me when we heard at the weekend the Foreign Office use the word “disappointment,” stating that it did not expect the executions to go ahead. I am glad that I have heard tonight that the Minister has been in touch with the Saudi Kingdom and asked for the boys to be spared. The Minister is well aware that I have been campaigning for Ali for months and also for Dawoud and Abdullah, so I call on the Minister to make sure that the Saudi King commutes the death penalties and does not carry them out. Does the Minister seriously think that evidence of successful dialogue with Saudi is that only 47 executions were carried out, instead of 53?

I do not entirely understand the final point that the hon. Lady makes. I pay tribute to her and the work that she is doing in making sure that she raises these issues on the Floor of the House. I take all her contributions extremely seriously. She is aware that I am in constant dialogue over these cases, not just Raif Badawi, but Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and others. We have been working closely together on that and I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to do so.

Saudi Arabia is co-ordinating the Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism, a coalition of 34 nations brought together to help defeat Daesh, in addition to the Vienna talks. Iran is not one of the 34 nations, and it is difficult to imagine how that coalition will be able to grow and work effectively, given the increased acrimony and the breakdown in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries, including Iran. How can the Government make sure that this embittered Sunni-Shi’a division does not put the stability of the region and our own safety here at home at further risk from sectarian conflict and extremism on both sides, when we need bold steps towards a Sunni and Shi’a reconciliation?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who I know has huge expertise in this area. She describes exactly the challenge that we face and what we need to do. She talks about the Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism. That is in its infancy. Countries have only just come together. It would make sense for Iran to be involved in that. The first meeting took place just before the new year. Further meetings are planned. It is a positive move that countries are now looking towards the longevity of their own security.

Is not the problem that the Saudi authorities are prepared to ignore diplomatic niceties, the Minister’s disappointment and a statement in the Foreign Office’s report in July about its continued concern over death penalty use in Saudi and the fact that the Foreign Office regularly raises the issue with the Saudi authorities unilaterally and bilaterally? Well, that’s worked, hasn’t it? Is it not time for the Saudi authorities to face concrete action from Britain, such as an end to arms exports, rather than continued expressions of concern? [Interruption.]

I am reminded of Labour’s policy towards Saudi Arabia over 13 years. We must have clear and precise rules on the export licensing schemes around the world. We cannot do it by whim or by choice, according to whether a country is flavour of the month or not. There are rules that we follow. Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself and to purchase weapons systems. No country has the right to purchase weapons systems from us and then abuse them or use them incorrectly. The licensing scheme then kicks in and makes sure that the sales are revoked.

It is clear that countries in the region ought to be doing more on the Syrian refugee situation. What discussions have Ministers had with the Saudi Government on that?

It is worth paying tribute to all the countries in the region that have taken on a huge commitment to look after refugees fleeing persecution not just in Iraq, but in Syria. That includes many of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. My hon. Friend’s question allows me to pay tribute particularly to Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken the largest burden.

The executions last week were shocking and deeply troubling. May I place a different emphasis from that of some of my colleagues and urge the Minister and the Government only to enact measures that will be effective in improving the Saudis’ record on human rights, acknowledging the dangers that bellicose statements from the west—from infidels—can sometimes make matters significantly worse in a situation where the Saudi Government themselves are fragile and could at some time be replaced by a far more brutal regime? We would not forgive ourselves, nor would we be forgiven in the country, if our actions resulted in a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship that stopped the vital intelligence that could have prevented a fatal attack on our shores.

The hon. Gentleman articulates very well the challenge that we face. I pay tribute to his interest in and knowledge of this area. He is right. I described the leadership today as being at the liberal end of opinion in that country. He uses a different form of wording. There are huge challenges that we face in the middle east, and different ways that we can provide support and influence the country. We can use foghorn diplomacy, stand back and shout from afar. That does not work and has not worked in the past.

The greater prize for both traditions of Islam is reconciliation, and one has only to ask the families returning to their homes in Tikrit and now Ramadi to see that. This escalation of tension could reverse some of those hard-won victories. Has the Minister or the Foreign Secretary had any discussions with our American allies—with Secretary of State Kerry—and is he or the Foreign Secretary planning to go to Saudi Arabia and Tehran to help de-escalate the situation?

Yes, huge efforts are taking place behind the scenes, involving many countries. My hon. Friend speaks about Ramadi. I place on record the importance of the capital of Anbar province now returning to the Iraqis. That shows that Daesh is on the back foot. The next step is Mosul. That will be significant for Iraq, which my hon. Friend knows well. It is important that that country is able to change the laws on de-Ba’athification and the national guard. If that does not happen, all that work will be challenged.

I think that most of us would agree that last week’s dreadful executions in Saudi Arabia reinforced the case for a global abolition of the death penalty. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that our democratic allies in the west also adhere to that? Will he strongly make the case to Americans in the southern states of the US, many of whom have a deep concern for religious freedom, that their support for the death penalty in their country weakens the case for a global abolition of the death penalty and for religious freedom worldwide?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. I reiterate our commitment to advancing the global abolition of the death penalty, whether in Saudi Arabia or in the United States of America.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is indeed hardly alone in practising judicial killing, but this latest bloodbath suggests a regime under some kind of pressure. What contingency planning does the Minister think should be done for the potential geopolitical consequences of the regime falling, given that it would do so swiftly and brutally, not unlike the Shah in 1979?

We are very much focused on de-escalating tensions between the two countries, for the reasons I have outlined, not just for the benefit of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but because there is much to be gained from getting back around the table and working on the progress made in 2015 to deal with the challenges in Syria and Iraq, and indeed in Yemen.

The international reaction to the executions was entirely predictable, not least from Iran. Given the precarious nature of the Vienna process at the moment, what confidence does the Minister have that the Saudi Government are committed to pursuing that process? Why does he believe that that commitment is still there?

It is not just Saudi Arabia that we put pressure on to deal with human rights issues, and indeed with the death penalty; we also put pressure on Iran, which executes far more people—that point has not yet been made today. However, the reaction from President Rouhani, and indeed from Saudi Arabia, recognising that they must encourage and continue regional discussions on these other issues, has been noted. Flights and diplomatic relations have been broken off, but we have been given assurances that those who wish to can continue to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

The execution of Sheikh al-Nimr has had disastrous consequences and is a gift to Daesh. Has the Minister made a calculation of the effect of the failure to deliver a straightforward condemnation on relations with other regional powers?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that Daesh benefits when there are disagreements between the regional players, which is why it is important that we de-escalate tensions.

The Islamic scholar and cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was described by our US allies as someone who promoted democracy, justice and peace. I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment to those values, but we really do need more than a statement of disappointment—a rather perverse manifestation of the British understatement. Given that promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia now appears to be a capital offence, can he outline exactly what the Saudi Government would need to do to draw an official censure from the Dispatch Box?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to link two different conversations. Two and two does not equal five. The fact that those who promote democracy are now facing the death penalty is incorrect. We will continue to build our relationships with Saudi Arabia to encourage the reforms that we would like to see, as I articulated in my statement.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest threat to human rights in the region is ISIL-Daesh and that we must not be naive about the threats faced by allies such as Saudi Arabia? Therefore, as well as putting pressure on them to improve their human rights record, we must also help them to do so, and we must stand by them.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that needs to be underlined in this Chamber. The organisation that is the most brutal in its failure to recognise any form of human rights is Daesh. It plays upon that fact, promising a better life to those who are attracted to make the journey to its self-imposed caliphate. It is a false promise; to the girls and boys who end up there, and on what happens when they eventually die, because they will not go to heaven and be rewarded for their actions.

The Minister referred to our close relationship with Saudi Arabia but said that that should not mean that we shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns. Does he understand that the concern that many people have, both in this House and across the United Kingdom, is that commercial considerations are doing precisely that? What can he say, and what can the Government do, to ensure that commercial considerations are not being put ahead of human rights concerns, both for religious minorities and females?

I touched on that in my statement and have made it very clear that no aspect of our commercial relationship with Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, prevents us from speaking frankly, and indeed openly, about human rights challenges. We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights; they can and should be complementary.

My hon. Friend quite rightly refers to Saudi Arabia as a key ally, and to the emphasis on preventing further executions, so can he make it clear to the House what efforts were made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in advance of the executions to prevent them taking place at all?

We were not informed when the executions would take place, and once they did we were in touch with the authorities immediately.

The Minister said that the UK Government had no role in securing the chairmanship of the United Nations Human Rights Council for Saudi Arabia. Following the execution of 47 people in a judicial process widely deemed to be grossly unjust and deeply flawed, and with the threat of execution hanging over Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon, will the UK Government now be lobbying to get Saudi Arabia to stand down from that chairmanship?

It is particularly concerning that, notwithstanding assurances that have been given, death sentences remain in place against a number of juveniles, including Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. Will my hon. Friend pursue all available means to ensure that those executions do not happen?

That is now our priority. It has been the subject of many conversations that we have had with the Saudi authorities, not least the Foreign Minister and the embassy. The assurance that we have received is that those executions will not take place.

Do the UK Government realise that unless western powers have a consistent approach to foreign policy in the middle east, particularly on human rights, there is no hope for a lasting peace? With that in mind, elementally, what is the difference between Islamic terrorist groups beheading people and Saudi Arabia beheading its political opponents?

What Daesh is doing is beheading everybody who does not believe in it. But Daesh is not a state, so the influence that we can have in defeating it and its ideology is well documented—indeed, it was debated and voted upon in this House. Our approach to Saudi Arabia has again been discussed here today. We are committed to removing the death penalty, and not just in Saudi Arabia; we are working with other countries to see it removed across the world.

The dreadful events last week have made a complicated situation even more challenging and tested fragile relationships in a region where we need to see peace. What reassurance can the Minister give the House now that he is in proper contact with our allies—notably our European allies and the United States—to bring more influence on making sure that human rights are a priority and that, above all, peace is introduced?

The two issues are absolutely related. We need to encourage Saudi Arabia and other allies that need to make progress in this area and work out the best strategy for providing that support. That is exactly what we are doing. We are also in discussion with other Gulf Co-operation Council countries, the Arab League, the United Nations and the European Union to work together on how best to support the introduction and improvement of human rights, governance, the rule of law and women’s rights as well as the important issue of the freedom of the press.

Both Amnesty International and Save the Children have recently produced reports on the conflict in Yemen, expressing concern that UK-sold arms are being used by the Saudi coalition in breach of international human rights law. Does the Minister accept that if that is the case, the UK could be found to have been complicit in war crimes? What steps is he taking to investigate those reports and make sure that that is not the case?

The hon. Gentleman is asking me a hypothetical; I am not going to go down that particular road. I will say, as I have repeated, that if there is genuine intelligence evidence to suggest that weapons systems—not just in this country, but anywhere—have been abused, our robust export licence scheme will absolutely kick into place. I met representatives of a number of NGOs that operate in Yemen who raised concerns in the same vein. Again, I make the request to let us see the intelligence, then we will investigate it ourselves.

I have visited Saudi Arabia and met its parliamentarians and Ministers; one made it clear that one was against the death penalty and called for religious freedom. However, may I ask the Minister for clarification on this point? Has he seen the article by Joseph Braude from the Foreign Policy Research Institute? He said that many of those executed in Saudi Arabia along with Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr were members of Hezbollah al-Hejaz—a sister wing of Hezbollah that has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union. Some colleagues have said that there was peaceful protest, but has the Minister seen the other side of the coin, which indicates that some of those involved had taken part in terrorist activity? I do not know the answer; I am simply seeking clarification. Linked to that issue, has the Minister seen a statement from al-Qaeda and Daesh calling for open revolt and for people to take up arms against the Saudi Government? We have a common enemy in Daesh and al-Qaeda in that respect.

I have not seen the article and would be grateful if my hon. Friend passed it on to me. He makes an important point about the charges against these people. I underline, however, that we do not believe that the death penalty was deserved, whatever the charge. Britain has stood by that position for some time. As an interim step, there are EU standards that could be introduced. I hope that Saudi Arabia will take heed of that.

In ascribing a key role in the Syrian process to Saudi Arabia, the Minister is dressing a wolf in sheep dog’s clothing. Does selling sophisticated armed technology to that regime blind the UK Government to the primitive barbarism that it continues to demonstrate? Is there any excess by that regime that the British Government will not offset by scraping the barrel of political excusery?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; he has his views. I make it clear that the two are not mutually exclusive: we are able to have a legitimate, recognised and transparent arms export scheme, which includes Saudi Arabia, but that does not prevent us from having very frank conversations—public and private—about issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia and other countries as well.

I welcome the recent appointment of our new chargé d’affaires, Nicholas Hopton, to Tehran and I hope that before too long our two nations will have full diplomatic relations. Does the Minister agree that maintaining and strengthening diplomatic relations, even with countries with which we have substantial differences of opinion, is absolutely the best way to have those difficult conversations about human rights and democracy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to the knowledge and experience in this area that she brings to the House. In February, there will be elections to the Majlis in Iran. We are hoping that the signing of the nuclear deal will allow a moderate grouping of MPs to be elected, which will encourage greater representation of the voices of the Iranian people. We very much encourage that.

Saudi Arabia is 12th on the Open Doors World Watch list of countries where it is difficult to live as a Christian. In February last year, 12 Ethiopians, worshipping in their own house in private, were arrested, questioned and deported. In a Westminster Hall debate on international human rights in the second week of December, I brought to the attention of the Minister the issue of the 28 Christians—women, children and a few men—who were also arrested. For the record, I should say that those people disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabia and there has been no explanation of where they have been.

On that day, I asked the Minister whether he could find out what had happened. I am concerned about the welfare of those people, as I am about the welfare of all Christians in Saudi Arabia, and other Members are also concerned. Will the Minister take up those issues directly with Saudi Arabia and give Members the answer we need?

I am very happy to take that request away. I place on the record my acknowledgment of the hon. Gentleman’s understanding, expertise and commitment to encouraging greater tolerance in matters of religion across the middle east—and, as we discussed this morning in Westminster Hall, south-east Asia as well.

The Minister says that any incidence of the use of British weapons against civilians in Yemen will be investigated. Is the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Saada region being investigated, as Saudi planes were identified as having been involved?

First, I recognise the work that the hon. Lady has done as a doctor in various areas of conflict; she brings huge knowledge and expertise to the House.

The concerns about the misuse of military equipment are about where kit has been used, collateral damage has taken place and that has not been admitted to. When the Saudi Arabians—not only them; 10 other countries are involved in the coalition—have put up their hands to collateral damage having taken place, the necessary compensation has been paid. That is the correct process. Our concern, which has been articulated in the House, is whether the weapons are being used deliberately and indiscriminately to cause harm from a height and there has been no follow-up whatever.

The Minister is simply not facing up to the revulsion felt by British people at this outrage. He should have acknowledged and condemned it at the start of his statement, and he did not. He says it is important to deal with Daesh, who are executing their cultural and religious enemies, yet we are sitting down with a state that is executing—beheading—its cultural and religious enemies without proper trial. Is it any wonder that people around the country, including members of the all-party group on the abolition of the death penalty, are concerned and suspicious that Saudi Arabia is not on the FCO strategy list of 30 countries where we are trying to abolish the death penalty?

First, I acknowledge the work of the all-party group, which I would be delighted to meet if that would be of help in looking into these matters in more detail. This prompts the question of how we best exert influence. Do we shout from afar; do we back away from any relationship that we have, right across the piece, and expect change to happen in that way; or do we follow our current strategy, which was articulated and shared by the Liberal Democrats when they were in government as well, of being able to work behind the scenes to get elections so that women are now elected, and NGOs and charities are now represented, to allow this very young nation state to take the necessary steps towards the place where we want it to be?

This very young nation state is about the same age as the nation state of the Republic of Ireland. I do not think we would excuse murder by the authorities in the Republic of Ireland on the basis that it was a young country, nor indeed in the nine member states of the European Union that did not exist in the early parts of the 20th century.

We are discussing a brutal and violent outrage perpetrated by an unelected dictatorship against its own citizens, and the public record will show that the Minister chose to say that he was very concerned about the reaction to that outrage before he even mentioned the outrage itself. Given that we are dealing with a regime that has made it perfectly clear that it is more than willing to murder its own citizens, not, in a phrase that will be familiar to the Minister, because of anything they did but because of who they were, does he accept that if the rules on arms sales allow such a brutal regime to receive arms from the United Kingdom, then those rules have to be changed with immediate effect?

Again, this goes to the strategy of how we can best influence what is going on. We condemn state murder wherever it takes place, whether in Saudi Arabia or any other countries across the world. I have made that absolutely clear. We stand firm in wanting to advance the global abolition of the death penalty, and that will not change.