(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia.
I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, as he is currently at an engagement at the palace. The Prime Minister has invited the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman, to visit the United Kingdom. We are delighted to welcome him and his delegation on his first official visit to the UK, which is taking place from today until Friday.
During the visit, the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince will launch a new and ambitious strategic partnership between our two countries, which will allow us to discuss a range of bilateral matters and foreign policy issues of mutual interest. The UK Government have a close and wide-ranging relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s third fastest growing market for exports, and we continue to work together to address regional and international issues, including Yemen. The visit will allow for a substantive discussion between the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister on the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, and how to address the humanitarian crisis.
The UK fully supports the Crown Prince’s social and economic reform programme, Vision 2030. His visit is an opportunity for him to underline his vision of an outward- looking Saudi Arabia, one that embraces a moderate and tolerant form of Islam, and a more inclusive Saudi society. This includes greater freedom for women, in line with the recent statements and reforms made by the Crown Prince. We believe these reforms are the best course for Saudi Arabia’s future security, stability and prosperity, and it is right that the UK supports the Crown Prince in his Vision 2030 endeavours.
Further to the exchange in Prime Minister’s questions, may I say that there will be widespread concern across parties about the fact that the dictatorial head of a medieval, theocratic regime is being given the red carpet equivalent of a state visit? May I ask specifically whether the Foreign Secretary will be demanding the ending of the bombing of civilian targets in the Yemen civil war, which Prince Mohammed initiated? Can the Minister explain why the safeguards on the use of British weapons, which were introduced at the end of the coalition at my insistence and that of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, are, apparently, no longer being applied? Will the Foreign Secretary insist on the ending of the blockade of ports in Yemen, which is contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis and famine, of which we have heard much in this House? Will he defend the nuclear agreement with Iran, to which we are a party and which Prime Mohammed is actively seeking to undermine? Will he condemn the attempt by Prince Mohammed to fan the flames of sectarian conflict in Lebanon, Syria, Qatar and elsewhere? Has the Minister consulted the Government Economic Service on the current economic position of Saudi Arabia, which is no longer a swing oil producer and is running out of money, and where the main potential long-term deal available to the UK is the Saudi Aramco flotation, which will be achieved only by substantially devaluing the standards applied in the City of London?
Finally, on the threshold of International Women’s Day, may I ask whether the Minister intends to endorse Prince Mohammed’s view of modernisation: that women should be allowed to go to football matches, but not be allowed to marry, divorce, travel, have a driving licence or have an operation without the approval of their male relatives?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. His starting point and opening view of Saudi Arabia represents one of the reasons why the Crown Prince is here. The right hon. Gentleman used the word “medieval”, and the Crown Prince has been conducting a series of reforms and has made clear statements about where he wants to take the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Everyone is aware of its history and its past, but it is really important to look at what is happening at present—good things as well as difficult things—and to point the way forward that he has with Vision 2030, both in economic and society terms. When he speaks about a modernising country supporting moderate Islam, that should be taken as seriously as any reference to the Kingdom in the past.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions. He referred to the war in Yemen as being “initiated” by Saudi Arabia, but that is not correct. What happened was that an insurgency overthrew a legitimate Government, which was backed by the United Nations, and then sought support from their neighbours in order to deal with the insurgency. The insurgency is cruel: the Houthi have executed a number of people, not least the former President of Yemen; they hold people to ransom in areas that they occupy; and they have been preventing people from getting humanitarian aid. We support the efforts of the Saudi-led coalition in order to defend Yemen against the insurgency and, more importantly, to bring the conflict to an end. That is the most important thing, but it will take both parties to do this, not just the Saudis. On weapons sales, these are as strict as any in the world, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, and there was a court case last year. We keep this under strict check to ensure that international humanitarian law is abided by and to make sure we can provide the support to Saudi Arabia that it needs to protect itself, not least in relation to weapons directed from Yemen towards its capital city—that should also not be forgotten.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a blockade. There is no blockade; there are now no restrictions on the ports—the ports are open. There was a restriction from 19 December, following a missile attack on the capital of Yemen by Houthi forces. There is a strong suspicion that weapons were being smuggled into the country. That is why the restrictions were in place. Since 20 December, a total of 50 ships have docked, and the ports are open.[Official Report, 12 March 2018, Vol. 637, c. 3MC.] The UK has played a substantial part in ensuring that those ports are open and that humanitarian aid comes in. We will strongly defend the joint comprehensive plan of action, which we believe is in the UK’s interests and those of the region.
On the economic prospects of Saudi Arabia, we know the area is changing, and that is what Vision 2030 is about; it is about moving, in time, from an oil-based economy to something different. This provides tremendous opportunities for the region, as well as for Saudi Arabia, and we strongly support that. We would like the Aramco share option to be issued in the UK and we will continue to suggest that the City would be the best place for it.
Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned International Women’s Day. It is of course obvious to us that some of the easing in things relating to women in Saudi Arabia seems incredibly mundane—the ability to attend a football match and for the cinemas to be open, the mixed space and the ability to drive—but in a Saudi context, and in the context of a conservative region, these changes have immense significance. We do not always appreciate that, but we need to make reference to it. That further progress seems likely is very much in everyone’s minds, so we should not judge the progress to date as a full stop. The engagement of women, not only in the areas we have mentioned, but increasingly in business and in government, makes a real difference to the area. International Women’s Day is enhanced, to a degree, by the sorts of changes we have seen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Members can be sure that our Prime Minister will make sure that that progress gets every support from the UK as we move forward.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his comprehensive answer to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable). Is my right hon. Friend as surprised as I am that the question was shorn of the context of the scale of the reforms now taking place in Saudi Arabia? May I urge the Government to continue our assistance to the Government of Saudi Arabia in order to deliver the astonishing scale of ambition associated with Vision 2030?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly sets this in context. No one denies that there are difficult aspects to a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as there are with a number of engagements the UK has with countries whose views and human rights issues we do not always share. But the important point he made is about having engagement to seek a common view of a future, one that, as he rightly says, is changing markedly and in a way that no one quite anticipated because of the arrival of the Crown Prince in his position. He could well have an influence on the region for the next 30 years, and our engagement and support for the moderate, modernising image he has for Saudi Arabia is important to all of us.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it, even if it was ahead of my own application.
Let me make it clear at the outset that the Opposition want to have a good diplomatic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia. But, as in any good relationship, there must be honesty. Most importantly, we must tell Saudi Arabia that as long as it continues the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas, farms and markets in Yemen, and as long as it continues to restrict the flow of food, medical supplies and fuels to a population suffering mass epidemics of malnutrition and cholera, it should not expect our support for that war and its Crown Prince does not deserve to have the red carpet rolled out for him here in Britain.
Let us look at the man to whom the British Government are bowing and scraping today. He is the architect of the Saudi air strikes and the blockade in Yemen; he is funding jihadi groups in the Syrian civil war and ordered his guards to beat up the Prime Minister of Lebanon. In the eight months since he became Crown Prince, he has doubled the number of executions in Saudi Arabia. But we are supposed to ignore all that because of his proposal that Saudi women be allowed to drive, just as they can everywhere else in the world.
The UK Government pretend to care about human rights and war crimes, but when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is nothing but a shameful silence. We all know that that is because all that they ultimately care about is how to plug the hole in trade and growth that is coming because of their Brexit plans. If the Minister wants to dispute that, will he answer one simple question? When are the Government going to stop bowing down to Saudi Arabia and instead use our role as United Nations penholder on Yemen to demand an immediate ceasefire, an end to the blockade, proper peace talks and a permanent end to this dreadful, shameful war?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her words. She started well by talking about wanting to welcome a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Should she actually occupy my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s position, she might want to review some of the personal comments that she made after that and wonder how that would constitute a decent start to the relationship that she wants to see.
Let me get to the substance and deal with one or two of the right hon. Lady’s questions. First, there is not indiscriminate bombing of civilians, as has been alleged. It is vital that we make sure that, in dealing with the military aspects of the conflict, which was not started by Saudi Arabia, we are able to see that, in terms of international humanitarian law, there is only the targeting of legitimate military targets. The United Kingdom has been as helpful as possible in trying to make sure that the training for that is appropriate. When there have been allegations of civilian casualties, those cases have been dealt with, monitored and investigated in a manner completely different from that in respect of Houthi activity, which I noticed the right hon. Lady did not seek to condemn in any way at all.
On the humanitarian issues, as I indicated, there is not a blockade or restriction of goods coming in. It is important that commercial food and fuel gets in. It is equally important that those who have had missiles targeted at them after those missiles have been smuggled into Yemen are able to protect themselves. We have worked hard to try to ensure that there is protection for Saudi Arabia from missiles coming in and, in doing so, to give Saudi Arabia the confidence to allow more ships to come in to deal with the humanitarian issues. That seems to me to be a constructive way to deal with both sides of the issues, rather than the straightforward condemnation that we heard from the right hon. Lady.
In respect of the current reforms in Saudi Arabia and those going forward, the right hon. Lady reduces them to de minimis by saying that it is all about women driving. As I indicated to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), who I have to say asked a rather more serious set of questions, the issue of women’s progress is not simply about driving; it is about a whole series of other reforms. Driving has a totemic importance for many people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but should not be taken as the sole thing that is changing.
There has been no silence from the United Kingdom on Yemen. We have been very clear about the fact that there is no military solution, which is why we have been working so hard for a diplomatic solution, why we welcome the newly appointed UN envoy, whom the right hon. Lady did not mention, and why we are doing everything we can to try to make sure that there is a diplomatic base. All our evidence is that ceasefires work when there is some relationship on the ground that makes them plausible and feasible. Because of the activity of the Houthis, those who support them and those who direct weapons at Saudi Arabia, it is not possible for there to be a ceasefire with any sense of purpose or sense that it would actually work. What we must do—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister of State is in full flow, and we are listening to the flow of his eloquence and the eloquence of his flow. I say very gently to the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is normally a most restrained individual, that I understand how incredibly passionate she is but feel sure that in a courtroom she would not chunter noisily from a sedentary position, because she would earn the wrath of the judge.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Let me be straightforward: calling for a ceasefire is not the same as having one. We all want to see an end to the conflict in Yemen, and we have said that very clearly to the Saudi coalition. We support the appointment of the new UN envoy and we are working for a ceasefire, but simply calling for one does not do it. We have to make sure that we have the facts on the ground so that we can make sure that a ceasefire actually works.
It is all very well for the right hon. Lady to shake her head, but she is not faced with some of the issues that face Government Ministers on this issue, and nor is she giving full credit to the efforts that are being made to try to bring this matter to an end. She is not the sole holder of conscience in this place as we deal with the difficulties of trying to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. That is what we are seeking to do and we will continue to bend all our efforts to that, with or without her support.
Order. I am happy to confirm that neither “Erskine May” nor any Standing Order of the House prohibits the shaking or, indeed, for that matter, the nodding of heads.
Ah, another person who has been noisily chuntering from a sedentary position. She can now speak from her feet. I call Anna Soubry.
I would never do such a thing, Mr Speaker.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I am a feminist. When I was a Health Minister—serving in the same Government as the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), I might add—I had the honour to lead a delegation to Saudi Arabia, as a woman, obviously. At no time did I find any prejudice or disrespect, and I was quite surprised about that.
I commend all my right hon. Friend the Minister’s fine words. Does he agree that although we are obviously a long way from seeing in the Kingdom the sort of rights that we would expect of any modern civilised society, the best way to achieve those rights and to influence that country is to have firm conversations and a good relationship in private?
All I would say to the right hon. Lady, in the friendliest possible spirit, is that if in the course of her visit she met, for example, a prince, it might well be that that person thought that he was meeting a fellow royal.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) for her regally dispensed question. I absolutely concur with her sentiments. We do talk very frankly and honestly to counterparts, even in the most difficult circumstances. It is right that we express our interest in how reforms are going. They will not lead to a society that we have developed after many hundreds of years, but the progress that is being made is significant in the context of where Saudi Arabia wants to go and how it wants to lead the region. To talk about moderate Islam in an area where those who promote moderate Islam are at risk and threatened by others takes a degree of bravery and courage from the Saudi Arabian leadership. That is what we recognise. There is more to go, more work to do and more concerns to be expressed, but as my right hon. Friend said, making sure that it is done with engagement is a key part of the process.
I thank the Minister for once again coming to the Chamber to answer this urgent question. He will be aware that Yemen has been described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. Members have been quite right to highlight the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow. Will he also be raising the plight of women in Yemen, who, it has been reported, often have to choose which child to save owing to the cholera and famine effected by that conflict? The UK has leverage. Since the start of the war, UK arms sales have outstripped aid to Yemen 18 times over. Will he use that leverage? Finally—this is a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald)—will he have discussions about the fact that Raif Badawi is not a criminal?
I will, if I may, address two issues. In relation to Yemen, no one denies the scale of the humanitarian crisis. I have met officials from the UN, the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation, and we are as confident as we can be that support to prevent the next round of cholera will be in place. Of course, none of it should be necessary. If the conflict were ended, these concerns would not be raised, and that, of course, is what we are bending all our efforts to. I genuinely wish it was as straightforward as saying to one of the parties to the conflict—to the party that did not start it—“if you stop doing anything, everything will be all right.” I honestly do not believe that that is the answer, which is why we work through other methods and other means. We have done all we can in relation to providing food, fuel and water and supporting those who deliver it, but the restrictions are caused by the conflict. They are caused by those who support the insurgents and what they have done, and we will do all we can to break that down. We do indeed raise the case of the blogger. We have followed that case very carefully and raised our concerns with Saudi Arabia.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the Crown Prince’s statement that his goal is to build a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world? Will this Government be encouraging and influencing them to follow through on this and build on their recent social reforms?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As I mentioned earlier, that statement about moderate Islam is something that we would all take for granted here, but we should set it in a context in which there are disputes about where Islam should go, what we have seen in relation to Daesh, and the propaganda that emerges from those who would see Islam taking quite a different course. The fact that the statement comes from someone who will, in time, be the custodian of the two holy mosques is really very significant, and she is right to draw attention to that.
We all want to see a modernised and moderate regime in Saudi Arabia, but according to the charity Reprieve, the Government have called for an additional eight executioners to be recruited. Meanwhile, 18 people, mostly young, some of whom were arrested on demonstrations while they were children, remain on death row. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will be raising their plight with the Saudi Prince while he is here?
The United Kingdom stands full square against the use of execution and against the use of the death penalty, and whether it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, including the United States and China, we make that explicitly clear. We do take up cases. We have been concerned with those cases where minors might have been indicted, and we have received assurances in relation to them. There is no doubt that if reforms continue in relation to the changing of the nature of offences that attract the death penalty, which seems to be one way in which its use can be reduced, the United Kingdom will welcome that. None the less, we stand full square against the use of the death penalty in any circumstances.
Those of us who have been to Saudi recently have seen how quickly things are changing in such a deeply traditional country. With International Women’s Day tomorrow, does my right hon. Friend agree that, actually, this is a good opportunity to welcome the progress being made on rights and opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The purpose of parliamentary visits, in which many Members engage, is to get an opportunity to see the context of a country. It is not about being given a grand tour of easy options, but about getting the chance to ask difficult questions. In my experience, Members of Parliament take that opportunity fully. To be able to observe, as my hon. Friend has, some of the palpable changes in where women are going and to speak to women now involved in culture, music and business, is to see where the country intends to take itself, and a woman’s voice in where it is going is an important one and increasingly heard.
My constituents, from Garnethill to Strathbungo and Dumbreck to Toryglen, have all been emailing me with deep concerns over the hospitality being afforded to the Saudi royalty against the backdrop of children regularly killed by the bombs that we are selling them. What more are the Government doing to ensure that the Saudis carry out the full implementation of the UN humanitarian response plan? Children in Yemen are dying far, far too frequently every single day and Yemen just cannot wait.
I agree with the hon. Lady—no, of course, Yemen cannot wait. As I said earlier, if I believed for a moment that asking one party to the conflict simply to stop its activities would bring an end to it, then we would all advocate that solution, but I do not believe that that is the case. There must be a negotiated end; it should come as quickly as possible, and we have been pressing for that for some considerable time. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to ease the humanitarian situation, and we have seen an easing of restrictions, particularly since the visits of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to Djibouti and to Riyadh in December, where she was able to explain to the coalition exactly what the international community was doing to seek to protect them. That led to an easing of the restrictions straight away, but nothing will truly help the people of Yemen until the conflict comes to an end. On that, she, her constituents and all the rest of us are absolutely right.
Order. I am very keen to accommodate remaining colleagues, but there is another urgent question to follow. We are immensely appreciative of the fund of knowledge and wisdom that is regularly on display from the right hon. Gentleman, but perhaps I may be permitted gently to observe that there is also no procedural or Standing Order bar, where appropriate in the mind of the Minister, on single-sentence answers to questions.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the social reforms already undertaken by the Crown Prince, and can he confirm that the Government will be encouraging the Saudi authorities to go further in this regard, because the very best way to influence them is to keep the door open? Let me also say, out of interest, that 52% of all graduates in the Kingdom in 2017 were women. There are 30 women members of the Shura Council, which proportionately is more than in the Senate. Of particular interest to me is the fact that, in the transformation plan, there are some very, very positive moves on the environment, and these will have a far-reaching effect not just on the people of Saudi Arabia, but indeed globally.
No doubt in Taunton Deane.
As I could not put it any better myself, may I say that I agree with my hon. Friend, and that the United Kingdom will continue to give support in the direction that she advocates.
Does the Minister share my fear that people in positions of responsibility may unwittingly put themselves on the side of prolonging, and indeed potentially worsening, the crisis if they, either by deceit or by design, choose to ignore areas where the Kingdom has, in part, corrected what were at times deplorable mistakes in its initial conduct of the conflict?
The hon. Gentleman has a deep knowledge of the area and the complexities involved. The conflict requires handling with balance, as do any of these difficult circumstances. We are right to understand the cause of the conflict, right to understand concerns that have been raised in its conduct, and right also to acknowledge that things have changed because of international pressure. Ultimately, when there is a situation in which an insurgency brings in external forces to attack a state, it could lead to an unfortunate set of consequences for the future if that state left the situation undealt with. That is why we want to see the matter resolved, with the safety and security of Saudi and Yemen at the heart of a future peace arrangement.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the intervention of Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen was at the request of the legitimate Government of that country? Does he also agree that the principal insurgents, the Houthis and their allies, Hezbollah, are funded and supplied by Iran whose actions are significantly prolonging the conflict in that country?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his observations. Although the circumstances in Yemen are indeed dire and call for a conclusion to the conflict, not to understand the origins of the conflict and how it was started—the call for help and assistance by the legitimate Government—would be to fail to understand how the conflict can properly be brought to a conclusion. That outside influences have been involved, causing great danger, and great fears and concerns, in the region is also extremely clear.
The Minister mentioned the two holy places. Hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of British citizens aspire to go or will go on the Hajj. During these discussions, will he be raising the issues about their security, and the way in which they are treated? Will he also emphasise the importance of Saudi Arabia revitalising the Arab peace initiative for a middle east peace settlement?
I would say two things. First, in relation to the Hajj, I do not know what is definitely on the agenda for each detail of the talks, but the hon. Gentleman and the House can be assured that the safety of those going to Hajj from the United Kingdom is always important, and often raised by the ambassador; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knows how important that is to all who undertake the pilgrimage.
On the Arab peace initiative, yes, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am really interested in how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might respond to anything we see soon from the US envoys. The Arab peace initiative, which lies at the basis of potential solutions, as it has for some time, remains very much in the minds of those who want to see peace between the Palestinians and Israel.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has channelled hundreds of millions, if not billions of pounds into the violent end of Islamic extremism all around the world. In my right hon. Friend’s assessment, has that approach shifted visibly under the Crown Prince?
The short answer to that is yes. We are all well aware of recent history, and that elements in Saudi Arabia may have been involved in elements of violent extremism. I think the setting of the Crown Prince’s face and his state against that, by calling for moderate Islam and for a modernisation, which flies in the face of those very extremists, is making clear the way in which Saudi Arabia wants to deal with its past and seek an alternative future.
There is no mention at all of human rights in the Crown Prince’s modernisation programme, Vision 2030—perhaps not surprisingly, as more than 300 people have been executed since it was launched, including children and peaceful protesters. I was not sure whether the Minister said that the issue of executions, beheadings and crucifixions would be raised with the Crown Prince. May I ask that it is, and specifically the issue of the juveniles who have been on death row for many years—Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher?
I made clear to the House a moment ago the United Kingdom’s feelings about the death penalty—that the issue is raised, that it is not our policy, and that it is not a policy that we support in any state. We have raised the case of the minors, seeking a situation where they might not be executed. That matter remains very much a matter of concern to the United Kingdom, which is why we talk about it publicly and raise it privately as well.
It was self-evident earlier that Houthi propaganda has been remarkably effective. Is there anything we could learn from that?
I defer to my right hon. Friend in his knowledge of propaganda and how it might be used. I am not sure whose voices are listened to most in relation to this matter. As the Houthi are not a state, because of history, it has been very easy to target the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in this case. A more comprehensive picture of the conflict would perhaps lead to different conclusions. The conclusion, however, that we all want the conflict to end, so that there can be a durable peace and better security for the people of Yemen, who deserve better governance than they have had for some decades, is a matter of importance to us all.
In the last month there has been huge disruption in access for international aid into Yemen’s ports on the Red sea. Given that that is primarily caused by Saudi Arabian blockades, will the Minister ensure that it is brought up with the Crown Prince as a matter of urgency, and that it is a serious objective of the UK Government to reopen those ports and allow access for humanitarian aid to the 22 million people in need of urgent assistance?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I gave the House a moment ago. The restrictions were imposed because of the Saudis’ quite legitimate concerns that weapons, or weapons parts, that are directed against them are smuggled into Yemen. We wanted to give the assurance that we would do all we could to try to prevent that, and that in the process the restrictions on ships coming in could be eased. We have seen an easing of those restrictions. The ports are now open. Fifty ships have docked since the restrictions were imposed in December, and we shall do all we can.[Official Report, 12 March 2018, Vol. 637, c. 4MC.] The United Kingdom has taken a leading part, both in reassuring the coalition about the direction of missiles towards it, and in making the point about the crucial and urgent need for both commercial and humanitarian aid to enter Yemen.
In seeking to explore the context for a ceasefire, does the UK believe that Iran has broken any United Nations sanctions?
Yes; I thank my hon. Friend for the question. The UN panel of experts held very clearly, within recent weeks, that Iran had not been able to demonstrate that it had abided by UN resolution 2216, which is about the availability of weapons going to Yemen. That was what caused concern about the breach of UN sanctions. It emphasises again external interest in Yemen. That should also come to an end as part of a comprehensive peace agreement.
Over the past 24 hours, my inbox has been flooded by messages from constituents who want to see a ceasefire in Yemen, and the Minister has just said a number of times that the Government want an end to the conflict in Yemen. How does he square that circle, though, when this Government have been facilitating £4.6 billion-worth of arms sales, making us complicit in Yemen?
I understand the question. I repeat that the relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in terms of its defence and its place in a difficult and quite hostile region, is long-standing. In relation to Yemen, any arms exports are covered by extremely strict legal guarantees and the scrutiny of this House and the courts.
In relation to ending the conflict, as I said, it is not as simple as saying to one party, “Stop doing this and all will be all right.” When they have on their borders those who have made incursions into Saudi Arabia before, and when they have missiles directed at them, I do not think it would have any credibility. Accordingly, we must continue to do all we can, through the UN, to bring an end to this conflict. Military pressure on a Houthi insurgency has been part of that process, but clearly, as we have said before, we do not see a military solution to this; we see a process leading to negotiations and an end to the conflict as soon as possible.
The Crown Prince has been absolutely clear that he wants to build a moderate, modern future for Saudi Arabia. The whole House would want to see him achieve that. Does the Minister agree that the best way to bring that about is to work with him and to assist him, not build diplomatic walls between our two countries?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is indeed the point of the engagement, which, I can again assure the House, covers the very positive parts of what is happening in Saudi Arabia, such as reforms and modernisation, but does not shy away from the difficult things that I know are on the minds both of Members and their constituents.
It is right that we engage with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and it would be unrealistic to suggest that we do not. A number of us have a concern around the attitude to freedom of religion—people’s right to practise their own faith in the Kingdom. Can he reassure me that such issues will be raised during the visit to the UK?
Freedom of religion is a particularly difficult issue because of Saudi Arabia’s position as the custodian of the two holy mosques. We are absolutely clear: greater tolerance throughout the region, one faith for another, is crucial if the region is to move away from the path of confrontation on which it appears set. There will always be a voice here for tolerance of other faiths, and for progressive moves towards freedom of faith throughout the region.
I refer to my entry in the register. I know it will embarrass my right hon. Friend, but can I invite him to comment or reflect upon this? Relations between countries will often depend on the quality and diligence of our diplomatic ambassadors overseas. We are very lucky to have a first-class ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He has converted to Islam and undertaken the Hajj, and I have seen at first hand the close, honest relationship that he has with the Government of Saudi Arabia. He is a pinnacle and best example of our diplomatic corps, and this House should be grateful to him for helping to occasion this important visit, which certainly I welcome.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that. Behind all the efforts of Ministers at the Dispatch Box is an extraordinary diplomatic team, of which our ambassador in Riyadh, Simon Collis, is a perfect example. I fully endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said. I would also mention Simon Shercliff, who has just stepped down as our ambassador to Yemen, and all the efforts that he made, and we wish Michael Aron, the new ambassador to Yemen, very well. It is a first-class team and is representative of a first-class team throughout the region, which I have the honour to represent.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I gather it relates to the exchanges that have just taken place.
I would like to put it on record, for clarification, that I went on a delegation to Saudi Arabia. I want to be quite clear about that.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for putting that on the record. The House will appreciate it.