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Saudi Arabia: Diplomatic Relations

Volume 660: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2019

6. What recent discussions he has had with his Saudi Arabian counterpart on the UK’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. (910871)

I most recently met Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs al-Jubeir on 25 April and I also visited Saudi Arabia on 2 March. We have a long history of co-operation in support of regional stability, alongside frank conversations on areas of concern, including Khashoggi and human rights.

According to his Minister, the Saudi Government’s execution of 37 people was simply

“a deeply backwards step, which we deplore.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 749.]

But that is only one of many of the Saudi regime’s crimes, including responsibility for up to 60% of civilian deaths in Yemen. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with my concerned constituents that, when it comes to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UK should put morality before profit and end these sales?

Well, we do, which is why we have some of the strictest arms export restrictions of any country in the EU; last year, 226 export requests were refused. The executions to which the hon. Gentleman referred are barbaric. I referred to them and discussed them at some length with the Saudi Foreign Minister when he came here on 25 April. This remains a human rights priority country and we do raise these issues regularly.

Is there a point where our proper concern for the Realpolitik will be overtaken by alarm at the shocking behaviour of the Kingdom?

There are many things that concern us about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, and we call them out. This year, for the first time, we are hosting a ministerial-level conference on media freedom, which was in part prompted by the appalling murder of Khashoggi. We also have to recognise that we have to work with a number of countries in that region if there is to be peace and stability, and Saudi influence has been very important in the ceasefire that is beginning to take root in Yemen; it started last weekend.

Ministers repeatedly reassure the House of the representations they make to Saudi Arabia on human rights and, in particular, on the execution of dissidents. Can the Foreign Secretary give us one or two examples of where these representations have been successful: of lives that have been saved?

What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that in the case of Saudi Arabia there is a big domestic reform agenda, the Vision 2030 process, which has involved, for example, allowing women to drive for the first time and allowing women to travel abroad more freely. There have also been some releases of women’s rights activists. Whether that is as a direct result of British pressure or not, I cannot say. But do we make those representations? Yes, we do.

Perhaps the greatest role for the Foreign Office is to be peacemakers. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with Saudi Foreign Ministers, and indeed with the Iranian Government and other Governments in the middle east, to try to encourage ecumenical dialogue between the Shi’a and Sunni traditions within Islam?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the UK, because of our historical links in the region, can play a positive role in bringing peace to troubled corners. The best example of that is what has happened in Yemen. Despite the fact that the conflict was started by the Houthis four years ago, I was the first western Foreign Minister to meet the Houthis—I met them on both 13 December and 1 March. I was also the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen to see the other side, the Government of Yemen. We have played a constructive role in a ceasefire that appears to be taking root.

Following on from the earlier answer, I am glad that the Foreign Secretary appreciates the Labour Government’s achievement in bringing in the strictest rules on arms exports, but my constituents will want to know why, given the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the fact that it is one of the countries of concern for his own office, we are granting any export licences at all.

Let me explain to the hon. Lady what those rules are that Robin Cook introduced in 2001. They are stricter than the European guidelines and say that we do not give arms export licences if there is a risk of a breach of international humanitarian law. That judgment is made by someone at arm’s length, not by a politician, and the Foreign Secretary and Trade Secretary then take that assessment into account when they make the decisions. That is a better system than one that politicises these decisions. It is a Labour process that we are sticking to and the hon. Lady should be proud of it.

Given the continuing crisis in the Mediterranean sea, with many hundreds still fleeing and making the perilous journey across that seascape, what issues are the Government raising with Saudi Arabia to try to ensure that it offers some practical and sensible help for people in the Mediterranean?

We do have discussions on that issue, particularly in respect of Libya. In fact, I met the Libyan Prime Minister at the end of last week, and Saudi Arabia has made generous offers when it comes to financial assistance to try to stabilise the situation in both Libya and Yemen. That is another example of the benefits of having a practical relationship with a country like Saudi Arabia.