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UK-Saudi Arabia Joint Military Exercises

Volume 660: debated on Monday 20 May 2019

1. What joint military exercises UK armed forces personnel have conducted with Saudi Arabian armed forces in the last three years. (910966)

I would like to pay tribute to Guardsman Mathew Talbot of the Coldstream Guards, who was killed on duty on 5 May in Malawi while taking part in a counter-poaching patrol. Our thoughts remain with his family and friends at this difficult time. I also wish to pay tribute to my predecessor for all the work he did for our armed forces, and to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In the past three years, UK armed forces have conducted four exercises with Saudi Arabia: in 2017 and again this year, Exercise Desert Soldier; and in 2018 a Gulf Co-operation Council exercise, Gulf Shield, and an exercise, Saudi-British Green Flag.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks and welcome her to her place? Saudi officers are being trained in the UK. Any UK steps to stop Saudi committing further human rights abuses must be seen in that context. Thousands have already been killed by Saudi forces—the UK influence did not stop them. Does she agree with me and with her colleague , the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who is the Minister for Europe and the Americas, that Saudi actions are “deplorable”? Will she review our training and co-operation with Saudi armed forces?

I would say that all we do with the Saudi military is in compliance with and promoting compliance with international humanitarian law. I would ask the hon. Lady: does she think the world would be a better place if we did not do that?

May I be the first from the Conservative Benches to congratulate my right hon. Friend on her very well-merited promotion and to wish her well for the future? Does she agree that it is in the UK’s interests to continue intelligence and security co-operation with Saudi Arabia, as with any other Gulf allies that feel threatened by Iran or Iranian proxies?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I was Minister for the Armed Forces while he was Secretary of State and I learned a great deal from him. He is absolutely right to say that we have joint interests, and it is quite right that the UK continues our defence partnership with Saudi Arabia.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place—the first woman to hold the post. May I also associate my party with the comments she made about Mr Talbot and his family?

Saudi Arabia is one of the most human rights-abusing countries on the face of the earth, particularly for women and for other minorities. Of course, the right hon. Lady remains the Minister for Women and Equalities. Is it not time to start unpicking this close relationship, not least in the light of today’s revelations on the front page of The Times, which tell us that her Department is freelancing when it comes to torture policy?

An urgent question has been granted on the last point and I hope to provide the House with some reassurances at that time. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I feel very keenly that women around the world who need our support—human rights advocates and human rights defenders who are out there trying to get reform in their nations—need the UK to lean in to those nations, not retreat from our relationship with those nations.

The problem is that we are leaning in with the arms trade to those nations. All the stuff the Secretary of State has just outlined about continuing the nature of the relationship has not led to any change on women’s rights or gay rights, or for those who are members of different faiths, so is it not time that she stood at that Dispatch Box, nailed her colours to the mast, restated our values, unpicked that relationship and said that we will have no part with a regime that chops the heads and hands off people for simple crimes?

I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman with my track record in my previous post, when I went to Djibouti, got the shipping records of the traffic that was being held at Hodeidah port and then presented those findings to the commander of Saudi forces. Only by engaging and having dialogue with those individuals and those nations will we get better things to happen.

When I was in the Saudi air operations centre recently, I spoke to Saudi pilots, who were a very impressive lot. I asked them about their rules of engagement. I looked at those rules and they looked remarkably similar to rules of engagement the Royal Air Force would use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are pretty strict?

That concurs with what I have seen and, indeed, with reports that are in the public domain. We know that our training has assisted individuals in making judgments, while operations are going on, that have prevented civilian casualties. There is more to do with other nations as well, but it is absolutely right that the Royal Air Force and others in our armed forces are trying to get good practice to happen in targeting and other areas.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and echo her comments about Guardsman Mathew Talbot—all our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.

One reason why Labour opposes any future joint exercises with Saudi Arabia is what Amnesty International calls the “widespread” and “common” use of torture in the kingdom. As we have heard, today’s Times newspaper reveals that the MOD is willing to share intelligence with states like Saudi Arabia, where there is a real risk of torture, provided that

“the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences”.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position urgently and state categorically that the MOD is opposed to torture in all circumstances?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I will go into more detail on the matter when I respond to the urgent question later, but that is the Government’s policy. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about our training with Saudi Arabia, just as the leader of the Labour party has been wrong on the Falklands, on Sierra Leone, on Syria, on Kosovo, on Russia and on Crimea, and wrong about Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the IRA. That is why decisions about national security should remain with a Conservative Government.