Thursday 18 July 2019
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia and the detention of opponents of the regime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time in Parliament to debate our relations with one of the most important operators in one of the most important regions in the world. Saudi Arabia is a dominant force in the Gulf—an area of significant importance to this country—a significant trading partner, and a significant partner in security and intelligence matters.
I am not naive about how we should approach these matters; I am aware of how politics in the Gulf works. I chair the all-party British-Qatar group, and last year I was a guest of the Kuwaiti Government in that country. Those matters are fully disclosed in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is right that we recognise, applaud and encourage progress on standards of governance and human rights. I approach human rights in that region in a spirit of humility. I am aware that many of the things for which we criticise Gulf regimes were part of our society and law just a few decades ago, or are even part of it today. On workers’ rights and standards, for example, let us not forget that for all the legislative and regulatory standards that we have in this country, not long ago several dozen cockle pickers perished in Morecambe bay as a result of the fact that they had been engaged illicitly.
Even with all those caveats, when I look at Saudi Arabia today I see a bad human rights situation, and I regret to say that it is getting worse. This is an area where the United Kingdom Government, as a partner of the Saudi Arabian Government in commercial and security and intelligence matters, can do more. They should be looking at some of their current actions.
I will focus on people being held as political detainees following the mass arrests on 4 November 2017, others who remain in detention subject to capital punishment, and our assistance to and engagement with Saudi Arabia. It is well known that on 4 November 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrested several hundred of his political opponents, as he probably saw them. It was a mass arrest, and those arrested and detained were rounded up and taken to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I have to say that of all the accommodation that could be afforded to those who get on the wrong side of the regimes under which they live, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh is probably not the worst. None the less, it remains a serious matter, not least because it highlights one of my main concerns: the lack of proper regard for the basic norms of international and domestic law. As a consequence of that arrest programme, there was a process of forced transfer of assets totalling approximately $100 billion, we believe. Many of those held have been tortured, and there have been fatalities. We understand that approximately 200 detainees remain in custody as a consequence of the Crown Prince’s move.
Those who remain in detention without clear legal status include Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the former governor of Riyadh and son of the late King Abdullah. He is obviously seen as a key political rival of the current Crown Prince. He remains in detention without charge. His associate, Faisal al-Jarba, is also in detention without charge. The Washington Post reported in June that Jordanian authorities detained him in Oman, where he had fled to seek safety; they eventually drove him to the Saudi border and handed him over to the Saudi authorities. Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Mohammad—both businessmen—have remained in detention since January 2018 without charge or trial. Their arrest was believed to be in retaliation for their representations and advocacy on behalf of detained family members. Beyond that there is no clear basis for their continuing detention. The Government have not frozen any of their assets or asked for financial settlements.
My requests of the Government and the Foreign Office are fourfold. We should ask, first, for proof of life of those who were detained. On 12 March 2018, the New York Times report said that Ritz-Carlton detainees required hospitalisation for physical abuse. Major General Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, later died in custody. Reports suggest that his
“neck was twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken”
and his body had burn marks that appeared to be the result of electric shocks. To this day, Saudi Arabia has not offered any official explanation of how al-Qahtani died, although it is interesting to note that on 7 November the President of the United States tweeted:
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing....”.
Sometimes, when he takes to Twitter, the President manages to say so much more than I suspect he intended.
Secondly, we should ask for clarification from the Saudi authorities about the specific charges on which those who remain in detention are being held. That is a basic norm of international law: a person should know the basis on which they are being held and the charges should be for recognisable crimes. As an absolute minimum, they should be given the specific grounds for their arrest and be able to contest their detention fairly and promptly before an independent and impartial judge, with appropriate legal representation, and there should be periodic reviews of their case. Those who are detained in the Ritz-Carlton and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia receive none of that most basic legal entitlement.
Thirdly, we should ask that people who are not charged with a crime be released. Again, that is a basic principle of international human rights law. In its general comment on article 7 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated that
“provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognized as places of detention”—
presumably not normally including five-star hotels—
“and for their names and places of detention, as well as for the names of persons responsible for their detention, to be kept in registers readily available and accessible to those concerned, including relatives and friends.”
Fourthly and finally, we should ask the Saudi Arabian Government for the release of frozen assets that are currently held illegally. If the assets have been frozen without any proper legal basis, surely we should be saying that they should be returned, unless formal charges can be brought. These are not extravagant requests, and they are the very least that we should be taking to the Saudi Government if the relationship we have is meaningful and not one-sided.
As the House is aware, on 23 April this year there was a programme of 37 executions, including, we understand, one by crucifixion, following two mass trials: the Qatif 24 case and the Iran spy case. This matter was ventilated fully as a result of Mr Speaker granting an urgent question, so I will not rehearse the detail at this time, but there is one aspect I want to remind the House about: three of the detainees who were executed were children at the time of their detention and charge. Capital punishment for children is absolutely forbidden under international law.
That remains relevant today, because, according to Reprieve, there are currently at least three detainees in Saudi Arabia who are subject to conviction awaiting execution. Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawoud al-Marhoon were all arrested in 2012 following anti-regime demonstrations held in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. All were under 18 at the time of the alleged offences. In international law that makes them children and makes their execution illegal. All were tortured extensively while they were detained and forced to sign false confessions to serious crimes, punishable by death, on which the trial courts later relied to convict them.
The three men were not informed of their charges or presented with an arrest warrant. All were held in solitary confinement for long periods, during which time they were given no access to legal representation. Their families did not know where they were and they could not contact them. All were tried at the specialised criminal court, which has been widely criticised for failing to meet the basic standards of a fair trial and for its use as a tool of political repression. Despite widespread international condemnation, the Saudi authorities have never investigated the serious allegations of torture. Having exhausted all domestic legal remedies, the three now await execution, unless they can receive pardons from King Salman.
The United Kingdom has a long-standing and distinguished policy of opposing the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. Surely, if that policy remains meaningful, it demands that representations of the strongest and most public sort be made to the Saudi Arabian Government on behalf of these three young men. That is a common theme in all the representations I have received from organisations that provided briefings for today’s debate. Yes, the Government will say the right things in this country, but they say them privately and they do not say them loudly and publicly enough when it comes to their dealings with the Saudi Government. In relation to the Khashoggi killing, we have seen that the Saudi Arabian Government will take heed and will respond to international pressure and criticism. Surely we should not be leaving it until the executions have happened to criticise them. We should be doing that while there is still a prospect of bringing these three young men relief and mercy.
That raises the question why all this should matter to us in the United Kingdom. We know there are many regimes across the world that are similarly despotic and, in some cases—although probably not many—even worse in their human rights abuse and their use of capital punishment than Saudi Arabia. I do not want this debate to be an exercise in hand-wringing on the international stage and saying, “Isn’t this dreadful.” It has to be an open and honest examination of how we see these issues and what we, as a commercial and security intelligence partner of Saudi Arabia, are prepared to do to help to effect meaningful change.
The Government are often criticised for not being active enough. I have heard other concerns and received from Reprieve a compelling briefing, which argues that the problem is not just that we are not saying enough, but that sometimes what we do aids and abets the conduct I have described. Reprieve has brought it to my attention that the UK College of Policing has provided forensics training to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior since 2009; I have commented publicly in the House about this before. In 2016, Reprieve obtained documents from a proposal by the College of Policing to extend its training of Saudi police to areas including cyber-security, mobile phone analysis and IT digital forensics, including data decryption and the retrieval of deleted files. These documents show that the college accepted that there was a risk that
“the skills being trained are used to identify individuals who later go on to be tortured or subjected to other human rights abuses.”
They decided that these risks could be “mitigated” by the college, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, preparing a press statement emphasising that the forensics training is part of a wider programme to assist the Saudi authorities move to democratic policing methods. That was a thin defence in 2016. Having seen the events in 2017 and the mass execution of 37 people earlier this year, I am afraid that that defence simply does not stand anymore. Will the Minister tell us what attitude the Government now take to the relationship between the UK College of Policing and Saudi Arabia?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are going to assist the Saudis on technology in this way, at the very least our Government should in response press for the immediate release of all political prisoners and, pending that happening, seek proof of life of those who have been detained?
I did not realise that my right hon. Friend was behind me, so I do not know whether he was in the Chamber when I made exactly that point about those who are detained in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Getting proof of life is crucial. That is something that we should not have to demand; it is something that should be provided routinely. If Saudi Arabia wishes to move among the developed nations of the world as an equal partner, that is something it should wish to take on board for itself.
An investigation by The Daily Telegraph this year revealed that hundreds of Saudi police officers were trained in Britain in 2018, despite the risk that the skills acquired here could be used by the regime to commit human rights abuses. With no transparency about the training taking place, it remains entirely unclear what safeguards have been placed on this assistance to ensure that it does not contribute to severe human rights abuses.
Furthermore, real questions hang over continued UK funding in Saudi Arabia through cross-departmental funds such as the integrated activity fund. The IAF is a cross-departmental fund earmarked exclusively for co-operation with Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, on security and justice assistance. Under the auspices of the Foreign Office, the IAF is overseen by the Gulf national security secretariat implementation group, which consists of representatives from Departments responsible for delivering the Gulf strategy, including the FCO, the Home Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for International Trade, the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
We know, because the Foreign Office has confirmed it, that the IAF’s allocation is £80 million over the current spending review period. What we have not heard from the Government is any detail on how the programme uses its funds. I would like at least an explanation for that basic lack of transparency. For a fund that covers only six countries, unlike the 90 countries covered by the conflict, stability and security fund, for example, the Government refuse to provide any details of the breakdown of spending across the country or within the region, claiming that no breakdown is possible, since:
“Many of the projects and programme activity are delivered regionally”.
In any circumstance, that would be a pretty thin defence, but in the context of everything that we know and see to be going on in Saudi Arabia, if that is where the British taxpayers’ money is being spent, at the very least we should be given a proper explanation of the spending and not some obfuscation according to accounting practices.
The Government continue to refuse to provide any information to parliamentarians about the use of IAF funds in Saudi Arabia. That, of course, raises real questions about why the Government refuse to provide that information in this age. If there is to be a bid for the IAF to continue beyond 2020, which we understand is already under consideration, surely it is critical that Members of this House get answers on just what the funds are being used for and what safeguards exist to ensure that they will not lead to further and more egregious abuses of human rights.
I have three final questions for the Minister. First, will the Government confirm that the Foreign Office will make urgent representations to its Saudi counterparts to ensure that the three individuals currently on death row in Saudi Arabia will have their sentences commuted and receive a full pardon? Given the inadequacies of the process that has brought them to this point, if the Government are serious about a policy of opposing the death penalty in all circumstances, that is the very least we should do.
Secondly, will the Government commit to publishing information on all programmes currently engaging with Saudi Arabia, including the programme documentation and assessment frameworks, and assessments under the overseas security and justice assistance guidance? Thirdly, will the Government commit to providing full breakdowns of all projects funded under the integrated activity fund, including the countries and institutions receiving funds under that programme, and details of each project’s human rights assessment under the overseas security and justice assistance guidance?
It is all very well to stand here, in the comfort of the House of Commons, and criticise Saudi Arabia for its human rights, but I am pretty sure that, if we were to go out and ask anybody we stopped on the street here what they thought of the treatment of detainees and citizens in Saudi Arabia, they would be pretty appalled. I think they would actually be angry if they knew that money paid by taxpayers in this country was being used in such a way that it could contribute to and abet those human rights abuses, and that no explanation for that would be forthcoming. That is why I think it is important that the House debates this subject today. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time, and I hope that we will have time to hear the fullest possible answers from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I congratulate him on securing this debate.
I will concentrate on the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s motion, human rights in Saudi Arabia. I will do so by tackling one issue in particular, that of modern slavery. We have set a significant agenda for dealing with modern slavery in this country, but I have also had experience of dealing with it overseas. In my role as a trade envoy to Nigeria, I have been there specifically to try to sort out the problems of modern slavery, and I have had successful meetings there that have gone a long way toward sorting them out. I have also mentioned before my experience there with Unilever, which has eradicated modern slavery from its entire supply chain. There is a lot that we can do, if I may use that example to talk about what we want to do on modern slavery in Saudi.
Our definition of modern slavery is a situation in which people are exploited for criminal gain. That sounds very simple, but it hides the enormous impact that it has on the human rights of the individuals who are exploited. I have a background in human rights from my membership of the Council of Europe, which I share with you, Mr Evans, and it is interesting to see the matter in that context.
Hon. Members may be aware of pictures sent around on Saudi social media of two Moroccan women who were sold as housemaids for lump sums of cash. They were described as being able to cook local meals and as loving children and so on, but they were sold for cash. Saudi human rights organisations point out that this is modern slavery, explaining that the women were severely restricted in what they were able to do and were also sexually abused. We should all bear that firmly in mind.
In Saudi Arabia, women working as housemaids, as in this situation, or simply as domestic helpers are not only from Morocco, as those two women were, but from other developing countries such as Ethiopia, India and the Philippines. Numerous cases have come to light in recent years of domestic helpers, particularly female, being treated in this way and finding themselves with great problems. A system of law in Saudi Arabia called the kafala system provides some legal structure to this, but it is a tissue of a legal structure that does not provide any substance of protection for the women there. The owners—they are classed as owners—remain responsible for the visas and residence status of the women for the duration of their stay. That system has come under huge amounts of criticism from human rights organisations, which object to the restrictive and abusive relationships that the women are put through.
Such advertisements for women have brought further attention to other cases of mistreatment of women, including other Moroccan women, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In one example, a Moroccan woman who married a Saudi man was raped by her husband and then imprisoned in their house after trying to report the crime. Her being released from that captivity required her to appeal directly to Morocco’s King. Those are good examples of how prevalent modern slavery is in Saudi Arabia. It is not only Moroccan women but American women as well. I am aware of American women who married Saudi nationals, live in Saudi Arabia and are subject to a situation in which other people completely rule over what they do.
Those people have all the rights that we associate with ownership. The women were forcibly abducted or kidnapped, in clear violation of the laws of other countries, and of court orders of other countries in some cases. They have been removed from those countries, far beyond the enforcement powers of the courts within those countries. They have been hidden away in family compounds for years, deprived of even a basic standard of living, including being deprived of a choice of religion, spouse or, for younger women, a choice of their age of marriage. They are denied freedom of movement and they are subjected to torture.
The stories are pitiful, and we should have tremendous sympathy for those women, but sympathy is not enough. I have explained what I have been doing in other countries. The Government can take a firm stance in raising those issues with the Governments of other countries and bringing to attention the plight of those women. It should not only be the King of Morocco who is required to do this; we should be doing it as well.
Many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia report abuse, but they are not allowed to change employer or, indeed, to leave the country without the written consent of their employer. During the year, numerous migrant workers report being laid off, sometimes after months of non-payment of salaries, and some remain stranded in Saudi Arabia without the money to move. An American study of this phenomenon revealed a lot of details, but the Saudi reaction was illustrative of the modern-day approach to dealing with a problem. They did not try to tackle the problem head-on. All they did was try to rubbish the report, which we typically see today; whether in response to antisemitism or whatever, the people who respond to reports simply choose to rubbish them and do not tend to engage. That illustrates all too well the problems that we have here.
Sadly, a number of women in this situation have been forced to work as prostitutes, even though prostitution is not officially allowed in Saudi Arabia. We should stand forcefully against any system that forces women into prostitution. We should not sit by and allow our relationship with Saudi Arabia to continue without taking up those issues and making a great point of those problems in the course of that relationship.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I sincerely congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on his comprehensive account of some of the crimes and misdemeanours currently being carried out by the Saudi regime. I will emphasise one or two of his points, but I will endeavour not to repeat them.
It is probably now a truism to say that the Saudi regime operates, to a large extent, outside civilised norms, the rule of law and due process, and does not, in many cases, recognise the right to a fair trial. It is not unique in those respects—indeed, it is not unique in the Gulf region; its closest allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are equally guilty in many respects—but that does not excuse what it is doing. A lot of the current cases date from immediately after the Arab spring and the crackdowns that occurred in those countries, including some of the cases of juveniles who were arrested and who are still incarcerated and face the death penalty.
However, it is also undoubtedly true that the situation has become worse since the accession of King Salman and the increase in power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. We now look with great irony at the way they were fêted as reformers and as those who would undo a lot of the anachronisms and anomalies of Saudi society. There is little sign of that in the area of women’s rights. The response to women’s rights defenders who protested not only the driving ban, important though that is, but against the whole guardianship system has been the arrest, detention and torture of prominent individuals.
Of course, the issue that gained the regime in Saudi Arabia notoriety around the world was the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Again, there is no contrition there and no real willingness to co-operate with the UN special rapporteur or the international community in investigating that. Indeed it has simply been swept under the carpet.
The treatment of the Shi’a minority population has been atrocious over many years, with many people put on trial on trumped-up and vague charges. Most significant was Sheikh al-Nimr, himself the uncle of one of the young men currently on death row but also the most prominent Shi’a cleric in Saudi, who was executed after years of persecution in the mass execution in January 2016. I think it was one of the largest of the recent mass executions—47 people were beheaded or killed by firing squad.
Again, it is outside the scope of this debate, but of course beyond all this are the atrocities being committed, and the breaches of international humanitarian law, in Yemen. It is a shame, but I think it is emblematic of the way the British Government are responding to many of these atrocities that it took victory by the Campaign Against Arms Trade in the Court of Appeal for the Government to look at suspending in any way the sales of arms that are fuelling that war. Even so, it is without any embarrassment that the Government are taking their case to the Supreme Court, no doubt with the intention of resuming sales thereafter.
That is the background to this debate, and I want to focus on a couple of those points. The first, which is particularly shocking, it is not just that many people who in other countries would just be seen as exercising their democratic rights end up in prison in Saudi Arabia, but the fact that it also happens to juveniles. Sadly, a number of young people have been executed, including in the mass execution earlier this year of 37 people, in which three young men who were juveniles at the time of their arrest were executed.
The three who have become a cause célèbre and are still at risk on death row are Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon. Their cases have been raised many times in this House over a period of years. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, I looked back at an urgent question that I was granted back in October 2015. I shall say more about it in a moment, because it relates to a good decision that the previous Government made, but I referred in that exchange to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who has taken a close interest in these matters over a number of years, writing then to the Prime Minister and raising the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, yet four years on there is no less a threat. Indeed, because judicial processes have been exhausted, there is, other than the mercy of the King, nothing standing between him and other detainees and their executions.
These are difficult subjects to deal with, but they have to be dealt with, and the British Government appear to have particular difficulty in dealing with such matters in relation to Saudi Arabia even though they are outspoken in relation to other places. A type of double standard appears to operate. It would be useful to have from the Minister today an acknowledgement that these matters are serious, that they are growing, that the regime in Saudi, far from becoming more tolerant, is becoming more illiberal in these ways, and to hear what response the British Government are going to make. Sadly, as I have said and we have heard also from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, there is continued close co-operation—collusion—with the Saudi Government.
The matter that I was referring to from 2015 related to a prison contract that the UK had as part of a bizarre arrangement set up within the Ministry of Justice called Just Solutions International, which actively went out and sold services, often to repressive regimes, without making sufficient checks. I am pleased to say that, in response to my urgent question at that time, the then Lord Chancellor, who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that he was closing that operation down and withdrawing from the contract. He is to be congratulated on that, but it was one beacon of hope and has not really been followed up in succeeding years. Indeed, there continue to be concerns about the College of Policing and other arrangements whereby respectable UK institutions offer training—it was reported only last year that hundreds of Saudi police officers were being trained—or supervise or in some way give credibility to institutions in which practices such as torture are carried out.
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
No doubt the Government will say, “We respect human rights and we hope that by engaging with these countries we can promote human rights,” but that is not what is happening at all. There is no sign that the engagement is in any way mitigating or addressing the way in which the Saudi authorities operate, so in effect we are colluding.
There is no clearer sign of that than the funds that have been referred to, which are largely opaque; this is within Government. Numerous attempts have been made to identify exactly where the money goes, particularly in relation to the Gulf countries. The integrated activity fund and other larger funds, which are operated through the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, run to more than £1 billion in total, but there is no clarity whatever about how that money is spent. Frankly, that is a disgrace.
I welcome you to the Chair for this debate, Sir Henry. This morning’s statement on detainee issues had really to be dragged out of the Government over the period of a year. It is a matter of great regret that the Government announced that they would not pursue that, despite previous promises on rendition and the Gibson inquiry and the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiries and their inconclusive nature.
There is an unhelpful trend in this Government not to deal with issues that they find embarrassing to themselves or to their close international partners. When I heard the announcement today, I thought, “Well, this is exactly what we heard about Leveson 2: ‘Nothing to see here. We’ve all moved on. No need for an inquiry.’” That is becoming an unhealthy habit of the Government. They should bear it in mind that, even if they are not prepared to confront these matters in this House or in public, they will still come to light and, as with the war in Yemen, there will be legal challenges. I have no doubt that there will be in relation to rendition. We are fortunate in this country to have a tradition of good independent journalism, of good independent non-governmental organisations, some of which briefed us for this debate, and of lawyers who will do that job if the Government are not prepared to do it themselves.
The Minister has set himself up as somebody who does take these issues seriously and wishes to see this country take its human rights responsibilities abroad as seriously as its defence and security and trade responsibilities, so it would be useful if we could see some change of tone and of policy specifically in relation to Saudi. Do we need anything further than what happened to Jamal Khashoggi just last year to raise the alarm about the way that that country is conducting itself in the region and in the world?
I shall end my comments shortly as other hon. Members wish to speak. I end simply by asking again in relation to the detainees on death row in Saudi, and specifically in relation to those who were juveniles when their alleged offences took place, that the Government redouble their efforts and use what influence they have—they say that they have a lot of influence—with Saudi, and that they do so in the strongest possible terms and the most urgent terms, because it could well be the case that at no notice we find that there has been another series of mass executions in that country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the register, not least because I chair a detention review panel examining the cases of Saudi activists for women’s rights. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. Saudi Arabia is an important ally, so it is important that, where she falls short of the standards we expect from countries we strategically stand alongside, we hold her to account.
It is also important to put the question of how we advance and support human rights in Saudi Arabia into the wider strategic context. By most measurable economic and social indicators, the world is improving for the majority of its citizens. Global poverty and child mortality are down. Vaccinations, basic education and democracy are going up. Those are trends over the past couple of centuries. We live in a liberal-democratic-inspired, rules-based international world order, underpinned by NATO, the United States security umbrella and the United Nations, based on those structures established at the end of the second world war.
Overall, we expect those structures to advance human rights, but we now have to recognise that those structures are under immense strain. First, there was the missed opportunity of the fall of the Soviet Union, which has been replaced over the past 30 years by an increasingly like-for-like security structure in Putin’s Russia. Additionally, in the middle east we witnessed the failure of the Arab spring to advance the political and human rights of those on the wrong end of governance in the pre-2011 middle east, except perhaps in Tunisia and Morocco.
Strategically, the main challenge we face is the rise of China. If we fail to secure China’s place in the rules-based international order, it will be to our peril, and it will not only have implications for the nation states who immediately abut Chinese regional power in east Asia, but have a direct effect on basic questions of advancing human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia. If our policy serves to drive our allies into the open arms of China and Russia to provide for their hard security, we will do nothing to advance and support human rights, collective political rights and government accountability in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which have also been mentioned. It could seriously damage accountable progress.
This is a perilous time for human rights. This debate rightly highlights that Saudi Arabia is a human rights priority country for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has been for several years. Disengaging from its political development and security will only help more authoritarian countries, which place less value on the rule of law, to become the dominant paradigm in the world.
I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I believe the cancellation of the Just Solutions International contracts, which engaged in the Saudi justice system, particularly in the management of offenders, is profoundly to be regretted. I believe in the merits of interdependence. I believe that the police and justice training that we support should be delivered as far as possible. If we can do that, and sell to countries our experience—particularly the experience of the Ministry of Justice’s retired senior prison governors and probation officers—at economic advantage to the United Kingdom, so that they can improve their systems and import some of the human rights accountability, which we take for granted, it is likely to be of significant benefit overall, both financially for the United Kingdom and, more importantly, for the values we want to promote in those societies.
I said in my speech that I am pragmatic about these things and where progress is seen, it should be applauded and rewarded. The difficulty is that where there is no accountability, it is difficult for us to know how effectively our money is being spent. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the refusal to account for the money that is being spent, as I referred to in my speech, is not good enough for the taxpayers of this country?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It does not only apply in this area. When I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, I served on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, which made a report about the inadequacy of accountability in the conflict, stability and security fund, for example, and the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the integrated activity fund. We ought to have accountability for public money; it is a basic requirement of our responsibility as we levy taxes on our constituents.
Having made the case for co-operation with Saudi Arabia, I recognise the flipside. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Saudi Arabia, I feel particularly pained by the current situation. In my 22 years as a Member of this House, I have defended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s important relationship with the United Kingdom. A few years ago, I had hoped that the Kingdom was taking a bold new step forward when Mohammed bin Salman—first as Deputy Crown Prince and then as Crown Prince—effectively assumed the majority of the Executive power in Saudi Arabia.
The moves of the Crown Prince towards economic reform, with Vision 2030, were accompanied by wider apparent social reform: the removal of arrest powers from the religious police, the formal preparation of legislation to ease male guardianship laws and granting women the right to drive. There is genuine potential for modernisation under that programme. However, if the price turns out to be the closure of any emerging political space, any overall societal gain will be heavily reduced, if not negatived altogether.
We must be beyond disappointed by the series of events over the past two years that have led to where we are today. There is a wretched contradiction between the recent societal liberalisation in Saudi Arabia and the detention of the people who campaigned for those changes. Saudi Arabia has been commended for allowing women the right to drive, for the opening of cinemas and other entertainment places and, as I said, for ending the religious police’s power of arrest. They were all immensely important to the freedom one has to conduct one’s life in Saudi Arabia, but if in parallel the activists who for years had advocated those changes are arrested, such incredible detention and this disastrous series of events must be challenged, not least by the friends of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who recognise the importance of that nation as a regional ally. Pushing for successful reform should not lead to prison. The Crown Prince would be well advised to recognise the truth of the aphorism used by President Ronald Reagan that there is no limit to what we can achieve if we do not mind who gets the credit.
This year, I have worked with the hon. Members for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on a detention review panel for the female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. I accepted the task because I believed that I would command the confidence both of Saudi Arabia and of its critics for fairness. I am trying to demonstrate in this speech that I hope to see both sides of the question. However, I was disappointed that the Saudi Government did not welcome independent oversight of the detainees’ conditions in detention when, by all measures, the Crown Prince ought to be proud of his fellow countrywomen for sharing his desire to advance reform in Saudi Arabia. I am sure the Saudi Government wish to resolve the issue. I can at least record my pleasure that, to date, the Saudi Arabian authorities appear, temporarily at least, to have released four out of the 11 women detained last year. Hopefully more will follow, as the Saudi Government must realise that the decisions leading to the activists’ detentions and the appalling circumstances and death of Jamal Khashoggi must be rectified to save the country from itself. If the lessons are to be learnt and we are to honour Jamal Khashoggi’s life’s work by ensuring a more open society in Saudi Arabia where criticism is seen as an asset to good policy making, and where there is a more open press to report criticism, it can come only if there is a change of approach from the very top. Such disasters must be used to learn lessons on the necessary limitations on Executive power.
The enrichment of Saudi Arabia has led to the education of its citizens, particularly women, which inevitably has led to and will lead to a desire for progressive change. Western nations, particularly the United Kingdom, have to stand by the current constitutional framework, which must find within it the capacity for progressive change in respect of the growing role and responsibility of Saudi citizens in their influence on policy. Of course, that means the United Kingdom faces a difficult situation.
We could choose to ostracise the kingdom, as implied by the policy proposals supported by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, with the cancellation of the Just Solutions contract. I ought to declare an interest as I was the junior Minister most enthusiastically in support of setting up Just Solutions in order to get its methodology away, so I treated the cancellation of that contract as disastrous and an immense personal disappointment. If we followed the prescription of the hon. Gentleman, we could turn the kingdom into a pariah and push it into the arms of Russia and/or China which, incidentally, are two other human rights priority countries for the United Kingdom. Populist diplomacy and noisy condemnation will always be heard, humiliating the key decision makers at the top. Cynically, if its target audience is just the domestic media and NGOs in the United Kingdom, in those terms it would be successful. But in terms of effecting support for human rights and advancing them in Saudi Arabia, and advancing and securing the position of Saudi Arabia within those nations committed to the current rules-based international order, I suspect the policy advocated by the hon. Gentleman might not be quite so successful.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I would hate to take credit for the Just Solutions contract being cancelled. I was simply an advocate of it. The hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary colleague, the then Lord Chancellor, must take the credit for it, and no doubt he has had those discussions. In advancing his argument, what evidence can the hon. Gentleman point to in recent years of the regime’s move towards a human rights success—not ones that have been forced or dragged out of it, but ones that he would say our close relationship has helped to achieve? What evidence is there?
The most obvious one that springs to mind is the influence of American and British officers in the targeting cells for the operation in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was unanimously approved by the United Nations in order to deal with the illegal usurpation of authority, and we all supported the necessary military involvement to restore order in Yemen. It is an awful place to try to advance by military means the political objectives that the world supported the Saudi coalition to put together. That campaign has been of immense difficulty. Rightly, the coalition was properly criticised for the way it appeared to be conducting the operation yet we should note that there has been a significant improvement. That operation has continued because of the quality of advice coming from the United Kingdom and also the United States in making sure that the military operations were conducted within the remit of international law with regard to human rights. I point to that as an area where there has been effective influence.
Domestically over the past two years within Saudi Arabia, I concede to the hon. Gentleman that what we see and what is reported about the execution of the 37 and the rest, and the detention of the women detainees that I and two of our colleagues inquired into, has been profoundly disappointing. I assume that the Saudi Arabian Government would reflect on the issues I have already mentioned—women being given the right to drive and the ending of the powers of arrest of the religious police—as an overall improvement but if, as I will come on to, Saudi Arabia simply closes down the political space and everyone is far too terrified to offer a critique, it will not help a consultative monarchy to advance good governance in Saudi Arabia. The picture is mixed, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that we have no influence whatever.
We have enormous leverage over Saudi Arabia as far as defence is concerned, until and unless we cancel our defence contracts with it. Such leverage would disappear and Saudi Arabia would be faced with the enormous expense of re-equipping itself from another supplier. It would be catastrophic if that supplier was in either Russia or China and provided it with the defence capability that it needed. We would certainly then say goodbye to any influence that we had over Saudi Arabia at enormous economic cost to ourselves. In that sense, we are engaged in a contest for influence, and its human rights is a very important part of trying to advance that agenda. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is difficult, as I am sure the Minister will recognise. If we give up on interdependence, we will pay a very heavy price, as will the people of Saudi Arabia. We need to stand as much as we possibly can alongside them, and this debate and oversight of what is happening in Saudi Arabia should be part of that.
There is a degree to which it should be true that public shaming and the isolation of offending regimes can occasionally be a spur to progress, but it is better to offer a solution, to engage, and to assist by using our centuries-long hard-won experience of accountability for the rule of law. Rather than tell the Saudis sanctimoniously what their values ought to be, we should have these debates to challenge our friends and encourage them to see the merits of an open civil society, for the benefit of their nation’s policy making if nothing else. Given such a process and our influence, we should be able to agree that they could do nothing better than to release the female detainees straight away.
Previously, change came slowly to Saudi Arabia. It was a conservative country with a cautious monarchy. That caution appeared to be swept away with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but expecting it to suddenly transform into a fully-fledged accountable democracy overnight was never going to happen. Britain remains in a position to help the Crown Prince move away from the path of a leader lethally intolerant of dissent. As our ally, there is a necessity for Saudi Arabia to uphold the highest standards of a consultative monarchy by better engaging with its citizens. There remains an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to set a course for a better future for its society and its economy, learning from the human rights disasters of 2018. Those are the terms used by Saudi Arabia’s own Foreign Minister about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi—it was described as a disaster.
The alternative to a consultative monarchy is an absolute monarchy, and down that route lies disaster and probably eventually revolution. Before that disaster and revolution lies terror and repression. In the west we need to ask ourselves whether we want a penitent reformer in charge of Saudi Arabia or a rolling back to a hard-line clerical domination that reflects the values of centuries earlier or some other revolutionary horror. To reapply the words of Talleyrand, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was not only a crime; it was a mistake. We must help Saudi Arabia to deliver accountability for the crime, and for its future, we must do our best to ensure that it does not compound the mistake.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who secured the debate, for his eloquent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights picture. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for linking some of the issues that we have debated, such as our military relationship and the events playing out in Yemen, with the recent judgment on the case brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Hon. Members may be aware that, today—or perhaps overnight, if my sense of Washington time is correct—the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, by 238 to 190, to block the supply of the precision-guided munitions that are being used against civilians in the Yemeni civil war. There are lessons there for our sales regime. I hope that we will continue to develop links between Parliament and Congress, as the Committees on Arms Export Controls began to do last week in Washington, so we can have a business-like relationship with the people with whom we do business on the arms and defence question.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) was rather optimistic in his assessment of the human rights picture in Saudi. He believes that it is correct for the UK and the US to be involved in targeting expertise and training in the use of military equipment in Yemen, but targeting can sometimes go wrong, as we have potentially seen in some test cases regarding the blowing up of buses, weddings and other civilian occasions. We do not quite have the evidence yet, but there are enough questions to make it necessary to comprehensively link the human rights picture with what is happening in the war in Yemen, particularly in relation to the recent cholera outbreak and the deaths of many children.
I commend the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for his incisive treatment of the issue of the abuse that women, particularly those who work as servants in homes, have suffered over several years. That he spoke in so much detail about them is telling. I hope that the Minister will address the questions his hon. Friend raised about what the Government are doing to hold the Saudi Government to account for women who are particularly vulnerable because they are servants in Saudi homes. Obviously, the high-profile cases involving women’s rights are those related to driving, but the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that there are more serious issues than just having the right to drive, although that is symbolic of women’s liberty.
I reiterate the concern about the treatment of young people in detention, particularly the lack of legal representation, the use of false confessions and their execution, which is simply unacceptable. I am also concerned about journalists. We have already heard about the tragic and revolting killing of Jamal Khashoggi, whose body, if media reports are to be believed, was chopped up into small pieces and melted down using some type of acid, so it was in a form that could be disposed of. I do not think it gets any worse than that, and yet the Saudis are our allies and friends.
We have to join the UN and Dr Callamard, who is looking into the matter as the UN’s rapporteur, in applying more pressure. We have to show more backbone in the way we interact with our military allies. In particular, I want the Minister to address what is going on in relation to the investigation. Will the UK join the UN in asking questions about its next steps? We cannot allow the matter to drop and just stand next to Mohammed bin Salman at G20 meetings and take photos and so on. We have to say something, have some backbone and be much stronger.
Like Jamal Khashoggi, journalists in general and people who tend to speak out and protest about the Saudi regime come under tremendous pressure, including execution. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps he will take as a new Minister, with a fresh approach, to inject more backbone and strength into our approach in this important regard.
If ever there were a prime candidate to be the subject of that excellent BBC Radio 4 series, “Moral Maze”, it would be Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and on the measured and temperate way in which he presented the case.
All the Back-Bench Members who have spoken have shown wisdom and moderation in their remarks. I was particularly struck by the contribution of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who knows more about the Arab world than just about anybody I have come across in 22 years in this House. Even he, though, with all his knowledge of the subject, made no bones about the extent to which one must be conflicted about a relationship as complex as this.
I mentioned that I have been in this House for 22 years, which takes us back to 1997, when the Blair Government came in on a tide of optimism and idealism, and Robin Cook, who became Foreign Secretary, stated his admirable objective of importing an “ethical dimension” into foreign policy. The problem with trying to find an ethical dimension, however, is that the choices we face, far from being between good and evil, are often about which is the lesser of two evils. I am afraid that that is the situation in which we find ourselves regarding our decades-long involvement with the countries of the middle east.
It is sometimes tempting to feel a sense of superiority about the way in which our society conducts itself, compared with the brutal and authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world in general, and in the middle east in particular. It is good to remind ourselves, therefore, that a few hundred years ago people in this country, who regarded themselves as Christians, thought nothing of inflicting terrible barbarities on one another, similar to what happened to poor Mr Khashoggi in that embassy, in the name of a belief as to which was the true branch of Christianity and which was what we would call, in another context, an infidel variation on that theme.
If we think of that in the context of our history and say, “What could have been done several hundred years ago to rapidly bring those societies to an appreciation of human rights and democratic politics?”, we realise how difficult that process is. That is why revolutions often have such bloody consequences and make bad situations even worse. That is also why I would like to think that most hon. Members believe in the evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary, process. If we are going to make improvements, we have to take society with us from the point at which we find it.
Let me give an example of the dilemmas that arise in relation to Saudi Arabia. On 20 June, I asked the Secretary of State for International Trade:
“Do the Government accept that, as the years have rolled by since the 9/11 atrocities, it has become harder and harder to justify the closeness of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but in defence of what the Government are trying to do, would it not be sensible for my right hon. Friend to have conversations with the Foreign Secretary, perhaps with a view to publishing a digest of some of the representations that we make to the Saudis in trying to keep them from straying further away from acceptable standards of international behaviour?”
We could add to that the dimensions of human rights abuse. The Secretary of State’s reply, rather predictably, was as follows:
“The Foreign Secretary and I have answered numerous questions on this issue in the House of Commons, and we have certainly cited some of those incidents and been questioned on specific incidents in the House. On my right hon. Friend’s key point, I do not think the proximity or otherwise to 9/11 is the key determinant here; rather, it is whether Saudi Arabia acts as an important source of intelligence for this country in our shared combat against a global terrorism. It is a valuable partner in that particular battle and has helped to keep numerous UK citizens safe.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 379.]
This is where we begin to run up against a dilemma, because we all know that much of the problem of international Islamist totalitarian terrorism derives from sources in Saudi Arabia. When 9/11 happened, it was widely pointed out that there was some sort of pact between the authorities in Saudi Arabia and the totalitarian Islamist revolutionaries that basically they could do what they liked abroad, as long as they kept their activities limited at home. That is what we might call a form of the devil’s bargain.
Because I am not within the ring of secrecy, I am not in a position to know whether the Saudi intelligence services are really constantly feeding us vital information to thwart terrorist plots, or whether, as well as promoting and funding madrassahs all around the world that leach out this terrible form of totalitarian ideology, they are actually just giving us what I believe is known in the trade as chickenfeed, to keep us satisfied that it is better to remain, rather than cease to be, their friends.
I think that the position in Saudi Arabia has radically changed since 9/11. Its Government have had to take on board some of the consequences of their policy up to that point, and of the large scale of their investment to support madrassahs in most of the rest of the world. As I understand it, it is now illegal in Saudi Arabia to make a cash donation within a mosque, and everything now has to be accountable in terms of where the money is going. That is the scale of change that is happening in Saudi Arabia, and it is why our Government are right to see it as a practical and important ally in this ideological battle in which we find ourselves on the same side.
That welcome intervention, if accurate—I have no reason to believe that it is not—is a powerful argument in favour of continued engagement with the regime, even though from time to time it does things that we would regard, with justification, as barbaric. That has often been the nature of international relations, and those are often the difficult choices that have to be made. To give the most extreme example, Sir Winston Churchill had a lifelong hatred of bolshevism and communism; he said at the time of the 1917 revolution that he wanted bolshevism to be strangled at birth. When he found himself in alliance with Stalin after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, he was twitted by a political opponent who pointed out his lifelong hatred of communism. His famous reply was:
“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
The history of diplomacy is that we often have to have relationships with unsavoury regimes in order to avoid something that would be even worse. However, having to have a relationship with a regime that does terrible things does not mean that we should go silent on criticising it. That is why I particularly welcome this debate. In some senses, it was a relief to discover that it would be more about human rights than about the arms trade. Believe me, if we had to have the same debate about the arms trade, which has been touched on slightly, we would face an infinitely more difficult dilemma. We would have to decide, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate said in passing, whether it was better to wash our hands of supplying military hardware to Saudi Arabia if the consequence would be to anchor that country in the orbit of Russia or China, as the Iranian regime already is.
I conclude by commending the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for securing the debate, and by endorsing his notion that pressure on the Saudi regime on the human rights front is one area in which we can safely express our differences without risking a rupture that we cannot afford on overall strategic grounds. I wish him well in his campaign and congratulate all those who stand up for human rights in Saudi Arabia. I hope that they, in turn, will recognise that vast geopolitical forces are and will continue to be at work in the area, and that there are no morally perfect solutions to dealing with an environment like this, in which frankly all the actors are tainted.
I have mentioned Sir Winston Churchill, but perhaps we should go back to the 19th-century concept of the balance of power, which expressed the interests of Britain by ensuring that no one power could become overwhelmingly dominant on the continent and that we did not get drawn in too closely with any power. My fear, which I have expressed before, is that in the conflicts in the middle east we are sometimes in danger of getting too closely involved with one side rather than the other. That side, I am afraid, is Saudi Arabia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and on all his expertise and work on this important area. His speech dealt with three issues, broadly speaking.
First, the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the detainees who are opponents of the regime, and the very concerning lack of regard for international human rights norms and the rule of law in their treatment. I associate the Scottish National party with what he said and with all four of his asks to the Minister: I will be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to them.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman dealt with the issue of capital punishment, reminding us that the capital punishment of children is absolutely forbidden under international law. The examples that he gave were chilling, and it is chilling to think that other children await a similar fate. The United Kingdom is a union of countries that are supposed to be opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances. The representations that the right hon. Gentleman demanded in respect of the three young men who are awaiting execution are right and proper, and he stressed that the UK Government must state their opposition to capital punishment—particularly in respect of children—loudly and publicly.
Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman dealt with why these matters should matter to us in the United Kingdom—because we are a close commercial, security and intelligence partner of Saudi Arabia. I listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) had to say in relation to the moral difficulties here, and I took on board what they said. It is easy to wring our hands and perhaps it is not easy to find a solution, but there are certain things that are absolutely beyond the pale, and the execution of children is beyond the pale. In addition, for any of us who believe in human rights and the rule of law, detention without trial is also beyond the pale.
That leads me to some points made by a number of speakers this afternoon. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the way in which women and girls who have been trafficked or kept as modern slaves are suffering in Saudi Arabia, and described the sort of domestic servitude in which they are held. He also touched on the issues of women’s and girls’ rights, which were alluded to by the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). Also, the hon. Member for Reigate is to be commended for the interest that he has taken in the plight of female detainees in Saudi Arabia, and I will devote the few comments that I will make to the issue of the human rights of women and girls in Saudi Arabia, particularly looking at the women who have been rounded up and detained in relation to their feminist activism about the right of women to drive.
We all know that women in Saudi Arabia face formal and informal barriers when they attempt to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative, and some speakers today alluded to Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, which remains intact despite pledges by the Saudi Arabian Government to abolish it.
It is interesting to observe that in June Saudi Arabia passed a law on sexual harassment with a sentence for offenders of up to two years’ imprisonment, which can be increased in certain circumstances. However, that law also provides that anyone who falsely reports a crime of harassment or falsely claims to have been a victim shall be sentenced to the same punishment as for the offence that they alleged took place. That could be used to punish victims. I am all in favour of the concept of innocent till proven guilty, but I do not believe that the law should be used to punish victims, and there is a real risk that the way in which this law against sexual harassment has been introduced in Saudi Arabia will deter victims from coming forward.
In February, the Saudi authorities came before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to defend their record on women’s rights, and the committee called on Saudi Arabia to accelerate efforts to abolish the male guardianship system, adopt an anti-discrimination law and adopt a written, unified family code, based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
However, as I said earlier, perhaps the most concerning example of the abuse of the human rights of women comes with the treatment of those feminists who have campaigned to lift the long-standing ban on women driving. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, the right to drive is an important one; it is fundamental to women’s autonomy for them to have the option to be able to travel freely, in the way that men can take for granted.
It is very concerning that there has been a wave of arrests of prominent women’s rights activists. They have been charged with serious crimes, such as suspicious contact with foreign parties, and Government-aligned media outlets then carried out an alarming campaign against them, even publishing their photographs with the word “Traitor” branded across their faces.
In March, a number of those women—including Loujain al-Hathloul, who I will say a little about in a moment—appeared before a court and were charged with communicating with external hostile powers, providing financial support to external parties, and luring and exploiting minors to work against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Basically, the women were women’s rights bloggers who had been advocating for gender equality, including the right of women to drive. Despite the fact that that right has now been granted in Saudi Arabia, those women have been imprisoned; some of them are still in prison.
When those women appeared before the court in March, they were not informed of the charges before the hearing, they were not permitted to speak during the proceedings, and no lawyers or foreign journalists were permitted to attend the hearing, which of course is absolutely unacceptable.
Some of those women have now been released, but others are still in custody. Loujain al-Hathloul has been imprisoned for more than a year and when her parents visited her last December, she showed them black scars on her thighs that had been caused by electric shocks. Also, towards the end of May, a Guardian journalist interviewed Loujain al-Hathloul’s brother, who explained what kind of person his sister is. All her life, she has advocated for women’s rights, but she was pulled over while driving in the United Arab Emirates last year and deported back to Saudi Arabia. Basically, what began then was a really brutal campaign to silence her. She claims that she was detained for three days, then freed, before being seized again from her family home in Riyadh, blindfolded, thrown into the boot of a car and taken to a detention centre, where she was tortured and threatened with rape and death.
As a feminist—I am sure that all the men in Westminster Hall also count themselves as feminists as well—I have to say that that treatment was absolutely unacceptable. I make no apology for focusing on the particular issue of women’s and girls’ rights, but it reflects on the overall approach of a regime when we see, as others have said eloquently today, the way that it treats journalists, the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and religious minorities.
So, while I take on board all that Conservative Members have said today to urge some caution in the way that we deal with these matters, I wholeheartedly support the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I wholeheartedly associate myself and my party with the asks that he has made of the Government, and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in due course.
As always, Sir Henry, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate and on his excellent introduction to it. He rightly pointed out that Saudi Arabia is a very important nation in the region and in the Gulf area. However, as he also said, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is getting worse.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman also told us about the many people who have been held since 4 November 2017 and tortured; some fatalities have also been recorded. He asked the Minister for a number of things to be made clear, one of which is whether the Minister would ask for proof of life of those detained, and clarification of specific charges, and like every other Member in Westminster Hall today I wait to hear the Minister’s response to that.
The right hon. Gentleman also reminded us of the urgent question that was tabled in the main Chamber of the House of Commons recently regarding the 37 executions that took place on 23 April. Many right hon. and hon. Members have told us some of the details of those executions, which are horrific, but the most important issue is that three of those who were executed—brutally executed—were still children at the time of their alleged offences. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the UK Government need to be more public in their condemnation of the Saudi Government, which was a feeling echoed by many this afternoon.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who always makes an excellent contribution to debates in this place. He concentrated—rightly—on human rights in Saudi Arabia, specifically on modern slavery and the abuse of women. His contribution to the debate was very important and relevant.
Then, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about Mohammed bin Salman being seen originally as a reformer, but of course we now know, having seen his regime develop, that that is not the case. There has been no contrition whatever over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. My hon. Friend mentioned arms sales to Saudi Arabia; he also mentioned that in other countries, many of those held on death row would have been seen as simply exercising their democratic rights. When will Saudi Arabia be able to do the same, and not regard those democratic rights and criticisms as crimes against the state? He also said that the United Kingdom was colluding with abuses in Saudi Arabia, and I am sure that the Minister will reply to that point.
The right hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—sorry, the hon. and gallant Member; he is not right honourable—
Not yet; I am sure he will be very soon. He told us again that Saudi Arabia was an important ally, which is absolutely true. However, like many of our allies, we must hold them to account for abuses that are taking place in those countries, and I believe we should never be apologetic about that. Saudi Arabia is, of course, a human rights priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman said that disengagement from Saudi Arabia would send a very bad message to other human rights abusers: that if we did not like what was going on there, we had no more to do with them. Maybe he has a point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) talked about the vote in the House of Representatives in Washington to block the supply of munitions for the war in Yemen, which is an important point. She also said that there were question marks over the accuracy of the targeting of some of the weapons—some of which may well have been supplied by the United Kingdom—used against schools, hospitals and innocent civilians in Yemen. That is an issue that we have discussed on many occasions.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned Robin Cook’s ethical dimension to his foreign policy, something that we are all trying to build on. Certainly, we on the Opposition Benches hope to build on that in preparation for being in government after the next general election is held, whenever that may be. However, the right hon. Gentleman rightly said—as every right hon. and hon. Member has said this afternoon—that we should never be silent in criticising regimes, even when the relationship is vital to our national strategic interests. One cannot disagree with him. He said that there is no morally perfect solution, and I certainly support that view.
As I have said and according to the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), Saudi Arabia is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country. FCO officials have consistently stated that they regularly discuss human rights with the Saudi Government. We have also heard that Saudi Arabia is to host the next G20 summit next year. Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has urged the G20 countries to reconsider holding that G20 meeting in Saudi Arabia in the light of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As has been referenced in some of this afternoon’s contributions, the Saudi authorities set up the specialised criminal court system in 2008, ostensibly to prosecute terrorism-related cases. In 2014, the Saudi Government issued a new penal law for crimes of terrorism and finance, which broadened the authority of the SCC to prosecute anyone who
“disturbs public order, shakes the security of society or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state”.
That broad language has been used to arrest and prosecute many human rights defenders and try them in the SCC. The SCC is highly restrictive and refuses to allow even diplomats to observe its trials, in clear violation of the Vienna convention. The Foreign Office has already criticised Saudi Arabia for not allowing diplomats to observe the trials of women’s rights defenders in March 2019. I wonder whether the Minister can update us on what conversations he or his colleagues have had with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding access to the SCC by our, and other countries’, diplomats.
Saudi Arabia continues to detain people without charge for indefinite periods, and—this is the important thing—without access to counsel or fair trials. Many arbitrary arrests are made to deter others from speaking up, such as women’s rights defenders, as the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said. As we have also heard, many prisoners are denied the medical attention that they often desperately need.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific users of the death penalty in the world, often doing so in mass executions of over 30 people, as happened in April this year. According to Reprieve, since the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015, the state has signed off more than 700 death sentences as of May 2019. In the first six months of this year, Saudi Arabia executed 122 people, making it the bloodiest year since 2015. During the same period in 2017, 41 people were executed; in 2016, that figure was 88, and in 2015, it was 103. Reprieve also noted that in 2018, at least 12 human rights activists were sentenced to death.
We have heard a bit about women’s rights this afternoon. In mid-2018, Saudi authorities arrested prominent women’s rights activists, many of whom are still in detention today, although I am glad to hear that some have now been released. The Saudi Government are allegedly planning to relax the strict guardianship laws to allow women to travel without requiring the permission of their male guardian. However, as we know, the Saudi Ministry of Interior has created a smartphone app called Absher that notifies a male guardian if a woman under his guardianship passes through an airport. He can then automatically withdraw her right to travel. No other country in the world has such restrictions on women. As we have heard, after lifting the ban on women being able to drive in the kingdom, the authorities jailed the women activists who had been campaigning for that right for years. Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were jailed under the country’s cyber-crime laws, which can carry sentences of up to five years in jail.
Since the protests related to the Arab spring broke out across the region in 2011, more than 50 children have been arrested in Saudi Arabia. Some remain in custody, lacking any kind of due process. At least six individuals arrested as minors were executed in the first half of 2019. On 24 April, six minors were beheaded in a mass execution; none had been informed of their impending execution, and all were refused the right to see family members before they were executed.
Saudi Arabia has been a signatory of the convention on the rights of the child since 1996. Under that convention, a minor is described as anyone under the age of 18; under international law, it is illegal to sentence a person under 18 to death. Murtaja Qureiris, aged 18, has been sentenced to death by the Saudi authorities. He was arrested in September 2014, aged just 13 years old. Thanks to international pressure, he was given a stay of execution last month, but we do not know how long that will last for. We have heard about Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, three other juveniles who were arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death. They were tortured, and confessions were forced out of them.
The UK continues to give assistance to Saudi Arabia despite a deepening crackdown on dissent. Saudi Arabia is a key ally in a strategically important region; it is an important partner in trade, investment, education, counter-terrorism, defence and energy security. The Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), has written:
“We are committed to maintaining and developing the relationship.”
Recently, the former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told The Washington Post:
“All those countries that have a relationship with Saudi Arabia need to use those relationships in a way that curbs the failed war strategy in Yemen.”
In February 2019, the Lords International Relations Committee stated in a report that the United Kingdom was
“on the wrong side of the law”
by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. That was before the Supreme Court judgment. That report stated that
“relying on assurances by Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty.”
Labour has consistently criticised the UK Government for allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, especially for their use in the civil war in Yemen. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), has said that
“Ministers have wilfully disregarded the evidence that Saudi Arabia was violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, while nevertheless continuing to supply them with weapons.”
Labour has continually called for a full parliamentary or public inquiry to find out how that has happened.
A UN report earlier this year said Saudi Arabia executed an “extrajudicial killing” by a 14-man team linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At least 30 journalists are detained in Saudi Arabia. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sent to prison in 2012 for insulting Islam and has received 50 of the 1,000 lashes he was sentenced to. Saudi Arabia is ranked 172nd of 180 countries in 2019’s world press freedom index.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and a number of extremely fine speeches. Although it is a Thursday afternoon, it is a pity more hon. and right hon. Members are not here, but I am sure that does not reflect the interest the House of Commons has in these matters.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate the UK Government’s approach to Saudi Arabia which, as we have discovered in the course of this afternoon, is complex and nuanced. In the points I make in response to colleagues, I will attempt to explain why that is. In doing so, I want to be completely frank about our significant concerns. Ultimately, we believe that progress will be hastened through constructive engagement with the kingdom, so I will highlight work we are doing to support human rights in Saudi Arabia.
People often suggest—Members have done so today—that there is a contradiction between UK interests in Saudi Arabia and our democratic values. They suggest we choose to put our interests above human rights. Those are simplistic arguments based around a false premise, and they miss the point. It is precisely our shared interests and our extensive ties with Saudi Arabia that give us an effective platform to raise our concerns and to encourage human rights progress. If there is no dialogue with those we seek to influence, the debate is purely among ourselves and we become a deluxe debating society. As such, I find common cause with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and commend him for two things: first, his work for women’s human rights defenders, about which he was very modest; and secondly his very fine speech.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for his typically fine speech. He balanced our desire to ensure that we encourage progress in Saudi Arabia with being unashamed of our norms, values and realpolitik. He raised the spectre of what might happen in the event we did not engage in the way I believe we are. It is a choice that Members make. We either bring down the shutters and give ourselves a warm feeling and do virtue signalling, which makes us feel good, or we engage, understanding the sense of frustration, unhappiness and awkwardness it gives us, while giving ourselves at least the prospect of having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia. I choose the latter, though I am tempted by the former, since I rather like the absolutist, black and white way of approaching some of these matters. It would be fairly straightforward. We could all stand here and in the Chamber and make fine speeches about the evils and wickedness of regimes with which we do not see eye to eye, but it is not clear to me how that will move things on for our intended beneficiaries, which in this instance are the people of Saudi Arabia, the people in the wider region and, ultimately, ourselves.
Will the Minister accept that the situation is getting worse as per the evidence given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) in his speech? Will he also accept that the situation in relation to our business relationships and the war in Yemen puts this in a different light from other countries where there are human rights concerns?
The hon. Lady cited something from the United States that happened fairly recently, but I do not accept her position. I understand her concerns. She did not cite the recent Court of Appeal case, but we could discuss that in relation to some of the businesses that I think are in her mind. The fact of the matter is, as the 2017 judgment made clear, that the people exercising these judgments are full of anxiety and anguish—those words are used in that judgment. On my part, as well as that of my predecessors and my officials and advisers, I have to say how much I resent the implication that those decisions are made lightly. We are human beings, and sometimes we will get decisions wrong, but the consolidated criteria on which we and our allies depend are rigorous and robust, and even the appellate court was good enough to acknowledge that.
I remain convinced that the standards we apply in this country are among the best in the world and are a beacon for others to follow. That does not detract in any way from the fact that, in a complex situation where our intelligence is—from time to time, if not most of the time—inevitably partial, we can get things wrong. That is inevitable, but we have to weigh things up.
Returning to the points I made earlier, it is my view that our engagement with Saudi Arabia is, in general, positive. It is more likely to engage Saudi Arabia and procure what we would see as good behaviour on its part than the alternative, which is disengagement. I will come on to some further points on defence and security, but ultimately as politicians we have to decide which we choose. I am pleased that the United Kingdom has historically been and remains in the company of those who choose engagement and influence rather than distance.
I am concerned, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate clearly are, that if we changed tack and policy direction, we would isolate the regime in Riyadh. The consequences are very difficult to predict. It is an extraordinarily dangerous region. A change in direction could pose a real and present threat to this country and the people the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and I represent. I would tread warily before dramatically changing Government policy in the way that I think she would tempt us to do, along with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and, I suspect, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I disagree with that point. There is a choice to be made; it is a fairly clearcut difference of approach. I respect those who take a different view, but there it is.
The debate is now essentially not about whether we intervene, but about how we intervene and with what force. The asks I made of the Minister in relation to those who were detained in November 2017 were four very basic, modest asks: the right for someone to be told what they are charged with; their right to be released if they are not charged; their right to have their assets given back if there is no legal basis for taking them; and, most fundamentally, the request for proof of life. Surely those requests are at one end of the spectrum, and the Government should have no difficulty in making them forcibly and publicly.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because he brings me on to my next remarks. I will try hard not to be diverted by some of the broader issues in addressing what I think are the guts of his thesis, which relate to those who have been detained, imprisoned and misused.
Of course, the big headline figure in all this is Jamal Khashoggi, whose brutal murder and dismemberment truly sickened the world. There cannot be any of us who are not revolted by that story. It is a stain on the reputation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I look forward to details of what happened being made public and explicit very soon. It would be appalling if Saudi Arabia decided to obfuscate or obscure that terrible episode. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia must make it very clear what remedial action will be taken in respect of those who are responsible and to prevent such events from happening in future.
The lack of transparency around the anti-corruption campaign, including the Ritz-Carlton detentions, mainly of Ministers, princes and businessmen, gives the international community cause for concern. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will know that, in February last year, those remaining at the Ritz were released following a number of court settlements, or transferred to prison pending prosecution. Let us be clear: those remaining in prison must be brought to trial or released. Their assets must be unfrozen if it is not the intention of the Saudi authorities to bring charges against those individuals.
The right hon. Gentleman can be sure that the Foreign Secretary and the ambassador in Riyadh lose no opportunity to raise the plight of those individuals, and to insist that their cases must be brought to a conclusion. They must be either charged with the corruption with which they have been associated, or released and their assets unfrozen. I will ensure that we continue to apply what pressure we can on KSA in order to achieve that end. However, it is not just about the 50 who are imprisoned, about whom we remain concerned; it is also about the mechanism within the Saudi state that allows such circumstances to arise, and the judicial process that Saudi uses to apprehend and manage that case load.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned the specialised criminal court, which is used to try cases that our peers among the international community would not regard as terrorist cases at all. There have been allusions in the debate to the kinds of things that Saudi Arabia might imagine constitute terrorism. I have to say that the same practice is found in a number of states within the Gulf region—it is not unique to Saudi Arabia. It is a source of frustration for many of us who deal with consular issues to try to work out why individuals have been apprehended on particular charges that look, on the face of it, outrageous and ridiculous, but that is because we are judging by our own standards and mores.
The way that many countries in the region regard such things as terrorism and offences against the state can be very different from our own. That is in no way to justify it, but it is to begin to try to understand it. I share the concerns expressed by the hon. about the SCC, and those concerns are shared with our interlocuters on a regular basis. More generally, we believe that civil and political rights strengthen a nation. I think we all believe that—otherwise we would not be here. Those rights make the state more resilient and more stable, and it is in all our interests to see a secure, stable and moderate Saudi Arabia playing a constructive role in a highly volatile region.
Free expression allows innovation to thrive and ideas to develop—an essential foundation for economic development and social cohesion. I was particularly interested in the remarks made by my hon. Friends on the nature of that cohesion, and the implicit threat to it if Saudi Arabia’s friends in the west behave in a way that isolates it and distances it from our norms and values. In our conversations with Saudi leaders and officials, we consistently underline the importance of respecting freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. In a country wedded to social media, that includes online activity. We make the case that such issues are the guarantors of long-term stability in the region.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have spoken to the Saudi Government about a number of the cases mentioned today. They are listed in my briefing notes, and do not make for easy reading. Some of it has been articulated in the course of the debate, but not all of it. We have raised our concerns at the most senior levels about the increasing number of people detained for crimes relating to freedom of expression, as well as allegations of torture in detention and the lack of transparency in the aforementioned judicial process.
During the UN universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in November, and the UN human rights council in March, we made clear our concerns about the constrained political environment. Right hon. and hon. Members are right to say that we believe that it is getting worse rather than better. The Government utterly condemned Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the strongest possible terms. At the UN human rights council in June, we set out our expectation for a transparent judicial process and urged Saudi Arabia to take steps to ensure that such crimes will not happen again.
I will address the questions raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland as fully as I can. If he feels that I have not addressed them fully, I am more than happy to exchange correspondence with him. I agree with him about the appalling spectacle of 37 mainly Shi’a men executed in April. That was an appalling, ghastly spectacle, and I have no doubt that the leadership in Saudi Arabia want to ensure that the good reputation of their country is not besmirched and stained again in the way that it undoubtedly was.
One hon. Member talked about shaming Saudi Arabia. Shaming is dangerous in respect of many of the countries in the Gulf region. Shaming is perhaps a bit of a challenge, but certainly the reputation of our interlocutors is important to them. In our discourse with them, it is important to point out in clear terms, as their embassies in London most certainly will, that such things put the relationship between the UK, and the west in general, and the country in question back many years. It is vital that those countries give full thought and consideration to what such things do in terms of their reputation with those that they wish to influence and, in many cases, to emulate.
Diplomats from our embassy in Riyadh attempt to observe all trials of international concern, with varying effectiveness. We have lobbied at the highest levels for the diplomatic observation of human rights trials to be reinstated as a matter of routine. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly said that the UK condemns the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances. I think the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West said something slightly different—that the Government say that they condemn capital punishment.
The Government do not just say that they condemn capital punishment; they really mean it. Implicit in the word “say” is, perhaps, an element of doubt. I would like to use this opportunity to expunge that doubt completely and irrevocably. Let me say it again: the United Kingdom condemns capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances. On that, I think the great majority—an almost overwhelming majority —of right hon. and hon. Members in this House would agree.
Would the Minister also like to take the opportunity to state the Government’s policy on the extradition or return of anyone to another jurisdiction that practises capital punishment, and to explain that they would not do so except on the undertaking that that would not be used? We have had recent examples of queries about that, and it would be helpful to get an unequivocal statement from the Minister.
But the hon. Gentleman does give me the opportunity to say once again that the United Kingdom condemns capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances. I do not think the English language contains a form of words that could make that more explicit.
I hope it is abundantly clear from all I have said that we have held Saudi Arabia to account at every opportunity. It goes well beyond the hand-wringing that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke about. I am sure he did not mean to imply that consecutive Governments, including the one in which he was a senior Minister, have indulged in hand-wringing, but I sensed in his remarks a degree of frustration that we cannot do more to achieve an effect. As a Minister in the Foreign Office, I certainly know that frustration and live with it all the time.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith tried to paint the Government into a conspiracists’ corner and cited arms exports and detainees. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green also spoke about arms exports. It is certainly true that some people call for defence and security exports to be halted on moral grounds, which is a perfectly respectable position to adopt, but the legality of our arms exports rests on our rigorous application of the consolidated criteria. The UK takes that responsibility very seriously.
I am not persuaded by calls for a broad-brush end to defence and security exports, for three primary reasons. First, to stop our defence and security exports would signal a disregard for Saudi Arabia’s legitimate security concerns. Regional tensions are acute. Saudi Arabia has faced missile attacks on critical national infrastructure and faces cyber-attacks, as do we. Our system of export licensing supports responsible exports that meet legitimate defence and security needs. Revoking long-standing defence and security co-operation would undermine Saudi Arabia’s ability to protect itself, creating a vulnerability that could be exploited by malign regional actors. Secondly, halting exports of materials and skills in this area would not prevent Saudi Arabia from procurement elsewhere. Alternative partners of Saudi Arabia are unlikely to exhibit the same standards as our rigorous and robust arms export regimes do. Thirdly, it is no secret that Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest defence export market. The adverse economic impact on the UK’s defence industrial base, which translates into real jobs for real people in our constituencies, would be significant. Before simply waving those off and batting them away, I would have to be wholly convinced that the aforementioned two points were adequately satisfied, which I do not think I ever will be.
Let me be clear about the anguish and anxiety that I, my ministerial colleagues and officials go through in approving anything that might be used to inflict harm and damage internally or against civilian populations. I have been a Minister in this Department for two months, and the number of these matters I have seen is fairly small, but I can say to this gathering that nothing I have done has caused me more anxiety and anguish than the situation in Saudi Arabia. It is important that people know the amount of work that goes into this, and the district and appellate courts have made that perfectly clear.
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. Will he at least consider adopting the same approach to end-use compliance as that of the US? Recent research shows that the end-use compliance of British manufactured arms is not as good as the system used by the USA, which is our closest ally.
It is always very nice to take note of what our closest ally is doing, but these days I am probably more inclined to look at what our colleagues in the European Union are doing. In so many respects, they more closely align with our general approach to issues of this sort. I say that not to disparage our best and closest international neighbour, but to state a matter of fact. It is articulated through the EU consolidated criteria, which take note of a number of factors, including where exports are likely to end up—the point to which the hon. Lady refers.
We should recognise where progress has been made in Saudi Arabia. In contrast with the constraints on civil and political rights, there is little doubt that we have seen significant social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia. The scale and scope of reform driven by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been unprecedented in the history of the kingdom. I am not an apologist for anybody, and I am certainly not a tourist guide for Saudi Arabia, but it is important that we acknowledge where things have been done that we support.
The problem I am having with the Minister’s speech is that he keeps answering questions that have not been asked and caricaturing those who have been critical of the Saudi regime as somehow wanting to break off relations for all time or to end any trade with the area. It is all very well talking about social and economic rights, but this is a debate on human rights in Saudi Arabia. Will he answer the question I put to his hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt): where has he seen an improvement in human rights in Saudi Arabia under the Mohammad bin Salman regime?
I think the hon. Gentleman wants proof. Well, I cannot do a controlled trial, although I used to be a scientist. We cannot do controlled trials to determine what would have happened had we not intervened. All we can do is operate on the basis of the evidence in front of us and try to work out the best way forward. That is imprecise, and it may be unsatisfactory to the hon. Gentleman, but it is none the less true. He wonders why I am not answering questions that have been put to me. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West rightly raised the position of women and girls. As it happens, she mentioned driving and made some important points that had not hitherto been made. Some people would say that women being able to drive is a trivial matter and does not in any way compare with the sort of human rights abuses cited by other right hon. and hon. Members.
The point I was making is that it is not a trivial matter for women to be able to convey themselves from A to B in the same way as a man can. However, the more important point I was making, which the Minister will surely appreciate, is that the women who campaigned for this basic right have now been imprisoned, despite the fact that the Government have introduced it, and some of them have been tortured. That is a serious matter, and I associate myself with right hon. and hon. Members’ request for a clear response to the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael).
I was about to say lots of nice things about the hon. and learned Lady in respect of raising this issue, but I might have to change my mind.
I was going to say that, although some might consider this to be a trivial matter, it is really quite extraordinary in the context of what we know to be the nature of Saudi society—a deeply conservative society, particularly outside Riyadh and Jeddah—and it is totemic of wider societal changes within the kingdom that have to be encouraged. It underscores my previous point, which is where we should draw the line and what approach we should have, as a country, towards this nation state—whether we decide to go off in a huff and have nothing to do with it, and perhaps apply a more prurient approach to Riyadh, or whether we engage fully with it, as I believe we are doing. The point I am trying to make is that, although we have to be eternally vigilant, it seems that the balance is about right. Indeed, it is a balance that was struck under previous Governments, including the Government in which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland served.
I was going to go on to celebrate the fact that women are undertaking new roles in Saudi Arabia, which I would hope the hon. and learned Lady would applaud. Women now sit on the board of the Hajj Authority, and can train as prosecutors and pilots. The first female Saudi ambassador has just been appointed to Washington. The steps taken to curtail the powers of the religious police and to reduce the scope of the guardianship system, which has been mentioned, are also cause for applause. We welcome those positive steps, but our aim is still to see the end of all gender discrimination. We will continue to encourage the full participation of women in Saudi life. As we are listened to by Riyad, I hope that we will have some success in that endeavour.
We welcome recent statements by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on returning Saudi Arabia to a more moderate Islam that is tolerant of other faiths. To build momentum, it is important that religious voices from across the spectrum are not excluded, and that inclusive dialogue is encouraged.
Under Vision 2030, social and cultural opportunities are increasing. After a 35-year ban, the first cinema was opened, in March 2018, and there are now 15 cinemas in the kingdom, with more planned. Again, some might think that a trivial point given the human rights abuses that have been the bulk of our discussion today, but it is not; it is totemic of a broader societal change in the kingdom.
In 2018, the General Authority for Entertainment organised more than 5,000 live shows, festivals and concerts, including art and cultural events across 56 cities —an extraordinary and remarkable thing. Again, we should resist the temptation to dismiss that as trivial against what we have discussed, because it is an important indicator of progress and of a leadership that is prepared to change within the constraints of a conservative social system.
This Government firmly believe that our relationship with Saudi Arabia continues to be of utmost strategic importance to the UK. That relationship helps us to address global security challenges, such as Iran’s malign behaviour. Our co-operation also supports security inside the United Kingdom for the people we represent. Our common interests and our long-standing partnership give us the platform to raise our concerns and the influence to encourage further developments in the Kingdom.
As we have discussed, rights and fundamental freedoms are severely limited in Saudi Arabia. Progress has been gradual and is not close to where we want the country to be. That is why Saudi Arabia will continue to be a human rights priority country—not a club that any country wants to be a member of. It is right that we continue to be confident about our values and norms and that we promote them globally. It is right that we should express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way, and we do that with Saudi Arabia at the highest levels, both in private and in public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made a fine speech about modern slavery. As he will know, at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, Saudi Arabia endorsed the Prime Minister’s call to end modern slavery. I take that as a positive sign.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly raised the issue of UK funding for police operations in Saudi Arabia. I have covered the tone of that point in my remarks, but to be specific, he will know that the Government complete rigorous human rights assessments of that training and other elements, such as materiel. More specifically, he will know that the overseas security and justice assistance assessments are done before undertaking justice and security operations, to ensure that all work meets our international human rights obligations and our values. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate is an expert in those matters, and I commend him for the work that he did when he was in office.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also asked about the integrated activity fund, which is a relatively recent fund. All IAF projects undergo assessment and review. We cannot disclose information about particular IAF projects in greater detail, as we have a duty to maintain the confidence and confidentiality of our partners, but I am happy to enter into a correspondence with him, if he would find that helpful.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East asked about funding extremism—I think it was him. I am pleased to report that Saudi Arabia attained full membership of the Financial Action Task Force last month, committing the kingdom to countering terrorism financing and money laundering. That is a positive move. We of course await further developments on that front, but it is again cause for supposing that Saudi Arabia is making progress—not at the rate he wants or I want, but at a Saudi pace. Working with an instinctively conservative country, he will understand that that has to be how this rolls out. Any more than that and we will head for the sort of difficulties referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate.
We will continue to work with like-minded Governments and organisations, and with human rights defenders, to engage with the Saudi Arabian Government to bring about positive change and to promote and defend universal freedoms. It is important to get that right, not just for the country but for the region and, ultimately, for our own security. I believe that that is the right approach.
Thank you, Sir Henry, and Mr Evans before you, for chairing our proceedings. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this excellent and thoughtful debate. I thank the Minister for his very substantial reply. I had not realised that he had been a Minister in this post for two months, which by contemporary standards is a record of durability and longevity. I wish him well in the weeks ahead.
I will take up the Minister’s kind offer of further correspondence regarding the force required in relation to the detainees, especially those from November 2017, and to the detail of the IAF funding and the College of Policing. I was perhaps remiss in not giving him advance notice of what I was going to say about that. Rest assured, if the correspondence is not fruitful, I suspect that we will be back here at some point in the future.
In particular, I thank the Minister for his clear and strong reaffirmation of the policy on the use of the death penalty. I suspect this was no accident. I say that because I have been on this beat for quite a few years. I set up the all-party parliamentary group on the abolition of the death penalty more years ago than I care to remember. I have campaigned against it in different parts of the world including the United States, South Korea and Japan. Most recently, I was in Japan at the end of February, working with the bar association there on its policy for the abolition of the death penalty in Japan. The embassy staff in Tokyo engaged on that issue in an absolutely exemplary manner. I could not have asked for better, more committed or more energetic support than I got during my time there. That has been my experience wherever I have gone, working with embassies and consulates in any part of the world in relation to this issue. To hear the Minister reaffirm that policy in the strongest possible terms is welcome and I commend him for it.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) referred to this issue as a moral maze. I think that is absolutely correct. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke of the danger of pushing Saudi Arabia into the hands of other global powers, most notably China and Russia. I completely understand the tensions at play there. There is an element of competition when we consider not just human rights records, but our trading aspirations. We have to deal with that tension all the time. The Minister dealt with that in some detail.
I will leave the House with this thought. As we know, the G20 is heading to Saudi Arabia. Before that happens, there is time for this country to give a lead in talking to other members of the G20, so that we can all go to Saudi Arabia ahead of that meeting and say, “Here are our concerns. These are the matters that will be in our newspapers and television stations when the media of the world come to Saudi Arabia for the G20. You have time on your hands now and the opportunity to do something about it.” It strikes me that that would be a useful multilateral initiative that we could take, which would avoid some of the other tensions that come into play. I hope that is the sort of approach that our Government, which are committed in a meaningful way to human rights in other parts of the world, could take.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia and the detention of opponents of the regime.