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Middle East: Democracy and Human Rights

Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, during the forthcoming Saudi Arabian state visit, they intend to discuss issues of democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

My Lords, the forthcoming Saudi state visit and associated Two Kingdoms Dialogue are important opportunities to take forward our dialogue with Saudi Arabia on a wide range of issues, including human rights, democracy and reform in the Middle East.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that statement. I note that this is the fourth Saudi state visit under our current monarch, which puts Saudi Arabia up with France, Italy, Germany and Norway, among those most privileged in that respect. We recognise that the Saudi Government are being extremely constructive on the Middle East peace process at present. We are also, however, aware that Saudi money continues to support particularly narrow interpretations of Islam in many countries around the Middle East and beyond and that if we are committed to modernisation, human rights and democratisation in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia represents one of the most problematic countries. Can we be reassured that the Government will make those points strongly during the state visit?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that we have a close relationship with the Saudis. They are indeed constructive on the Middle East and supportive of our policy towards Iran, which is terribly important. Noble Lords can also be assured that in all our dialogue with the Saudis, at every level, we are frank and honest about some of the problems we perceive that they may have on human rights.

My Lords, the Global Opportunities Fund was deliberately set up after 2001 to counter terrorism throughout the Middle East. Can the Minister explain what it is now being used for? For instance, is it helping King Abdullah’s important new reform programme to provide employment and training for young Saudi men and women?

My Lords, yes. Work with young men and women, to ensure that they are employed, is exactly one of the things that the Global Opportunities Fund is funding. The work it undertakes with women is especially important. It also funds work with civil society, to ensure that people in Saudi Arabia can participate fully in civil society and nurture it in that state.

My Lords, to follow up the supplementary of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is the Minister aware of a recent letter to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others, signed by a large number of Muslim scholars, including some from Saudi Arabia, encouraging Christians and Muslims to,

“respect each other, be fair, just and kind to [one] another and live in sincere peace, harmony and … good will”?

Given, on the one hand, the welcome—indeed, irenic—tone of this letter and on the other, by contrast, the adamant refusal of the Saudi regime to allow anything resembling freedom of religious practice, can the Minister assure the House that this incongruity will be raised with the Saudi monarch during his forthcoming visit?

My Lords, I was aware of the excellent and constructive letter. I am also aware of the situation in Saudi Arabia and will certainly ask my colleagues in the Foreign Office to try to ensure that this issue is raised during the forthcoming visit.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a representative on the Two Kingdoms Dialogue and on the business council between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is currently going through a process of development. It may seem pretty slow in some respects—politically, economically and in terms of civil and human rights—but it is none the less progressive. Can my noble friend confirm that the Two Kingdoms Dialogue will encompass, for the first time, a forum between Saudi and British youth? In my experience, that will mean some pretty frank exchanges. Can she also confirm that there will be discussion on matters of particular interest to women?

My Lords, my noble friend is much more experienced in these things than I am. I can confirm that these issues will be discussed at the important Two Kingdoms Dialogue. We warmly welcome the process of development that is taking place in Saudi Arabia—albeit, perhaps, too slowly.

My Lords, the Minister will perhaps be familiar with the International Crisis Group report on Saudi Arabia, describing it as a country which stifles pluralism, nurtures intolerance and prevents the organisation of political and social interests. What is more, while we are talking about its constructive position on the Middle East peace process—as the Minister has—it wilfully exports insurgents to other countries. In the light of that, and recognising the necessity for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, will the noble Baroness reassure the House that she will raise the case of the Saudi intellectuals who have been arrested and imprisoned merely for signing in only February of this year a petition suggesting a transition to constitutional monarchy? Progress is indeed slow.

My Lords, the International Crisis Group report is deeply disturbing, and I will ask that the case raised by the noble Baroness in relation to the intellectuals who have been imprisoned is raised. The fact that municipal elections have taken place is welcome and we hope that women will be included in the next elections. So there is progress, but it is extremely slow. We are never slow to raise these difficult issues with the Saudi Arabians.