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Middle East

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2011

Private Notice Question

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of current developments in Jordan, and the implications for the stability of the wider Middle East.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Question. Jordan is a close ally and we value the support that it offers on regional issues such as the Middle East peace process. We are watching closely the situation in Jordan following the disbanding of the Cabinet. It is important that Jordan continues its programme of political and economic reform, and we will work with the Jordanian Government to support that goal.

I thank the Minister for that response. Jordan is indeed a close ally and I imagine that there are many in your Lordships’ House who have longstanding friendships with Jordan. The noble Lord mentioned Jordan’s role in the Middle East peace process. Jordan and Egypt, taken together, have been very steadfast in their support of that peace process. Given the level of public unrest in both countries, perhaps I may ask him whether there has been any direct contact between Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government and the new Prime Minister of Jordan.

In addition, Jordan has some really appalling economic problems, some shared with the rest of the Middle East, such as high unemployment and the high prices of commodities, and others very particular, such as no water and very little energy. These demonstrations are spreading around the Middle East. We hear today that demonstrations are planned in Syria, Algeria and even possibly in the Gulf states. There are even some reports—I do not know how reliable—about demonstrations in Jeddah. Will the noble Lord very kindly consider arranging for a briefing in your Lordships’ House, so that those who are interested in these matters may have a somewhat deeper opportunity of discussing them with him, with the benefit of the wisdom of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I thank the noble Baroness for those queries. The new Prime Minister has only just been appointed and the Government are yet to be formed. However, I can tell your Lordships that my right honourable friend the Prime Minster spoke with King Abdullah on Sunday, three days ago; my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State Alistair Burt visited Jordan on 20 January, about 10 days ago; and our ambassador there is of course in regular contact with a great many people involved in the situation. We are keeping close contact in what is obviously a very fluid and evolving situation. The noble Baroness is quite right that the threat of contagion is certainly seen there. There seems to be some evidence that, thanks to modern global communications—mobile telephones and so on—news and views are travelling very rapidly through the entire region. We will have to see how things turn out in Jordan and whether there is a similar pattern to what we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt in recent days. It is early days, and each country of course has its completely different and separate qualities and patterns of events, which may affect the outcome in different ways. I would be delighted to provide a briefing and would like to make arrangements with her and other interested parties as soon as possible.

First, I endorse the request of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for a briefing. That would be very helpful given how many noble Lords in this House would wish to be posted about events and to avail themselves of the knowledge in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On the broader question of Jordan, and as a candid friend to Jordan, I would point out that this is the second time that a Government have been dismissed in Jordan in about 15 months. Perhaps in the Middle East we need to have a mind-shift whereby we recognise that absolute rule by monarchs is possibly no longer the direction of travel that the people of the Middle East might wish to see. On the wider stability of the region, I suggest to my noble friend that each country has very individual and differing circumstances, and it would be very helpful to discuss each country rather than one set of countries as a whole.

My noble friend is right and confirms what I have just said, that the countries are different. I will certainly provide the briefing she requests. She is right, too, to suggest that a kind of wind of change—although one must be careful about historical analogies—seems to be sweeping through the area, and that raises new questions about forms of government. Whether those forms are along the lines of previous patterns or whether we see new forms of government, the general wish of a nation like ours must be to see orderly transition, maximum stability and the development of democratically minded and balanced societies that can bring peace and prosperity to the entire region.

My Lords, on the face of it, the Government who are likely to emerge from the current turbulence in Jordan are likely to be much closer to the Arab street, and therefore are likely to take a much more negative view about the Middle East peace process. Is that the United Kingdom Government’s assessment?

That is a possibility. Clearly, the developments in Egypt will affect the outlook in the Israel/Palestine dispute and, depending on how other patterns evolve, that may well be so. The noble Lord, with his expertise, is right: from the point of view of Israel, things are changing, and there will need to be a reassessment. But exactly how it is going to work out it is too early to say.

My Lords, do the Government share the widespread sympathy for Jordan in having to cope with large numbers of refugees from Iraq, which is an unintended consequence of the allied invasion of that country?

Yes, the Government share that sentiment. Jordan has had to face some grave trials and pressures from external forces, of which that is certainly one. Many of us who would regard ourselves as a friend of Jordan and Jordan as a friend of this country look on those situations and how Jordan has had to deal with them with sympathy and support.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that in the case of Jordan the monarchy is enshrined in the constitution? How far does he think the intervention of western Governments would be helpful in the evolution of any new forms of government that might emerge in those countries? Should we not leave a large amount of that to the people in those countries?

My noble friend is right that the general principle must be that these nations have their separate qualities and situations and must be left to determine their own forms of government. That is absolutely right. It is much too early to speculate on how this will turn out, and certainly much too early to suggest any question of intervention. As far as I am concerned, that simply does not arise.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any possibility of reviewing the current proposals for cuts in the World Service to this particular region of the world at a time when the attitudes of the Arab street, and particularly its educated members, will be absolutely crucial in whether we move towards a democracy in those countries or not?

As we debated very vigorously last week in this House and in another place, the changes to the budget and proposals for the World Service are not only the outcome of a necessary austerity, they are tailored to the new forms of communication—online, mobiles, television and so on—which pervade in the area. I do not know whether my noble friend will agree, but there is general evidence that the new impact of television in the area, from Al-Jazeera and the BBC’s own Arabic television programmes, is probably the dominant force for today and tomorrow in communicating with the area. So I do not think that I can hold out any hope for her that the particular arrangements announced for the BBC World Service are likely to be changed in that respect.

Would my noble friend accept that throughout the Middle East thousands of British men and women are doing work in hospitals and schools that is extremely valuable for the area? Would it not be a great mistake—and I am not suggesting that he is falling into it—if anything that appeared in the press or from official sources gave those people, who are doing valuable work, the impression that their work had come to an end and that they had better get out?

My noble friend, with his experience, is of course totally right. It would be a grave mistake. For the record, with regard to Jordan, there are about 1,000 British residents there and 200 tourists at the moment. There has been a minor updating of the travel advice to avoid political demonstrations—that is common sense—but there are no travel restrictions. My noble friend’s general message is absolutely correct.