Question for Short Debate
My Lords, there are many combustible areas in the world today, but few involve allies of this country, as this situation does. The timeframe in which this crisis has developed, even by modern standards, has been incredibly fast.
On 5 June, the quartet of countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region. The measures include closing airspace to Qatar Airways. On 8 June, Qatar vowed that it would not surrender the independence of its foreign policy. On 23 June, Qatar was given 10 days to comply with a 13-point list of demands, including shutting down the Al Jazeera news network, closing the Turkish military base, cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and curbing diplomatic relations with Iran. On 1 July, Qatar’s Foreign Minister said that the state had rejected the demands but was ready to engage in dialogue under the right conditions. On 3 July, Saudi Arabia and its allies extended by 48 hours the deadline for Qatar to accept their list of demands. On Friday, Qatar again denied links to extremism and dismissed the allegations against it as baseless. Then in a joint statement the quartet accused Qatar of blocking all efforts aimed at resolving the rift, adding that Qatar intends,
“to continue its policy aimed at undermining the stability and security of the region”.
The quartet vowed to take all necessary “political, economic and legal” measures against Qatar “in due time”. They did not specify what those steps could include, although officials have previously suggested they could intensify efforts to isolate Qatar economically.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, spent the weekend shuttling between the major regional capitals urging both sides to de-escalate the dispute. He met the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Is the Minister in a position to share what was said at that meeting? Did the Crown Prince indicate how they were going to act on Qatar following the country’s refusal to agree to their demands? Of course, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a key player in the crisis, and his elevation as successor to King Salman is seen as an endorsement of his plans to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and aggressively confront Iran in the Middle East.
I have raised previously the report on the foreign funding of extremism in the UK that was commissioned by David Cameron and given to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister in 2016. We do not know its contents or conclusions, but we were made aware by the Home Office Minister, Sarah Newton, that it had,
“improved the Government’s understanding of the nature, scale and sources of funding for Islamist extremism in the UK”.
If that is so, can the Minister inform us whether the report has also improved our understanding of relations in the Gulf and whether it has had any implications for the UK’s efforts to de-escalate the current crisis?
The demands on Qatar, as I have said, include closing down the television network Al Jazeera. His Excellency the ambassador for the United Arab Emirates has written to me, and no doubt to other noble Lords, suggesting that there is a clear difference between the content of its English and Arabic language channels. Is the Minister in a position to say whether the Government share this concern? What is their view on the further erosion of the right to freedom of speech in a region where it is already extremely limited?
The decision of the quartet not to respond immediately with fresh measures may, I sincerely hope, reflect the diplomatic efforts to ease the dispute. President Trump spoke with the Egyptian President al-Sisi on Wednesday, urging all parties to negotiate constructively to resolve the dispute. The tone was more balanced than his previous statements, which had offered unbridled support for the Saudis. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in Qatar and will be travelling to Saudi Arabia in an effort to help broker a resolution to the crisis. His senior adviser has said that Saudi Arabia’s preconditions for restoring diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar are not realistic, and that the negotiations did not make any progress and the conflict could last for several months. However, just today Qatar signed a new agreement with the United States to further strengthen their co-operation on combating terrorism and its financing—it is the first and only country in the GCC to do so. Qatar believes that this memorandum of understanding should serve as a model for others in the GCC to create such a framework with the US to unite in the fight against terrorism.
What is the Government’s assessment of this latest development? Is this something the Minister believes the UK could or should be part of? What discussions are the Government having with the US to take on such initiatives and progress a resolution to the dispute? If prolonged hostility between the Qataris and the Saudis drives the Qataris towards Iran and Turkey, that would be the opposite effect to that desired by the Saudi bloc. Turkey has moved closer to Russia and Iran over the Syria conflict, and such a crack in the previously pro-western GCC bloc would further weaken the western position in the region.
As Boris Johnson has said,
“Gulf unity can only be restored when all countries involved are willing to discuss demands that are measured and realistic”.
He has repeatedly called on the Gulf states,
“to find a way of de-escalating the situation and lifting the current embargo and restrictions, which are having a real impact on the everyday lives of people in the region”.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson has said that,
“Qatar should continue to build on the progress it has already made to address the scourge of radicalisation and terrorism in the region, in partnership with its Gulf allies”.
Today we have seen some evidence of that with the MoU.
The demands made on Qatar seem impossible to deliver and, therefore, no exit is clear. Forcing allies to choose when that choice is impossible to deliver also leads nowhere. To avoid the terrible consequences of a new conflict in a region already torn apart, a new bridge needs to be found, and I very much hope that the Minister will tonight be able to inform the House on the steps this Government are taking to find that bridge.
My Lords, I am sure I speak on behalf of all noble Lords when I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for bringing this enormously important topic before your Lordships’ House. It is important to emphasise from the very beginning what a difficult but pivotal position Her Majesty’s Government find themselves in over the current Gulf dispute. There is no doubt that on both sides there are specific British interests that must be protected. Probably more important, however, would be the damage to the equilibrium of the Gulf states and the wider Middle East by allowing this dispute to escalate further. As we celebrate the defeat of ISIL in Mosul, we cannot allow our common front to be undermined. In many ways, the current dispute comes from the independent foreign policy path followed by Qatar at the same time as other Gulf states have sought an increasingly unified foreign policy, led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.
On both sides of the dispute, there is a strong partnership between the United Kingdom and, on one side, our friends and allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, and, on the other, our equally essential global partners Qatar and Turkey, while the outcome of the dispute relies on successful mediation by our friends Kuwait and Oman. We therefore have a unique opportunity to ensure that British influence is an integral part of keeping pressure on all parties to ensure a successful de-escalation of the dispute, at the same time as ensuring, importantly, that all accusations of terrorist support are properly investigated in a transparent way that the world community can have confidence in.
The ultimatum delivered to Qatar undoubtedly raises issues that are of concern to all of us in your Lordships’ House. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, the accusations of terrorist support made by a number of Gulf states have been in the public domain for 10 to 15 years. In my opinion, the current crisis is a product of three factors: the growth and viability of political Islam; the ongoing conflict and civil war in Syria and Iraq; and Iran’s interest in proxy wars throughout the Middle East.
The war in Syria and Iraq has produced a game of three-dimensional chess involving ISIL, Iran, Assad, Syrian rebels and Russia. How can one doubt, therefore, that any unanimity among the Gulf states is going to be pried apart in this kind of conflation? The joint foreign policy of the GCC countries has been most dramatically undermined in relation to Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. While Qatar and Oman have demonstrated the ability to retain dialogue and influence in Tehran, the other Gulf states, principally the Saudis, have become further entrenched in moving further away from Iran, which can only bring about further suspicion within the GCC. At the same time, Qatar’s apparent support and protection for the Muslim Brotherhood and the political Islam favoured by our own NATO ally Turkey has put Doha on a collision course with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Qatar’s foreign policy has reached a point where it is difficult to see how there can be a joint foreign policy within the GCC.
It now seems incredible that only 10 or 15 years ago there was a realistic expectation of a joint foreign, currency and defence policy within the GCC. I applaud the efforts of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in his personal commitment to find a way out of the crisis. In repeatedly asking that any demands be reasonable, Her Majesty’s Government have set the correct tone to avoid further escalation. All accusations of terrorist involvement must be dealt with but there is a balance of reasonableness in all things and demands cannot be premeditated to be impossible to fulfil. One is reminded of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to the Serbians in 1914: there was no way out. We cannot allow this position within the GCC to continue and we must do all we can to ensure that there are ways out for all involved.
Equally, there must be found a means by which a path towards compromise can also be found in Doha. The Qatari people are now suffering because of the country is seen as being too close to Iran as well as to terrorist organisations. The Qataris must be prepared to work with other states to demonstrate continuing vigilance on both these issues.
Only through this kind of constructive engagement can the UK, France and the United States ensure that agreement can be reached. I am glad that the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dampened down the expectation that the Americans would take a belligerent attitude to Qatari interests. In fact, in the past 24 hours, that position has changed quite remarkably. It is no one’s interest that Qatar is pushed into the warm embrace of Iran. I am very pleased that Her Majesty’s Government have taken such a sensitive approach to this dispute and I urge the Minister to reinforce the current trajectory of ensuring realistic demands from the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates as well as transparency from Qatar in dealing with terrorist organisations and their financial support. However, I shall finish on the point that Qatar is a sovereign nation and its foreign policy objectives cannot be completely constrained by its neighbours.
My Lords, the current stand-off against Qatar exposes fundamental and dangerous fault lines in the region which are a recipe for continued conflict from Syria to Yemen. The Qatar crisis also highlights the acute contradictions in British Middle East policy. These regional divisions have seriously complicated the attack on Islamic State/Daesh. For the past two years, military action against ISIL in Syria has enjoyed the participation of countries in the Middle East: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and, belatedly, Turkey, but whereas Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis have openly and generously funded radical Syrian Islamist groups, including indirectly, and perhaps inadvertently, ISIL, the Emirates have not. Abu Dhabi has been much more cautious: keen on a transition from Assad but commendably concerned that this does not open the door to jihadist fundamentalism. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders have pointed the finger in particular at Turkey and Saudi Arabia, accusing the British Government, among others, of hypocrisy for supporting those countries while trying to get rid of ISIL. Qatar is never far from these criticisms either.
These divisions have intensified following the Saudi-led blockade imposed on Qatar in June, supported by Egypt, the Emirates and Bahrain, and noisily backed by President Trump, though not, it seems, the US State Department. These states resent Qatar for a variety of reasons: its independent foreign policy, its relationship with Iran, its sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, its hosting of the irreverent Al Jazeera television station and its sponsorship of jihadi groups. The latter is ironic because the Saudis have long exported their fundamentalist Salafi ideology promoted by jihadis.
The principle of free media and free speech inherent in the largely ex-BBC staffed English Al Jazeera television channel seems to be under attack in a region not noted for a free media, but there are legitimate complaints from Abu Dhabi and others about Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. If one is to believe the accuracy of the reports of some of the translated content, there would appear to be little doubt that it has had, and still has, presenters and commentators who have permitted and, in some cases, have engaged in, commentary which can be described as hate speech: for example, the promotion of Sunni/Shia sectarianism and openly anti-Semitic views. Some extremist Islamists, such as al-Julani of Syria’s al-Nusra, have appeared on Al Jazeera Arabic. The channel has also interviewed Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is banned from entry into the UK and who is on record as having spoken approvingly about what Hitler did to the Jews in the Second World War. Figures such as these have been allowed to put forward repugnant views without being challenged and, on occasion, have even been endorsed by Al Jazeera commentators.
Additionally, Qataris and others, who have been designated by the US and the UN and, in some cases, by other states, for involvement in the raising of funds for terrorist activities have been permitted by Qatar to continue to operate, prompting complaints by the US Department of the Treasury. To further complicate matters, Turkey has airlifted 1,000 troops to Qatar in an act of solidarity against the blockade, and President Erdogan has criticised Saudi Arabia, where the recent elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince and heir apparent appears to herald a more aggressive foreign policy.
Qatar of course hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East, with 10,000 US troops. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas, LNG, and has an estimated $335 billion—£254 billion—strategically invested globally, with billions pumped into the UK and US economies. Certainly, Britain relies heavily on Qatari gas and Saudi oil, as well as lucrative sales of military equipment to them. Meanwhile, across the region, Iranians, as Shiites, sponsor Hezbollah and other militias; Saudis and Qataris, as Sunnis, sponsor al-Qaeda and other jihadists including ISIL, helping unleash a monster aimed at them.
It seems to me that two minimum conditions are necessary to bring Qatar back into the fold and stabilise the region. First, Britain has to adopt a more even-handed stance between Riyadh and Tehran. Historically we have had close relations with the Saudis for obvious reasons: oil purchases and defence equipment sales. That has meant Britain aligning, as the US has, with Saudi opposition to Iran. Both countries have poor human rights records, although Iran at least practises democracy. Both have their malign proxies in the region: Iran has Hezbollah; the Saudis have jihadis. The open war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-linked Houthi rebels is disastrous for Yemenis.
Since 2011, an intra-Sunni battle for regional influence has driven this instability, with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates lined up against Qatar and Turkey. At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional dominance has been worryingly escalated. After the Arab spring uprisings, Sunni states vied with each other for influence by supporting rival Islamist groups, with the Muslim Brotherhood being promoted by Qatar and Turkey, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewing it as a real threat.
In Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh actively supported the military coup that deposed the Qatari and Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi; in Libya, the two blocs backed opposing parties in the civil war; and in Syria, Qatar supported al-Qaeda-linked networks where Salafist Islamists were backed by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile in Bahrain in 2011, the Saudis, fearing increased Iranian influence, intervened in 2011 to stop a Shia-led human rights uprising.
In many ways, the situation in Qatar is now serving to re-entrench these battle lines. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s main problem with Qatar relates to Doha’s support for Sunni groups that compete against the former’s regional proxies, not just what they criticise as Al Jazeera Arabic’s encouragement of agitation. Qatar shares with Iran a gas and oil shelf across the Arabian Gulf and so has an immediate economic interest in better relations with Iran, but then there are similar economic links between the Emirates and Iran. Yet Qatar has supported action against Iranian militias in Syria and Yemen, with some of its soldiers wounded in Yemen fighting for the Saudi-led forces.
Perversely, President Trump’s bumbling bellicosity in the region could actually strengthen Iran’s position, just as the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen increases Iranian influence there. Unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace regional ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on its states, above all the Saudis and Iranians, to find a common solution together, there seems to be no prospect of establishing peace and stability in the Middle East. Despite the benefits of getting rid of Saddam, Iraq is a salutary case study of how western intervention can go disastrously wrong.
The Qatar crisis and President Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran are intensifying regional divisions, in turn threatening peace in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tehran has entered a US-military declared no-go zone in Syria and blamed Riyadh for an ISIL attack on Tehran.
Iranian and Qatari malevolence in the region is matched by the Saudis and the Turks. Therefore, the West will not achieve progress, stability and peace by continued partisan interventions and aggressive confrontations. Diplomacy, engagement and mutual respect should be the priority, not coercion, polarisation and bombast against Iran from Riyadh and Washington, to supine approval from London.
Instead, Britain should be making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to fight a common ISIL enemy and seeking to dissuade Turkey from its sectarian rule, encouraging a realignment of Middle East politics to overcome its bitter and violently corrosive fault lines, of which the Qatar crisis is merely the latest and worrying symptom.
My Lords, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Qatar are all friendly countries to Great Britain, and we value their friendship. No doubt we would like to see peace and prosperity enjoyed by all these countries. I have had the opportunity to visit UAE and Qatar for my holidays and have visited Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage—known as Umrah. I enjoy watching Al Jazeera, the English news channel. Hence, I have come to learn a little bit about the cultures and way of life in these countries, which are in many ways very different from one another.
I also had the opportunity of meeting the speaker of the Federal National Council of the UAE, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, and, more recently, met the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, during a visit to the British Parliament.
With regard to the current crisis, on 23 May 2017, the Qatari news agency gave details of a speech by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in which he apparently offered praise for Hamas and Iran and criticised other GCC Governments—except that he did not. The Qatari Government hurriedly announced that the official news agency site had been hacked, but it was too late to stop sharp reaction from other Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia. The hacking claim may be true, but the views expressed were close to the known opinions of the Qatari leadership.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Other states aligned with the Saudis, including Mauritania and the Maldives, and the exiled Government of Yemen followed suit in breaking off diplomatic relations. Jordan and Djibouti downgraded diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain closed borders to Qatari shipping and aircraft and gave Qataris two weeks to get out of their respective countries while at the same time ordering their nationals to leave Qatar. The scale and speed of the Saudi-led reaction suggested that the moves had been planned in advance.
The Qatari Government are variously accused of supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorism in Saudi Eastern Province and Manama, the Bahraini capital, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Qatar and the UAE have supported different militias in Libya that fought each other. Some have gone as far as to describe the clashes in Libya as a proxy war between the Qataris and the Emirates. That has been one of the factors that has prevented stabilisation in Libya.
The accusation of supporting terrorism is applied liberally in the Middle East: Iran, for example, regularly accuses the US and its allies of supporting terrorist organisations. Qatar’s definition of legitimate organisations may have been broader than that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia has gradually moved from an equivocal position to one closer to the UAE: that all Islamic organisations should be treated as terrorists. The US Government said in 2014 that Qatar was a permissive jurisdiction and, along with Kuwait, was financing terrorism—but later praised its efforts to ban it.
Qatar funded and developed Al Jazeera, a news organisation with a relatively objective output, as long as it is not talking about the Qataris. Al Jazeera has not been shy about including content critical of other Gulf states. It has given a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters.
Since the crisis started, the Saudi-led coalition has given a long shopping list of demands from the Qatari Government. There are 13 points, including: curbing diplomatic ties with Iran, Syria and all those tied to terrorist organisations; shutting down Al Jazeera; shutting down news outlets that Qatar funds; immediately terminating the Turkish military presence; and so forth. Qatar has responded and the US Secretary of State, who is visiting the area today, told reporters in Doha that the Qatari Government had reasonable views in the month-old diplomatic crisis with Arab neighbours. Qatar is quite clear in its position, which is very reasonable—that is what Tillerson said on his arrival in Doha today.
As we have heard, the situation in the area is escalating, at a time when there are already tensions and wars in Yemen and Syria. Iraq is not peaceful either. Therefore, it will be another disaster if any form of military action becomes an option in these crises. We have to learn from our past. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein was talking about taking over Kuwait, the international community perhaps did not respond as quickly and as sharply as it should have. That gave an indication to Saddam Hussein that perhaps his views were accepted. He took advantage and we know what happened: he captured Kuwait, which led to the first Gulf war—with the dire consequences that we all know.
What are the Government doing to de-escalate the situation and to make sure that military action is not an option? Whatever disagreement there is between the states, there should be no military option. Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of supporting extremist organisations. But many more fingers from around the world will be pointing at Saudi Arabia than at Qatar, for supporting extremists and terrorists. This is not the time for a blame game. We need a resolution of this crisis, and it is only right that Britain should play its role. We have huge respect in that region, and no doubt around the world, and we should use our good offices to bring these countries together and de-escalate the present crisis as much as we can.
My Lords, it is not really an interest to declare, but I have appeared frequently on Al Jazeera, and did so even before it started, because it used me as a person on whom to train their interviewers.
The puzzle about this issue is—what is going on? It makes absolutely no sense on a logical level. Countries known to back extremists and jihadists are accusing each other of backing extremists and jihadists. They may be saying, “My jihadist is better than your jihadist, therefore I can back mine but you are a villain to back yours”. When I was speaking yesterday on the security debate, the noble Lord, Lord King, asked me why I had not talked about Shias and the differences there, when I talked about Middle East history. Of course, the Shia-Sunni problem is there. But the puzzle is that Gulf Cooperation Council countries have been behind the scenes financing and backing the very hard wars going on in Syria and before in Libya and elsewhere. They were like puppet masters, manipulating things. That is a continuation of the Middle East war, which has been going on for at least the last 10 years, if not longer, but is now coming closer to home.
One never knows in these matters, but it may be that President Donald Trump did not quite understand the dynamics of what is going on in the Middle East and that in his first big trip abroad, talking to all his friends, he revealed something that the CIA knew. Perhaps he said to the Saudis, “Let me tell you a secret—did you know that these guys actually support so and so?”. I am just guessing, because there is no reason otherwise why these people, who knew what each other were doing, should suddenly break up.
Now that the Syrian war is about to end and ISIS has been temporarily defeated, the war will move very close to essentially a Shia-Sunni war. Qatar is the friendliest Sunni country for Iran—and it is also a fairly rich country. I am just guessing that basically the Middle East is preparing now, I would not say for a final confrontation, because these things go on for ever and ever, but for the confrontation going on in the GCC region. The war is coming home, and it is partly to do with American suspicion of Iran, but also because the Saudis are trying to get more ambitious about the leadership of the GCC. I see absolutely no reason why anyone should think that the GCC should have a common foreign policy. The ASEAN does not have one, so why should the GCC? What nonsense is this?
I would have very low expectations of success if we intervened, either for us or for the Americans, because we have very limited cachet with these people. We sell them arms and we buy their oil—but we sell arms to all of them and buy oil from all of them, at least with the GCC countries. So we have to be careful, when we go diplomatically mediating, that we do not do something that means that finally the whole thing is blamed on us and everybody else escapes blame.
I have fears that this thing is not going to be settled any time soon. I suspect that America basically wants to get back into the Iran question and break the accord that Obama and the EU have carefully constructed. The voter base from which Trump comes did not like the Iran settlement; the Republican Party does not like it and wants to disrupt it as soon as it can.
As an economist, I can offer explanations without being anywhere near the real world. This is a crisis in which we should be very careful not to assume that the quarrelling parties necessarily want peace. Let us hope they do not fight, but it is going to be very difficult to avoid it, especially because Turkey is spoiling for some larger role in the area and its friendship with Iran has been growing. We could get into very troublesome waters. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to inform us, from whatever knowledge they can reveal, whether there is a serious, rational explanation of what is going on. As I said before, it makes no sense in ordinary terms. I therefore believe that, as in many previous wars, the two parties are spoiling for conflict. That has happened before and it will happen again.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I certainly go along with his cautioning words about this current, dangerous dispute. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on his quite brilliant sense of timing in bringing up this issue now. I agree with all the noble Lords who have said that this dispute is dangerous. The countries of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are on the verge of pressing a self-destruct button. It is urgent that they pull back quickly and try to unravel this dispute. We debated the Middle East last week and, as we all know, it is in absolute turmoil. However, relative to their neighbours, the Gulf states have hitherto managed to remain relatively stable over the decades. They are all friends of ours and it is in all our interests that these differences between them are resolved satisfactorily. We all know that there have been long-standing tensions and disputes between those countries: border disputes between Bahrain and Qatar and between Saudi Arabia and some of the other neighbouring states. However, they are now playing with fire, particularly in the current atmosphere in the Middle East. They could be pushing Qatar towards the hands of Iran, which is no help to anybody.
In some of the speeches so far, noble Lords have reflected on the reasons for this current tension. One is, of course, the current turmoil in the Middle East, with the arguments and disagreements which have emerged on which Islamic groups and militias should be supported in Syria, Libya, Yemen or Lebanon. Beyond that, as other noble Lords have said, there is the Saudi/Iranian tension: the rivalry for regional power status through proxy wars on both their parts, which provides a tinderbox that could blow up at any point into a wider conflict. The third reason is Qatar and its history. With its wealth since the 1980s, it has wanted to strike out independently in its foreign policy, without much clarity of purpose, in countries like Sudan, Libya and elsewhere. It has practical arrangements with Iran—the fresh water pipeline and joint co-operation on gas production—which make sense and are good. However, even since the 1960s, Qatar has tended to support the Muslim Brotherhood, much to the disagreement of many of the other states. There is much to discuss about the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes more in the unifying of religion and politics as opposed to the views of other Arab states. Let us remind ourselves that the Wahhabi movement, which emerged in the 18th century, has from time to time done quite a lot of damage in terms of fomenting violence. I do not want to overstate this but I think that we have to take both points of view into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others emphasised and made absolutely plain the interdependence not only between the Gulf states but internationally as well. Qatar has the Al Udeid air base with United States troops and is the main supplier of liquefied natural gas around the world, including to Asia and Europe. Indeed, one-third of our LNG imports are from Qatar. Thirty per cent of all the daily gas supplies of the United Arab Emirates are from Qatar. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, the investment overseas is something like £254 billion, so the interdependence is enormous. No country can afford to damage that. Therefore, we come to the question of our position. There has been a slight tendency to suggest that we should intervene and do this, that and the other, as we are a post-colonial power. However, we are a long-standing friend of Gulf countries. It is in our interests to remain positive in the dialogue that we have with them. After all, we also have to accept that in the last recorded year, £30 billion-worth of trade was done between this country and the Gulf. There are 166,000 British citizens in Gulf countries. Therefore, the Gulf is very important to us, but in my view not just in terms of trade and security but also in terms of people-to-people contact, education, healthcare and culture. It is important that we have this link in all fields.
As has been implied already, the GCC has not been a powerful grouping of nations. Nevertheless, it is a forum for them to get together. They are all different countries, as we know. Oman, for example, is quite distinctive and through history has had a very close relationship with Iran. That is, and should be, very valuable, to the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, at this time of tension. We can argue about whether their monarchies are likely to survive but that question was argued about in the 1970s and they are still there. We might contemplate what might happen if they did not survive. The alternative could be far worse.
Therefore, the question is: what should the United Kingdom Government do? First, we should not interfere and take sides. Secondly, we should not accept that external powers, including us, should be asked to choose between their relationship with Qatar and their relationship with the other Gulf states. That is unacceptable. We must do whatever we can in this post-colonial age to look at constructive ways forward. I suggest one thing only, and I would be very grateful to the Minister if she could comment on it. Last December in Bahrain, our Prime Minister formulated a strategic partnership between the GCC and the UK, and attended that important meeting. It set out the common interests between ourselves and the Gulf countries. I highlight specifically, and ask the Minister to comment on, the following.
Two paragraphs in the communiqué refer to counterterrorism and counterextremism, including in relation to Daesh and al-Qaeda. They also refer to the need for us to address the acute threats posed by these organisations, and to set up a working group on counterterrorism and border security and to look at the financing of extremist groups. The second paragraph refers to the countering of external and internal threats, where we agree to co-operate and set up a national security dialogue. That gives us the basis upon which we can establish and try to discover more common ground with all our friends in the Gulf—not just Qatar but Saudi Arabia and all those countries. This agreement gives us the forum and the framework in which we can try to do that.
I would like to think that the dialogue has already started—I would like to hear from the Minister whether it has. We should be establishing what groups and what individuals in the Middle East pose a threat to stability in the Gulf and to Britain and the West as well. We need to define what we mean by “Islamist groups” and establish how much damage each of them can do through an effective system of monitoring which can identify where secret funding is taking place. In this way we might contribute, in a modest way perhaps, to restoring trust and stability. I will be grateful if the Minister expands on this to say what we are doing about that new and important agreement.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, with whom, not infrequently, I find myself in much agreement. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights; in the context of what I will say tonight, that is an important interest to declare.
The current escalating spat between the Saudi Government—along with other GCC member state Governments—and Qatar, over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism and ties with Iran, risks being at the very least a dangerous threat in the global fight against extremism, and at worst will result in further polarisation and violent conflict in the Middle East, as has been argued in this debate.
Steps need to be taken by the international community, including the UK, to do all we can to ensure that this situation is de-escalated as soon as possible. Every GCC country needs to take a hard look at what they should be doing to tackle extremism—including of course the Saudis in regard to the propagation of hard-line Wahhabi/Salafist thinking in other Muslim countries, not to mention their appalling record on human rights in their approach to Yemen.
Although Al Jazeera is far from perfect—for example, falling short of impartiality at times, and in its inexcusable lapses on the issue of anti-Semitism—the demand that the Qataris should shut it down is clearly neither wise nor acceptable. What should be encouraged is greater, not less, transparency and accountability in the Middle East.
In the context of the dispute with Qatar there is a very real human cost as well: thousands of people in the Gulf—particularly families with mixed GCC nationality couples—face the prospect of their lives being further disrupted and their families torn apart by new arbitrary measures announced by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates for Qatari nationals to leave their countries. Sadly, reciprocal measures by the Qatari Government are now being enforced.
Statements by the authorities in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain that people will be punished for expressing sympathy towards Qatar or criticising government actions have contributed to the climate of fear spreading across the region.
The sad reality is that Qatar commits a number of serious human rights violations, not least in its treatment of foreign workers. The latest news is that the Qatari Government have imposed a ban on workers—citizens and approximately 2.2 million expatriate workers, mostly from Asian countries—taking annual leave. They will be prevented from having any meaningful relaxation. The ban will hit particularly hard the workers in companies overseeing the construction of projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and it may result in serious and fatal work accidents. In addition, the blockade on Qatar will result in many migrant workers facing an even more difficult future, with fears of soaring prices of food and staple goods, unpaid wages, lay-offs and destitution if they are shipped back home before they have earned enough to pay off the exorbitant recruitment fees that they paid to seek employment in Qatar.
More generally, the crisis is a reminder that all Gulf states should continue their efforts to reform the exploitative elements of the kafala system—sponsorship-based employment that, at its worst, facilitates the systematic abuse of workers and international labour standards. Under the kafala system, a migrant’s work and residency permits are tethered to their employer, rendering a worker entirely dependent on the sponsor throughout employment.
I referred to how much I found myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Luce. We are facing a very dangerous situation, and we must not make the mistakes we have made in the past. The solution will lie in the hands of the people of the region and their Governments. We simply cannot manage the situation at hand, let alone try to run it. Our job, together with others, is to be as supportive and helpful as we can in enabling the parties to move forward—of course, talking wisely with them, while all the time remembering that, if it is to mean anything, the solution must lie with the people of the region.
That brings me to my ultimate point. We will have repeated crises of this order until we see throughout the region the emergence of systems of government and social structure that meet the challenges of accountable government and human rights fulfilment, as well as all the challenges of the years ahead. I am deeply grateful to my noble friend for having given us the opportunity to debate this subject tonight. Time is not on anybody’s side.
My Lords, I find myself again in the fortunate position of following the noble Lord, Lord Judd. It is always a pleasure to do so. I agreed with almost everything that he said, and what I agreed with most was that it was a pleasure to listen to the wisdom and wise counsel of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in this debate.
Along with others, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for allowing us to debate this issue. We are coming to the end of our parliamentary year, but I hope that the tensions will be de-escalated and there will be a degree of resolution before the recess. I hope also that the House will have a further opportunity to discuss the very wide issues that have been raised in this short debate.
At the weekend, I had the privilege of being in Georgia to speak to a number of students and young people from the Gulf and MENA region, who were visiting to discuss similar issues with their counterparts from the Caucasus. It was interesting that when this issue was raised, they saw it within the context of the new, developing relationship between the four powers in the region—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, all with very different types of leaders than they were even a decade ago and with differing ambitions for the coming decade; the immense technological revolution that has transformed the way that young people and communities in those countries communicate; the response from the Government, especially since the revolutions in 2011 and 2012; the ongoing tension between the mercantile and trade ambitions of moving from carbon economies to that of sovereign wealth; and the West’s relationship with them.
It is within that context that in December last year the Foreign Secretary gave a speech entitled “Britain is Back East of Suez”. He said that,
“any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain—from day one; that your security is our security … that your interests military, economic, political—are intertwined with our own”.
That is of course correct. But we are no longer a colonial power, and we can only reflect on our two centuries’ presence in the Gulf, dating back to the disputes between the Houses of Thani, Al-Khalifa and the Sauds, and indeed to the Wahhabi tensions in the 18th century. We cannot extricate the UK from this crisis or ignore its complexity, which was outlined so well by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. However, these are distinct nation states now, part of the family of nations and with state’s rights, and our relationship with them should be on that basis.
It was the simplistic statements from the US President last month that alarmed many. While at that point he seemed to take credit for the blockade and criticised Qatar as a funder of terrorism, we have heard today that his Secretary of State in Qatar has said that the position is “reasonable”. We are now a month on from the announcement of the blockade and the crisis, which the Foreign Secretary said would be our crisis from day one. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, indicated that the Foreign Secretary is in the region, and according to press reports he is there with Mark Sedwill, the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser. Can the Minister confirm that that is the position and whether the UK is supportive of the State Department or, in effect, the President? That tension is developing a life all of its own.
There remains a lack of clarity in the UK’s position around the statements of concern and then optimism. It would be helpful to know whether the Government are confident that the situation will not be escalated.
Given the fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, of the UK’s reliance on the LNG supply from the shared Qatari and Iranian South Pars/North Dome gas field—representing 16% to 17% of all supplies of LNG to UK households—do Her Majesty’s Government agree with the condition on Qatar to sever links with Iran? British and Dutch company tankers are bringing such supplies through Suez. What contingencies are in place for imports and discounts, with British interests at stake? If that route is not necessarily blocked, it certainly could become more difficult for our supply routes.
The blockade is already having an impact on our wider allies outside the area, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said. In Qatar, with a population of 2.7 million, 2.1 million are migrant workers. The remittances they send home are immense. Last year, Indians working in the Gulf sent home almost £55 billion in remittances. Remittances sent to Nepal represent almost 30% of its entire gross domestic product, while for Somalia they represent 37%. Remittances sent from Qatar alone come to more than $11 billion. If the UK is not being asked to choose among our allies, an aspect of concern is that many of the countries whose workers are in the region are in effect being asked to do so. In one of the wealthiest places on the planet, an ongoing crisis is affecting some of the most vulnerable workers in the world. It would be helpful to know what our Government are saying to the GCC countries which are operating the blockade as regards the impact it is having on our wider allies around the world.
There can be no question but that as far as the UK’s interests are concerned, removing the funding of violent extremism and terrorism should be a priority, but this debate has reflected consistently that a degree of equanimity is required. I have seen many times in northern Iraq this year that groups receive funding from a variety of nations. If there is one element where the Prime Minister said on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, “Enough is enough”, what would come with that would be a much greater degree of transparency. There would be transparency not only of the sources of funding but of the organisations that are receiving it.
I turn to the separate issue of the media, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. It is widely known that a number of years ago Egypt and other countries expressed concern about the editorial position taken by Al Jazeera Arabic as well as the English service. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, indicated, we operate under principles of free expression in the media. Under the condition where Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English are closed down, what would be the Government’s position? For those colleagues who attended the briefing given by the BBC World Service and the expansion of the BBC Arabic service last night here in Parliament, it is something special that there is a form of free media in the region, especially for the young, given that the average age is 29. What will be the Government’s position if one of the conditions is to have that broadcaster closed down?
This is perhaps a defining crisis for the region because it touches on many of the issues around the technological revolution that is taking place. People in the region receive their news through different platforms, with 93% of the population of Qatar accessing the internet through their mobile devices. It is interesting to note that in the past month the UAE has indicated that any citizen who makes a sympathetic comment about Qatar could receive a prison sentence of between three and 15 years or a fine of 500,000 dirhams, the equivalent of £100,000. The Bahrain Ministry of the Interior has said,
“any show of sympathy or favouritism for the Qatar government … in the form of tweets, posts or any spoken or written word”,
risks a prison sentence of up to five years, while in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia the sentence is five years’ imprisonment and a fine of £600,000.
Have the Government raised these issues because ultimately we are not debating only state to state and regional interests, we are discussing the shifting patterns of the next generation? The Government really should have a distinct position on this, especially as regards freedom of expression and human rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for bringing this very important issue before the House and I want to thank all noble Lords for their constructive and helpful contributions to the debate. I make it clear first of all that the Government share the concerns expressed by noble Lords about the current tensions in the Gulf and the threat they pose to regional stability. The most immediate effect of the current embargo and restrictions on Qatar is their impact on the everyday lives of people in the Gulf. Among other things, families have been separated, imports of basic goods have been blocked or delayed, and exit permits have been restricted to employees working in essential services. We are also concerned about the impact the crisis may have elsewhere in the world. For example, it could distract Gulf states from the critical support they provide to African countries in peacekeeping contributions and humanitarian assistance, and from finding political solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
As was recognised, the stability of the Gulf is also fundamental to the security and prosperity of the United Kingdom. The noble Lords, Lord McInnes and Lord Purvis, in particular commented on that aspect. The Department for International Trade is engaging British businesses to identify the potential implications for UK trade and investment, and ensuring that the UK and other countries are not in any way forced to take sides or choose where to do business.
The Government thus believe that a swift resolution to restore Gulf Cooperation Council unity is in the interests of all parties. The longer tensions continue, the greater the threat to regional stability. The noble Lords, Lord Desai, Lord Luce and Lord Judd, all eloquently alluded to that. But Gulf unity can be restored only when all countries involved are willing to discuss demands that are measured and realistic. The United Kingdom wants to encourage such discussion. We have to be sensitive in discharging that role. The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, identified that sensitivity, as did the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Luce. I seek to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that we do not take sides. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made the important point of observing that there is a need to respect sovereign states in the area.
I was pleased to note that the approach adopted by the United Kingdom Government, which is to encourage de-escalation and dialogue, seemed to enjoy support in the Chamber. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, justifiably asked what we are doing. That is a very important question to pose; let me try to respond.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are engaging with our Gulf allies to get all parties firmly behind Kuwait’s mediation efforts. I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that the UK can influence. Indeed, our close and historic friendship with all the Gulf states is perhaps more relevant than it has ever been because of today’s turbulent world. The Prime Minister spoke to the Amir of Kuwait on 19 June and welcomed Kuwait’s mediating role. The United Kingdom has offered to support this process.
The Prime Minister has also had a series of calls with Gulf leaders. Most recently this includes, on 4 July, His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked whether some details of these discussions could be disclosed. I can say that, in the calls, the Prime Minister underlined the need to de-escalate the crisis. The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is one we share. We must continue to work together to keep our people safe. We encourage all sides to strengthen the efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, including work to counter terrorist financing and to reduce support for extremist groups, all of that building on progress already made.
At the weekend, the Foreign Secretary held a series of meetings with Gulf leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar. In all his meetings he stressed the need for de-escalation and emphasised that the concerns of Qatar’s neighbours must be addressed through dialogue. All these efforts have been in close conjunction with our international partners, particularly the United States and France. The United Kingdom was pleased to join discussions with Secretary of State Tillerson and Kuwait’s Foreign Minister last night. This was alluded to during the debate. It is positive, and the United States involvement is welcome.
Turning to the second part of the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I should first make it clear that Qatar will continue to be an important partner of the United Kingdom in the fight against terrorism.
However, serious allegations have been made against Qatar and we will study the evidence carefully—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised this point. We encourage Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to disclose any evidence they have to the relevant authorities. It is important that Qatar should treat the allegations seriously and respond to its neighbours’ concerns. This includes building on the steps that it has already taken to tackle the funding of extremist groups. I reassure your Lordships that the United Kingdom also calls on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to lift the current embargo and restrictions against Qatar.
Let me now try to address some of the specific points that arose during the debate. If I fail to address all points raised, I shall undertake to write to any of your Lordships whom I omit to address. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the 2015 report. I want to clarify that, as the Prime Minister has informed Parliament, Ministers are considering advice on what is able to be published and will update Parliament in due course. There was much media speculation that the report was suppressed because of a focus on Saudi Arabia. I have to say that these claims are totally incorrect.
The noble Lord also raised the memorandum of understanding signed today between Qatar and the United States, and asked for our assessment of that development. I cannot comment in detail—we have yet to see the detail of the memorandum of understanding —but Qatar is a partner of the United Kingdom in the fight against terrorism. However, like other countries, it needs to do more. This includes building on the steps that it has already taken to tackle the funding of extremist groups.
The noble Lord asked what all this means in relation to Iran. The current situation certainly provides opportunities to Iran. Qatar’s need to mitigate humanitarian consequences means that it is finding alternative options for the importation of food and other essential items and identifying other trading routes. Iran is one country offering support, including access to ports and air space. My noble friend Lord McInnes also referred to that.
A number of your Lordships, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Hussain and Lord Purvis, referred to Saudi Arabia and UAE attempting to limit press freedom and free speech by demanding that Qatar close Al Jazeera. The United Kingdom strongly supports the right to free speech and press freedoms across the world. Promoting freedom of the press is not just the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. Where it is denied, we see a stifling of healthy debate and innovation, harming a country’s long-term social and economic prospects. The United Kingdom regularly raises human rights issues, including freedom of speech, with our partners in the Gulf.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, in a very interesting contribution, raised the issue of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I welcome his point that diplomacy is needed to manage our relationships with Saudi Arabia and with Iran. We remain concerned about Iranian activity in the region, but the recent upgrade in United Kingdom-Iran relations means that we are better placed to raise our concerns with the Iranian Government at a higher level. In the face of shared threats such as Daesh, there is an opportunity for Iran to choose to align its effort with the international community.
Disagreements between countries in the Gulf are obviously not unknown. The United Kingdom shares a long and strong history with all the GCC states, including Saudi Arabia. We have excellent trading and investment partnerships, and continue to work closely on regional security. None of this changes as we encourage the current situation to be resolved quickly.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, also raised the issue of the funding of extremism. We are clear that we need to identify and shut down all sources of such funding, domestic and international. We will continue to work closely with international partners to tackle this global threat.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of energy supplies from Qatar, including Qatar’s prominence in the production of liquefied natural gas. I have to say that the United Kingdom does not assess that the current situation in the Gulf warrants any concern for our gas security. We think it highly unlikely that there will be any disruption to our supply of Qatari LNG.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, raised the issue of the UK-GCC strategic partnership agreed by the Prime Minister last December. I reassure the noble Lord that we continue to work on this, including on the commitments to tackle extremism, despite the ongoing tensions. As the Prime Minister has said, the Gulf’s security is our security: we have an interest in taking this work forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the important issue of business and the economy in relation to Qatar. It is the case that air and sea routes for people and goods in and out of Qatar have been rerouted through Oman and Iran where no direct route is available. That has meant that travel around the region has increased in time and cost, both of which will have impacts on businesses that operate regionally. However, businesses are adopting alternative supply and flight routes for the time being, while the blockade continues, but the UK is supportive of Kuwait’s mediation efforts and we hope these will lead to a swift de-escalation of the situation.
In conclusion, the continued isolation of Qatar will only bring further instability to a region which has already seen more than its fair share of troubles. The UK is clear that there is an urgent imperative to de-escalate tensions. We firmly support the important mediation work of Kuwait and stand ready to support these efforts. We will continue to engage with all parties. We hope that progress can continue to be made to restore Gulf Cooperation Council unity; we feel that that is a key element of stability in the Gulf region.
House adjourned at 7.37 pm.