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Saudi Arabia

Volume 789: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I would like to repeat the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East in response to an Urgent Question asked in the other place today. The Answer is as follows:

“I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Foreign Secretary as he is currently at an engagement at the Palace.

The Prime Minister has invited the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Royal Highness Mohammad bin Salman, to visit the United Kingdom. We are delighted to welcome him and his delegation on his first official visit to the UK, taking place from today until Friday.

During the visit the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince will launch a new and ambitious strategic partnership between our two countries, which will allow us to discuss a range of bilateral matters and foreign policy issues of mutual interest.

The UK Government have a close and wide-ranging relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s third-fastest growing market for exports, and we continue to work together to address regional and international issues, including Yemen.

The visit will allow for a substantive discussion between the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister on the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, and how to address the humanitarian crisis.

The United Kingdom fully supports the Crown Prince’s social and economic reform programme, Vision 2030. His visit is an opportunity for him to underline his vision of an outward-looking Saudi Arabia, one that embraces a moderate and tolerant form of Islam and a more inclusive Saudi society. This includes greater freedom for women, in line with the recent statements and reforms made by the Crown Prince.

We believe these reforms are the best course for Saudi Arabia’s future security, stability and prosperity, and it is right that the UK supports the Crown Prince in his Vision 2030 endeavours”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating that response to the Urgent Question. There is no doubt that we need a good diplomatic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia. But as in any good relationship, we must have honesty. I fear that the United Kingdom’s protests against serious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia are so subtle that they are clearly not being heard. In the eight months since he became Crown Prince we have seen the number of executions in Saudi Arabia double. We, like the Prince, who was rightly enraged at the Houthi rebels’ missile attack on Riyadh in December, condemned that attack. But the response from the Saudis was a 10-day barrage of indiscriminate air strikes on civilian areas, killing and injuring hundreds, including dozens of children.

In July last year, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said,

“the depth of our relationship with Saudi Arabia in trade and finance … would indicate that we have the options for significantly more leverage than mere condemnation”.—[Official Report, 18/7/17; col. 1523.]

Like the most reverend Primate I wonder what other measures the Government are taking which involve action as well as condemnation.

The Government talk about the peace process in Yemen. What has happened to the United Nations resolution that we drafted, with which the Saudis refuse to co-operate? Will the Minister tonight pledge that we will, as a pen holder on Yemen, demand at the United Nations an immediate ceasefire, proper peace talks and a permanent end to this dreadful war?

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, reforms have been initiated by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince. He is right to raise the important issue of human rights. On the issue of Yemen, we will continue to push for a political settlement with all the influence we have, both through international forums and directly and bilaterally with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the general issue of human rights, we should look at the record of the Crown Prince. While there are, of course, many areas still to focus on, we must look at the starting point. Some of the announcements that have been made on issues of greater gender equality may, from our perspective, seem like a small step forward. But if we look at the recent history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the reforms we have seen on women’s rights in particular, both in terms of driving and attending sports events, are a positive step forward.

Another area of reform on which I have been encouraged is greater expression and freedom of religion and belief. As the noble Lord may be aware, on the Crown Prince’s visit to the United Kingdom he stopped in Egypt. Another area we have often discussed at the Dispatch Box is the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and I was heartened that during the Crown Prince’s visit he visited the Pope of the Coptic Church and actually did so in the cathedral. We believe these are positive steps forward, especially if looked at through the lens of Saudi society. We will therefore continue to work on a strong bilateral basis to ensure that many of the issues the noble Lord and I have discussed before will continue to be raised, including the important issue of human rights. Because of our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia I believe we will be able to see further movement in that respect.

My Lords, I recognise that our leaving the European Union makes Saudi Arabia even more important as a partner than it has been up to now, and also more important as an export market. However, can we have an assurance, first, that the closeness of our military relationship will not either implicate us in what is happening in Yemen or prevent us from making the necessary criticisms of the mistakes that the Saudis appear to be making there? Secondly, since many wealthy Saudis and members of the royal family have homes and investments in Britain, can we have an assurance that in the fight against corruption we will assist with transparency and that, when it comes to the likely applications for asylum in Britain from some of those who have fallen out, they are taken one by one and fairly? I appreciate that that is a very delicate area. Lastly, will the Minister tell us how we will help with the process of social reform? We have all learned that revolution is much worse than evolution. If the Saudis are just starting on a very long and painful process of evolution, how are we going to assist in that?

I thank the noble Lord. He will know from his own experience at the Foreign Office that the relationship is important, as he has rightly articulated. We will continue, on a bilateral basis, to implore reform upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, primarily through the drive we have seen from His Royal Highness with some of the reforms he has brought forward such as those on business relations. He raised the important issue of defence. I can give him the reassurance that our defence relationship and any contracts in that respect are subject to the strictest criteria in making those assessments, and those continue to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. He is right to say that the process of reform within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very slow and challenging, but through Saudi Vision 2030, which sets out a broad agenda for social reform and greater equality for women, we will continue to support the efforts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and His Royal Highness in this respect.

Perhaps the Minister could reply to two questions on Yemen. First, what is the duration of the lifting of the blockade on humanitarian supplies by Saudi Arabia—which was very welcome when it came—and do we believe that the humanitarian supplies are really getting through now and that the blockade is not inhibiting them in any way? Secondly, does he not see the force of the request made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we reactivate things in the Security Council? The peace process in Yemen is pretty moribund and it needs a new breath of life. If we really are leading the drafting on this in the Security Council, surely we should start some work on it now, not sit there with the pen paralysed in our hands.

Taking the noble Lord’s second question first, it is not about being paralysed with a pen in the hand, but as the pen holder of course we take our responsibility seriously. It is also important, as we see the reform agenda in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to use our bilateral relationship to get the political solution in Yemen that we all desire. In answer to his first question, a positive stance has been taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as the noble Lord will know, in Yemen both the ports of Hudaydah and Saleef have been opened. Since 20 December 2017, when the blockade was lifted, there have been 53 visits by different vessels, of which 32 have delivered food and 23 have delivered fuel. But I also acknowledge that when you look at the challenges in Yemen—I was looking at the background to this—21 million people in Yemen need aid. That is 76% of the population. This is very much just the beginning and we will continue to work with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure that the traction we have seen—the visits that have been made by different vessels—continues to focus on bringing relief and aid to those 21 million people.

I welcome the visit of the delegation from Saudi Arabia and I hope it is successful, for both the UK and Saudi Arabia. I also welcome the reforms that are taking place in Saudi Arabia. We must not forget that Saudi Arabia is a new country and is only 50 years or so into its development. Therefore, the changes that have been made are quite significant. Social reform—the 2030 vision—is really important. Can my noble friend the Minister say how the UK will help support that reform to go at a much faster pace than it currently is?

I think we have seen the reforms. My noble friend is quite right to raise that. I have already alluded to the fact that we have seen a beginning—and it is a beginning—of addressing some of the issues of gender equality, such as women driving or women attending sporting events. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I understand that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will officially mark it for the first time. There is a long road still ahead but cinemas are also opening in Saudi Arabia—I believe Vue is opening 30 cinemas. These are small steps but we should continue to give encouragement across the piece.