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Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz: Merchant Shipping

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to protect United Kingdom and other merchant shipping in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz.

My Lords, the UK works closely with the shipping industry through the maritime trade organisation and other regional partners to share information on the risks in the maritime environment. At this time, we are working through diplomatic channels to de-escalate tensions in the region that threaten the free flow of shipping and the wider international community.

I thank the noble Earl for his semi non-Answer. There is no doubt that protecting and defending one’s people and ships always risks escalation, but that does not mean that one should not defend and protect one’s people and ships. Is he absolutely sure that we have enough assets in place and that we are approaching this in the right way so that we do not have a recurrence of the disgraceful surrender of royal naval personnel in the northern Gulf in 2007 to a swarm of Republican Guard vessels, because the Iranians have form on breaking rules at sea and then lying about exactly what happened? We should be working with the Americans and other allies to look at taking convoys of ships through. Six have been damaged so far. When the next couple of incidents happen, if we have not done anything, we will be culpable.

I entirely accept the noble Lord’s point about ensuring proper and adequate force protection for our people and assets in the region. As he knows, the UK has a permanent presence in the Gulf in support of international maritime security operations. We conduct routine deployments to the region. Royal Navy vessels, including the frigate HMS “Montrose”, four mine countermeasure vessels and the RFA “Cardigan Bay”, are currently deployed to the Gulf region to assist international efforts to protect trade and shipping. But we are in no doubt that in seeking to de-escalate the situation, as I described, those assets need to be properly defended.

Is my noble friend aware that 95% of the oil going through the Strait of Hormuz goes to Asian markets and eastwards, rather than to the West? Should we not be consulting closely with the Chinese and Japanese, who are the big consumers most affected by problems in the strait, before planning any further action?

My noble friend is entirely right. As he may know, the UK is a member of the Combined Maritime Forces, which was created back in 2001 to help counter the threat from international terrorism. It has 33 member states from across the globe, with active support from the Gulf Cooperation Council. We routinely contribute personnel and assets to the CMF to conduct maritime security operations throughout the region.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, mentioned the danger of escalation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said:

“We do not want a war in the region ... But we won’t hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our vital interests”,

US Secretary of State Pompeo has said that the US,

“is considering a full range of options”.

In the light of those comments, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to de-escalate the situation in the Gulf, and are we working with our European partners to talk to Iran?

Yes, my Lords. Our aim, as the noble Baroness says, is to de-escalate the situation and reduce tensions, and we are acting with our E3 partners, France and Germany, to that end. However, it would be foolish to claim that the dangers have now disappeared: they are still very real and we are alive to the possibility of further incidents.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests. I support part of what the noble Lord, Lord West, said. This is an extremely dangerous situation and I condemn what Iran has apparently done. Will my noble friend the Minister bear in mind that the country with the greatest stake in keeping the Strait of Hormuz free and the Gulf of Oman navigable is Iran itself? Although this does not justify it, it is therefore not surprising that, when America has decided that Iran should not be allowed to sell a single barrel of oil on the international market, Iran is less interested in keeping the Strait of Hormuz free. Will my noble friend therefore concentrate on a political, rather than a military, solution to this issue?

My noble friend is entirely right in everything he has said. That is exactly why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in the other place that our efforts would be focused on a diplomatic solution. We are working actively to that end.

My Lords, building on the theme of accidental escalation, following reports that the UK is sending additional marines to the Strait of Hormuz, can the Minister give us an overview of the rules of engagement for British forces in the area? If he is minded not to do so, can he at least assure us that specific rules of engagement have been issued and inform us which member of the Government approved them?

I should correct the noble Lord on one point. Contrary to some media reports, we have not deployed any additional forces to the region as a result of the latest attacks. I completely understand why the noble Lord asked about rules of engagement, but I hope that he does not expect me to set out what those rules are. However, I can assure him that appropriate force protection measures are in place and are subject to regular review as the situation evolves.

Can the Minister confirm that the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, has been very helpful in this area and that we should be proud of all its work, whatever the Daily Telegraph may say about a potential Tory leadership candidate?

The noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on security matters, but I can tell him that investigations into the incident in the Strait of Hormuz are ongoing. Further information should be forthcoming in due course.