Thanks to our historical connections and our shared economic and other interests, which include foreign policy, defence, security, trade and culture, we have exceptionally strong relationships with the Gulf Co-operation Council nations. That was reflected in the warm reception that the Prime Minister received when she attended the GCC summit in November and established a new UK-GCC strategic partnership.
So does the Minister agree that Britain has a unique competitive advantage in securing a free trade agreement with the GCC due to those desired sectors and our long-standing friendship, as well as the GCC’s desire for economic diversification?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why the Chancellor was visiting the region only a couple of weeks ago was to enforce those exact points. I am sure that once the Brexit discussions have moved forward, one of the first areas with which we will consolidate a trade agreement will be the GCC nations.
In December, the Foreign Secretary accused Saudi Arabia of “playing proxy wars” and destabilising the region. Soon afterwards, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that that was not the Government’s view. Whose view was the Foreign Secretary expressing?
Let me expand that out further to our relationship with the GCC nations. As I said earlier, those countries are advancing, but they are still very new. Saudi Arabia became an independent country in modern terms only in 1932. It is because of our close relationship with those countries in a wide variety of sectors and the trust that we have in them that we are encouraging them to advance in their governance systems.
The diplomatic stature of the GCC has risen significantly in recent years, not least because of the wise guidance of the GCC Secretary-General, Abdullatif al-Zayani, who is a friend of the Minister and of mine. In view of the impasse in the middle east peace process and the GCC’s relationship with the Arab states and Israel, does he believe that the time is now right for the GCC and the Arab states to take some initiative to move the middle east peace process forward?
I know that that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart, and that he worked very hard on it when he was Minister for the middle east. He is absolutely right that, as the GCC grows in its prowess, strength and authority, it has an important role to play in what is arguably one of the longest-running concerns, which started with the occupation of the occupied territories more than 50 years ago. In the year that we mark the Balfour declaration, I hope that we will also make progress in this area.
Is not one of the biggest challenges facing the GCC countries the conflict in Yemen, where they have in excess of 100,000 troops? They are up against a rebel group that has been involved in extra-judicial killings, that is trying to overthrow the country, and that is involved in torture. The Library briefing notes put the number of child soldiers in the rebel group at 30%. Is that not a disgrace? Is it not the biggest challenge facing the GCC countries, and should we not be supporting them?
I agree that it is one of the biggest challenges for the GCC. We forget that this is its neighbourhood—its backyard. Those countries want regional security in the same way that we do—we want it near where we live, work and want to raise families. Exactly the same applies to the GCC nations, and it is something that I will explore more in the debate on Thursday.