Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in moving this Motion I should declare an interest as I am on the advisory council of the Kuwait Investment Office here in London.
First, I thank all those who took part in our inquiry, which gave birth to this report before the House today, especially our absolutely excellent clerks, our many witnesses and, of course, all my colleagues on the committee. I also thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its just-in-time response to the report—it came through last night—which is broadly supportive, although, needless to say, it does not accept all our strictures or suggestions and, in my view, misses one or two key points to which I will return.
It is customary when debating reports from your Lordships’ committees to say that the report and the debate are timely but, in this case, both our report and this debate have been hard pressed to keep up with the onward rush of chaotic events in the Middle East region. Since we published this report back in May we have seen, first, the horrors of Syria grow even worse, if that is possible, with a quarter of a million people dead, with Russia drifting into growing conflict with America and the American-led coalition of which we are part, and where we still seem to be fighting, confusingly, on two fronts, against both Daesh and Bashar al-Assad, and in collusion with some very strange allies. Then we have seen President Trump go down to Riyadh, where he was received royally, although undoubtedly by his words he helped to raise the temperature between the Gulf states and Iran.
Meanwhile, the GCC states themselves have now fallen out with various parties lining up for and against Qatar; Iran has started firing missiles into Syria; and President Assad has received one “punishment” dose of American missiles and has now been again accused of planning chemical weapons attacks and has been threatened with, as it were, a repeat-as-necessary dose. The Libyan chaos has deepened and the killing and cholera in Yemen have spread further.
One more-positive development is that the ISIS caliphate story is reaching closure, or seems to be—at least in a territorial sense—as coalition forces close in on the heart of the old city of Mosul. Tabqa in Syria has been liberated, and hopefully Raqqa will soon be next. But the franchised violence round the world of a stateless Daesh is proving just as poisonous—of which we have had a terrible and tragic taste here in Manchester and in London in recent weeks. Meanwhile, 4 million-plus refugees languish in camps in Greece, Turkey and of course in Jordan and Lebanon, and others flow from the Maghreb through Italy—12,000 last week alone. Millions, even tens of millions more—so we were advised by witnesses—are to come.
We have to ask: can we disengage or stand back from this maelstrom? Our report concludes that we cannot possibly disengage, even if we wanted to, but that our engagement must develop in radically changed ways in a radically changed Middle East region. Technology is unravelling the whole global world order, including in the Middle East, and if I have one reservation about the government response, it is that it does not seem quite to fully recognise this colossal development.
Our report addresses these changes at three levels. First, looking at the longer cycle of historic change over the last century, the Middle East is clearly no longer the vital and dominant oil and world energy source it was, although it is still significant; the states which were born 100 years ago from the line-in-the-sands carve-up between France and Great Britain have been and are being challenged; and Russia is of course back in the region with a vengeance.
Secondly, coming up to more recent times, we are seeing Syria and Iraq fragment in hideous civil wars. We have seen the Israel-Palestine conflict harden, and the problem of Hamas remains unsolved, although some interesting talks are beginning. We have seen the ill-named Arab spring—which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office admits caught it by surprise—turn to ashes everywhere except, I hope, possibly in Tunis. We have seen the great country of Egypt go through the full cycle, from autocracy to warped democracy and then back to military rule and some kind of stability, which we must devoutly hope survives. Iran has become a little more amenable although we cannot be sure how deep that goes. That is certainly not the view held by some of the Gulf states, which see Iran consolidating an arc of power across Syria to its Hezbollah surrogate in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the whole region is looking much more to the East for its markets, investors and allies so that its stability—or gross instability, which is what it is—is no longer just a western issue in this post-western age.
Then we come up to the present moment, to the boiling edge of now, when the whole scene is shifting again. President Trump’s America is emitting uncertain messages, posing for us the question of whether we need to reassess the relationship. The government response seems to think working with the USA just carries on as before. Our report in fact disagrees to a certain extent. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey are patching up their past quarrels, although which way Turkey is going remains hard to assess. Is Mr Erdogan’s NATO allegiance now in question? We do not know. Turkey has certainly given up on EU membership.
The whole Middle East and north Africa region is one of extreme youth with 60% of people aged under 30. Tens of millions are unemployed, although almost all of them are empowered by digital communications technology—the mobile phone, the web and social networks—the impact of which it is almost impossible to overstate. Also, there is what has been described as a Cambrian explosion in cheap and lethal high-tech weaponry, in drones and missiles of all kinds, so that every tribal group and cell now acquires immense and lethal firepower which conventional forces find it almost impossible to cope with, as for example in Yemen at present. Of course, the Islamic religious divisions, which in past centuries were—from time to time—relatively quiescent, have now been disastrously inflamed.
Meanwhile, the Iran nuclear deal is now in question, thanks to President Trump and the US Congress; the Kurds are fighting for state identity as never before; and, as has already been mentioned, the GCC states are divided, with Qatar in the dock, although with allies from Turkey to Oman, and Kuwait seeking to be an intermediary. It is a very serious development for us since Qatar is a huge investor in UK infrastructure and assets—an issue on which we just cannot take sides.
So what is our way forward in the face of this ugly and bloody tangle of issues? First, and obviously, there are no neatly comprehensive strategies for such a varied region, divided by staggering contrasts between massive wealth and massive poverty, and in so many other ways as well.
Secondly, post Brexit, we will need to carve out our own course and agenda and define anew our interests, with less automatic reliance on the USA in underpinning the whole region’s security. I know that Henry Kissinger was reported the other day as saying that Brexit could bring the US and the UK closer together, but that depends on whether the USA turns away from protectionist, unpredictable and inward-looking policies. The government response to our report has nothing to say on this aspect, nor, while it talks of UK regional interests, is it clear as to how these may be profoundly changing.
Thirdly, after Brexit we are certainly going to need to work much more closely than ever with some of our neighbours, especially France, with her enormous experience in the Middle East—sometimes in the past pitted against us—and her world power status and position at the UN and so on.
Fourthly, we argue in the report that we should stick with the Iran nuclear agreement—the so-called joint comprehensive agreement—even if America does not.
Fifthly, we argue that the two-state solution remains the only feasible goal for Israel and Palestine. On that front the Trump ambitions to bring the Arab states and Israel much closer together may be in the right direction. Tony Blair, no less, suggests that this is an opportunity to change the whole dynamic of the region in a positive way. Let us hope so.
Sixthly, supplying arms so plentifully, as we do, to the Saudis involves us in the Yemen imbroglio and humanitarian crisis, whether we like it or not. We urge that a firmer line should be taken with the Saudis about weapons use and if necessary some further export licences should be suspended, but I am not sure the Government agree with that.
Seventhly, we must strengthen our old bilateral links and secure new ties, or foster old friendships and new partners, as the Prime Minister likes to put it. With Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco we should cement our already strong friendships. Algeria, too, should be a friend. We should intensify our soft-power deployments on every front, not just trade and security, through our considerable intellectual and creative firepower. We should act through the spearhead of our universities to open minds and close down old hatreds, just as we already link up with hundreds of universities across the Commonwealth network today.
The Government are acting positively in some of these areas but we can do much, much more: by being as open as possible ourselves; by welcoming Middle East students, and indeed taking students out of the overall immigration figures, which we asked for—a step which the Government continue firmly to reject; by using our powerful communications networks to counter false and fake stories and insist on distinguishing between facts and shallow opinions; by resourcing properly our diplomacy and our main soft-power agencies, such as the British Council; and by maintaining up-to-date, agile and best-equipped Armed Forces for careful deployment where the opportunity for discourse or dialogue simply does not exist, as in the case of Daesh, which does not wish to talk, only to kill.
In the end, the battle is not between religions, sects of religions or states but between moderate and extremist futures—two separate narratives and visions—throughout the whole Middle East: one violent, one peaceful. There are clear limits to what we in the UK can do but we can play a strong part in that struggle both through our own example of tolerance here at home and through the utmost respect for the Muslim faith, as well as with constant and vigorous support for the rules-based global order, whether through refurbishing old institutions from the past century or helping to build new and parallel ones in a networked world, especially with the new Asian powers.
This report offers many other ideas and proposals for what is in effect a new panoply of world, and Middle Eastern, conditions. I have given the House a summary of the new realism we call for, and I hope it will find favour with your Lordships and more broadly. I beg to move.
My Lords, this report and what has already been said confirms what I have learned in 50 years’ involvement in many projects in the Middle East: the situation is complex, multifaceted and interconnected; apportioning blame and trying to negate the narrative of “the other” just makes things worse; and solutions are best developed by the people in the region.
Progress can be made with well-meaning groups on all sides working simultaneously, both horizontally and vertically: horizontally across the piece, straddling the various divides between individuals of differing cultures and religions, and across the leaders of the nations in the area; and, at the same time, vertically with small local projects at ground level and, at the mid-level, with leading academics, businessmen and NGOs, and then with the heads of state and Governments at the top. Were we to co-ordinate these both vertically and horizontally, we could make further progress.
I should like to offer your Lordships some hope by describing actual projects at all levels. At tier 1—at ground level—next month I shall be visiting a small, budding project whereby very religious Jewish ex-settlers who were told to leave Gaza and live in Eilat need someone else to grow their food in their sabbatical year. Every seven years, religious Jews are, by dint of their beliefs, not allowed to work their land and must let it rest. Across the border in Jordan, the Bedouin women whom I am visiting have offered to work the land and create a business supplying these Israeli religious Jews with food in that seventh year. However, the women can work only during the day, so Syrian refugees in southern Jordan have joined the partnership to work the night shift. Entrepreneurial Jordanian nationals have seen that there is a business to be had in working these fields by exporting the high-quality crops every year to other countries in the Middle East. I love it: Israeli Jews, Bedouins, Syrians and Jordanians—a win-win-win-win situation with a combination of interests, and I am going to try to help them.
Another group, PICO Jerusalem—an innovation hub melding people from all cultures to work together in start-ups in Jerusalem—is in the process of launching an initiative to bring education in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship to adults, youths and children in Jerusalem with all its environments. On the ground there are hundreds of such projects.
At the next level up, a movement called Two States, One Homeland—I have spoken about this before—is asking the people on both sides to try to understand the narrative of the other and to accept, with compassion, that that is the genuine belief of those on the other side. For example, many Israelis are accepting that the Palestinians believe that the region is their homeland and they want consideration of their right to return. Palestinians, on the other hand, are accepting that Jews believe that the whole area is their homeland and that living in parts of the West Bank is precious to them. Having accepted these as differing historical contexts, they have agreed to work together on a plan called Two States, One Homeland, which comprises the state of Israel, a state of Palestine, but also a confederation across these two sovereign states.
The best international lawyers are agreeing to help the people on both sides to create a constitutional settlement for a confederation, and international security experts are deciding how the separate countries run their own military and police force and co-ordinate this with the confederation. On trade and investment, finance and currency, there is already a team of Palestinians, Israelis and international investors working on this. On the holy sites, rabbis, bishops and imams are all working together.
Thirdly, at the highest vertical level and horizontally across the whole region, there is a group promoting a regional initiative. Prominent Israelis, business people, ex-military and security figures, diplomats, scholars and Middle East experts are working together with Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and have recently developed a regional diplomatic proposal to resume negotiations that leverages the Arab peace initiative and the Israeli peace initiative. The spread is wide and deep. President al-Sisi of Egypt can see the rightness of this for the region and for his 90 million people, and is encouraging us. The aim is that in this whole contiguous region, over one-third of all those living in the Middle East—150 million people—will find work, welfare, health and education and human rights.
As the report shows, we in the United Kingdom are in a unique position to move things forward, and it would be in our own interests to do so. We have expertise in education. British people helped to set up and develop the great universities in Israel, including the Weizmann Institute of Science, where I am a life governor, the Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University, and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. We are now working in Egypt, together with UK universities, to build a new university on 200 acres of land in Cairo, with 30,000 students in year five. I declare an interest as an adviser to Knowledge City Cairo.
In health, media, the arts and, of course, business, the UK has a unique soft power. We can help triangulate partnerships. For example, Egypt has the best long staple cotton in the world. The noble Lord, Lord Alliance, has worked for five years with Manchester University on a research project that shows that now is the time to regenerate the Lancashire textile manufacturing industry, using Egyptian cotton. Israel is the world expert in these technologies and the farming methods. We are helping them all to work together.
The United Kingdom is uniquely placed to give assistance to these processes. The report suggests that we should not be trying to influence people by laying down rules and telling them what we believe is right. We have made too many mistakes like that in the past. However, we have the skills to be able to host and facilitate complex conversations at all levels to help people reach a consensus, and all these people would feel comfortable and safe here in the United Kingdom and here in these premises. In 2004, I hosted, here on the Estate, senior officials from 22 Arab countries who agreed the Arab peace initiative in 2004.
I am suggesting that Her Majesty’s Government, together with us in Parliament, set up a system to host a series of meetings with people horizontally from across the region and within the nations vertically, from top to bottom, so that those people can feel comfortable and safe and discuss projects and help to meld them into an overall, cohesive plan. The report is a good basis for us to kick off such a project. Let us do it.
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests and to the more than 20 visits over the past year or so that I have made to the region. The title of this debate and the report call for a time of new realism. The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Stone, suggests that we also should not totally lose sight of idealism, but it is very hard, given the fact that the first three and a half minutes of the chairman’s speech were taken up simply listing the atrocities, conflicts and tensions that exist within the region.
Over the weekend, I was in my home area in the Scottish Borders and there was a festival at Galashiels Braw Lads that marked ceremonies that took place on the Tweed in 1503 on the marriage between the English and Scottish royal families. The war between the two countries continued and peace was fragile for centuries still.
Modern Arab history started with the Ottoman conquests in 1516-17. Regions have long folk memories—and conflict-afflicted areas have significantly long folk memories. From the end of the Ottoman conquests to the end of the First World War, when western powers staked claims, then to the Cold War and the growth of Arab nationalism and Baathism, and now more recently a region convulsed by intrareligious tension and desires for liberties from the rule of hierarchical and closed systems of powers, we are seeing a major instability, as the committee report states and as the chairman so ably outlined. The birth of modern Arab history also saw the end of rule by themselves for four centuries. The global power bases of Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo were replaced by Istanbul, then London and Paris. The fall of the Ottoman empire a century ago heralded a century of flux, and on the anniversary of that we are now facing a century to come where we have few answers and, in many respects, few hopes.
We are perhaps in the first decade of a new period of the regional history. The failure in many respects of the nation state and the removal of a regional order is to be replaced by the birth of a technological century focused on young people—but young people with fewer opportunities ahead of them than previous generations, with record levels of unemployment and the ability for technology to spread fake news and extreme ideology as well as the positive elements of their own societies.
We have to take stock and it is right that we debate what role Britain can play in the century to come. We cannot wipe clean our history within the region, nor should we be restricted by it. I commend the committee staff and our policy adviser for helping us consider the areas we should be focusing on in the next century.
We start from considerable UK interests in the region. As the chairman said, our annual trade with the GCC states is worth a hefty £38 billion; British Armed Forces are involved in both Syria and Iraq as part of the coalition against the hideous Daesh; and humanitarian assistance from the UK is second only to the US, with over £2.3 billion committed. It is saving lives every day of every week and we should be proud of it. Our staff in the region are doing sterling work. NGOs from the United Kingdom are also doing fantastic work. As Boris Johnson alone says—he likes to be quoted in regard to our relationship with Qatar—they own the Shard, the Olympic Village, Harrods and Chelsea Barracks, and London City Hall is owned by Kuwaitis. The list goes on and shows the depth of our relationship, not only in military and diplomatic but also in economic ties. However, I detect that there is a greater enthusiasm from the Government to highlight the economics and the trade rather than a wider interest in the political and social relationships within the region, and that that is likely to be the focus as we enter a new post-Brexit scenario.
Given the breadth and complexity of the current position, we could dedicate days of debates on each of the different individual issues—on Syria, on the Israel-Palestine question, on Iraq and the future of that country, on security in the eastern MENA and Maghreb region, on the Gulf tensions and the relationship between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the incoherence of US policy and the aggression of Russia. All these issues warrant deep and careful consideration, so inevitably we must limit ourselves in this short debate to observing a number of issues and making recommendations.
I have some sympathy with the Government’s response to the committee. They argue that because there is so much complexity there is no one single solution nor one single approach. I welcome the Government’s response that we now have a one Whitehall approach on the Middle East, as they put it. I cannot speak for other members of the committee, only for myself, but I was not able to witness that within the evidence the Government presented to the committee. I hope that at least, if nothing else, we have stimulated some focused thinking within Whitehall.
The Government cite regularly our P5 status in the Security Council, our unique history in the region, our EU membership, up until now, and our very close ties with the United States. But with this comes responsibility. I hope the Government are taking seriously the observation from the committee that the UK has had an inconsistent approach and lacks vision, because it was meant with great sincerity. I agree with the consensus of the committee in its recommendation that the role we wish to play in the region needs fresh, forward-looking thinking—one that should focus almost relentlessly on the next generation of young people, in addition to their relationships with their nation states. We can at least enhance the next generation’s view of us and what we represent as a country, our values and interests. The problems are complex and multifaceted, but as Chris Doyle of CAABU put it:
“British Middle East policy has never been consistent or even ethical. And that is almost certainly an unrealistic goal, but it should aspire to narrow the gap between perceived interests and its proclaimed values, though it has to be clearer what both are in the first place”.
In a much-lauded speech in December last year on the UK being back east of Suez, the Foreign Secretary said that,
“any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain—from day one; that your security is our security and that we recognise the wisdom of those who campaigned for a policy of engagement east of Suez—that your interests military, economic, political—are intertwined with our own”.
If we are back east of Suez, the test most surely would have been in the current tension within the GCC, but where has the UK been on this to seek a resolution? With inconsistency from the US, which the chairman alluded to, and inaction from the State Department we simply must draw the conclusion that the Foreign Secretary’s speech was, if not irrelevant, certainly a considerable overstatement. I suggest that there is scope for a London conference, where we would use our pretty considerable relationships in the region to seek not only a temporary solution but a deep solution addressing deep and complex relationships between the two.
On Syria, we detected inconsistency. That was highlighted simply in the Foreign Secretary’s session with us: at the beginning of the session, he had a policy, but it had altered by the end. The Government’s response to the committee adds a little more clarification, but not wholesale. On Syria-Palestine, our recommendations are clear, and I hope that the Government will give an equally clear recommendation.
In my final moments I wish to address the humanitarian crisis that is afflicting the region. We have migration in the region, perhaps even more than during the Lachish campaign 3,000 years ago—it is an unprecedented historical crisis. In last week’s Queen’s Speech debate, I asked the Government whether the international community was meeting its objectives for raising the funds. Last year, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, stated that £12 billion had been raised in one day; the largest amount ever for a humanitarian crisis. Last week, the Minister told me there was £8 billion and only £6 billion has been allotted. I hope he can provide clarification.
The committee report deserves cold, realistic reflection. I hope that this debate will be the start of that and that the Government will continue to give it due consideration.
My Lords, I have the privilege to serve on the International Relations Committee and to have been part of the inquiry into the Middle East. I echo the grateful thanks we owe to our clerks and policy analysts for their superb support.
The first point I would like to make is about our methodology. We were conscious that, in the region of our inquiry, young people between 15 and 24 make up more than one-quarter of the population, and in some countries this figure is even higher: for example, in Jordan 70% of the population are under 30. The young tend to be excluded from formal political processes, but they are well-informed and connected by technology, not only within their own country but globally, and so have become increasingly activist and questioning. We were keen to reflect the views of young people from the Middle East in our evidence. The views of the usual suspects, if I may respectfully refer to them like that—current and former ambassadors, Ministers, senior civil servants, diplomats and professors—are, of course, absolutely vital, but that was not going to give us the inside story of what young people think.
Our round table, attended by 19 young people from 14 countries, was both enlightening and innovative. Their views surprised us on some issues, reassured us on others and certainly gave us some ideas and perspectives that we could not possibly have heard from anywhere else. A great summary of what they said they welcomed as positive British social and cultural influences was: the BBC World Service; Premier League football; and Monty Python. I suggest that this form of consultation with young people might be a standard feature of methodology for all Select Committee inquiries to consider, whatever the topic.
Two prominent themes to emerge from our discussions with the young people are important threads throughout the report: stability and soft power. I want to make a few brief comments on these, in particular on the role which language skills play both in promoting stability and exercising soft power.
A core conclusion we reached was that the priority for British policy should be to encourage efforts at stabilising the region. A number of witnesses, including some of the young people, told us that they would choose stability over democracy any day. It was clear to us that one of the most effective drivers of stability across the region is support for the expansion of educational opportunities and educational reform, and the UK has a crucial role in this.
We are talking about education in the countries concerned as well as creating more opportunities for young people from the region to come to the UK to study. On the former, the British Council is already playing a huge and constructive role, with a presence in 17 countries in the MENA region and 1,600 staff. Its work is not only in teaching English but in programmes which promote various skills of public life, such as debating and social activism. One British Council initiative has delivered 100 social action projects since 2011 among the displaced Syrian community, spanning education for children, community peacebuilding and women’s economic empowerment.
On the other side of the educational coin, the report also recommends that the UK should continue to encourage young people from the region to study in the UK, which will increase our influence among future leaders and decision-makers. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, we strongly agree with other reports to your Lordships’ House stating that the UK Government should stop treating students as economic migrants and remove them from calculations of immigration figures. It is extremely disappointing to see that the Government response continues to resist this recommendation.
But education cuts both ways, and our inquiry also revealed something of a skills deficit in the UK as far as the Arabic language is concerned. Speaking another language is not just about mastering grammar and vocabulary but brings with it the cultural understanding which promotes greater facility in diplomacy, trade, security and community cohesion. It is a myth that everyone speaks English. Even though speaking English is almost always an advantage in today’s world, speaking only English is a huge disadvantage. Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the internet and social media. We are fortunate that the BBC World Service is expanding its reach in the MENA region. In its evidence to our inquiry, it told us of its investment in the Arabic service’s digital offer and plans to strengthen existing TV and radio output.
However, our witnesses from both the World Service and the British Council pointed to the deficit of Arabic speakers in the UK. Despite the need for speakers of Arabic, and indeed of Farsi, for access to the region, this remains a need insufficiently supported by Her Majesty’s Government. This is very short-sighted, as a British Council analysis found that Arabic is important for the needs of export growth and future trade relations, as well as for security and influence. It also said that the learning of Arabic was about British young people being more,
“internationally mobile, open and curious to the world”.
Yet, the head of Arabic services at the World Service told us that its attempts to recruit Arabists, or Arabic speakers, in the UK usually come to nothing. Indeed, it is shocking that Arabic is offered at degree level at only 15 UK universities out of 167. Somewhat surprisingly, the learning of Arabic has increased in schools, but these are overwhelmingly those belonging to the Association of Muslim Schools, which are faith schools, and the Arabic being taught is more likely to be the classical Arabic of the Koran than modern standard Arabic, which is taught in only a handful of mainstream state schools, often as an extra-curricular subject. Just for the record, and in case our report should confuse or be misinterpreted, I must point out a misprint in paragraph 396, where the words “Modern Standard Arabic” are misplaced and look as if they refer to the classical Arabic of the Koran rather than the Arabic being taught in mainstream schools. Of course, MSA and classical Arabic are not the same thing.
The report recommends that the Government should invest in a long-term plan to increase the UK’s expertise and proficiency in Arabic. There is a good model for this in the existing £10 million a year partnership between the Government and the British Council with the Mandarin Excellence Programme. However, the Government response says that this is not on the cards for Arabic because Arabic, unlike Mandarin, is not sufficiently established in schools. Surely that is a circular argument: the Government appear to be saying that they will not invest in boosting Arabic because it is too weak in schools; it is weak in schools because it is not getting enough government support. Is the Minister prepared to reconsider the Government’s position on this and come up with something similar for Arabic, including an equivalent level of financial investment in what is clearly in Britain’s long-term interests?
My Lords, in my contribution to our debate on these complex matters, I will comment on two areas. I do so with great appreciation for the report, so comprehensively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. It is full of excellent, empirical detail. We ought also to pay attention to certain overarching factors or narratives.
For my first point, I go back 30 years to the excellent BBC series presented by the historian John Roberts, “The Triumph of the West”. A book of that title was published to accompany the series. I reread it recently and thought how perceptive and prescient it was. Perhaps politically correct censors would not allow the title these days, but John Roberts’ compelling thesis was that the essential message of contemporary history was the dominance and penetration of western civilisation, driven on by the power unleashed by modern science. The term “globalisation” had yet to be coined, but in part of course it names the phenomenon. Modern science derives from western European civilisation from the 16th century onwards and carries many of the implicit assumptions of our culture. John Roberts’ name is not as well known these days as it should be. I knew him a little because he was a history don and later warden of my old college, Merton, although in those days I was an unreconstructed and perhaps even reprobate chemist. Sadly, he died prematurely but his works are still worth reading again, as I say.
Modern rejection of western civilisation, often presented in what I agree is a false Islamic guise, can probably best be seen as a kick-back against the very triumph and hegemony of that which it protests against. Of course, ironies abound, as when the report says that the IS/Daesh conquest of Mosul in 2014 was enabled in part by 40,000 tweets on Twitter in one day by the conquering forces. They use the products of western civilisation in their very protest against it. Unless we understand better the underlying dynamics of what is driving events, our political responses are likely to be either ineffective or even counterproductive. Although the term “culture wars” can be overplayed, there is a significant element of truth in that description of what is going on today, focused in a particular way in the Middle East.
Secondly, and following on from this, we need to recognise, as the report does, that our reaction to the various events we call the Arab spring was far too naive, simplistic and, indeed, optimistic. The report calls our reaction “muddled”. We were too optimistic that the Iraq war would usher in modern, western standards of democracy and human rights. We were much too optimistic in our backing of the original protest and rebel groups in Syria, as we are gradually coming to realise. In saying this, I recognise the monstrous character of the behaviour of Saddam Hussein and of President Assad—certainly of the forces under his control. But despite the appalling dimensions to their character and behaviour, we also need to acknowledge the downside of the chaos in Iraq since the end of the war and in Syria since the uprising began there. In Iraq, for example, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of the Christian population has either fled abroad or been killed.
Warnings went unheeded. I used to be a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, which comprises about 150 representatives from around the global Church. I recall six or seven years ago the anguish of two Syrian Christian leaders at the support of western Governments for the anti-Assad forces. Despite his other failings, Assad had protected the minority communities in Syria, and they feared that this protection would disappear, which is exactly what has happened. The experience of the substantial Christian communities in Syria has been a sad and sorry tale of displacement and persecution. The report touches on these matters, but I think it could more honestly and fully acknowledge the—entirely well-motivated—failures of western policy in Syria, not least in relation to other religious minorities.
I have said nothing about the Israeli dimension to the situation, although Israel is the country in the area that I know best. I have visited it half a dozen or more times while I have been a Bishop and I have taken more than 500 people from my diocese on pilgrimage visits there, including more than 100 just a few weeks ago. We will be debating Israel tomorrow in relation to the Balfour Declaration, but let me tie it in in this way: Israel represents—or presents itself as—a highly economically successful, militarily sophisticated and powerful western state. That is how it actually impacts when one goes there. In its own way, it testifies to the triumph of the West in the midst of Arab and Muslim cultures that can find this very difficult to accept and accommodate. Our policies in the Middle East need to take a careful and sophisticated account of these underlying cultural and, yes, religious issues. The religious side could be overplayed, but I think the report tends to underplay it.
My conclusion, which the report echoes here and there, is that our future influence in the region will rely much more on soft power than coercive or military approaches, with education and aid to the fore. Indeed, quite a lot of our foreign aid already goes to the region, but education has been underplayed in what the report calls a “transactional” emphasis in our relationships with the countries of the region, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has just so clearly explained. Somehow we and other western countries need to appear less “in the face”—if I may put it that way—of the countries of the Middle East, seeking less cultural dominance, as it is perceived by them, and a greater spirit of collaboration as the countries of the area evolve in our irreversibly global world.
My Lords, I suspect that it was clear to all of us on the International Relations Committee that we were going to need a strong injection of humility as we embarked on an analysis of a Middle East in chaos, confusion and rapid movement. If we demonstrated that humility in the report—I hope that we did—it owed much to the wise leadership of our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, whose introduction to the debate was a good summation of what we have tried to say.
After all, we need that humility because Britain’s interventions in the Middle East region since the Second World War have not been a series of unblemished successes: the overthrow of Mosaddegh, the Suez fiasco, the bungled occupation of Iraq and the power vacuum in Libya. There have, of course, been some successes: the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, persuading the European Union to champion the two-state solution for Palestine, the reversal of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait in 1991, the saving of the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s wrath and the nuclear agreement with Iran. So there is a balance, but there is plenty on the negative side, which is what pushes the case for humility.
It also pushes the case for a complete review of Britain’s policy for a period ahead more likely to be characterised by continuing tensions and turmoil than by stability. That case seems to me to be unanswerable. I have to say that we found the Foreign Secretary’s rather bombastic claim that Britain was back east of Suez pretty unconvincing. That is a slogan, not a policy. The advice given by an experienced American witness, Dr Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations—“Above all, do no harm”—seemed closer to the mark. It also seems clear to us that all the outside players who dominated the Middle East region throughout the 20th century—the United States, the Soviet Union and then Russia, Britain, France and Turkey—are no longer in a position to call the shots and they should not be trying to do so. However unpromising the short-term prospects may be, the countries of the region should be given a greater say than in the past.
The single most worrying trend in a deeply troubled region is the mounting rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is often presented, rather misleadingly, as an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia. The view that the report takes is that it is in fact fundamentally contrary to our own and our western allies’ interests to see that rivalry being perpetuated or, worse still, for it to spin out of control into open hostilities and that a fortiori we and our allies should not get involved on one side or the other of this rivalry. That is what makes President Trump’s intemperate and ill-judged remarks during his recent visit to Riyadh a cause of such deep concern. There is plenty wrong with many aspects of Iran’s external policies, which need to be resisted, but to launch a rhetorical onslaught on the newly and fairly re-elected President Rouhani, who had committed himself to a policy of deeper engagement with the outside world, was surely not a wise judgment and to be proved to have given to Saudi Arabia and its friends a blank cheque to accentuate tensions with its neighbours, a step uncannily similar to the blank cheque that the Kaiser gave to the Habsburg empire in June 1914, which did not end terribly well, seems to us pretty reckless.
Considerations are taking place, no doubt, about how to resolve the problem that has arisen with Qatar, but I hope that the Minister can say something in his reply about the consultations that presumably have taken place and are taking place between us and our closest ally over all this and over the heightened tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Then there is the matter of the Iran nuclear deal, in support of which the Government’s firm line, along with four of the five other members of the P5+1, is very welcome. But would it not be wise to seek to move on and to remedy at least one of the main defects of that agreement—its relatively short duration —by generalising and globalising the constraints that are set out in it for the future, so that Iran is no longer treated as a pariah but merely on the same lines as other non-nuclear states in the world? That course was recommended in our report. However, the Government’s response to it is Delphic to the point of obscurity and I hope that the Minister, in replying to this debate, may have something a bit clearer to say on that.
No report on the Middle East can afford to neglect the issue of Palestine. To try to wish it away or to behave as if it does not exist has never worked in the past and will not work in the future, particularly not while illegal settlements in Jerusalem and on the West Bank are proliferating and making matters worse. That is why our report put forward a proposal that the Government should consider recognising Palestine as a state, which would be the clearest possible way of showing our continued firm support for a two-state solution. The Government’s response to that seems to me to lack any credibility and seems to be drawn from a set of briefings that I can remember from something like 30 years ago.
One other theme runs through our report, which is that we cannot and should not turn our backs on the Middle East. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, set out clearly why that is not a viable policy. The region’s future development directly affects our own future prosperity and our security, whether as a source of refugees, a source of terrorists or a source of natural gas and whether as a potential source of dangerous, destabilising conflict or, if we can only make some progress in stabilisation, as a source of prosperity and reduced tension. We need a clear set of policies towards the Middle East region, post Brexit, and they need to be different from the failed policies of the past.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, including on his role as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. I pay tribute to his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and also join my noble friend Lord Howell in thanking everybody who made the work of the committee possible.
I fully support the Government’s efforts against terrorism: there is no more important responsibility, and I am aware of how challenging it is. But I was concerned during our inquiry by the impression that British foreign policy towards the Middle East has narrowed into the fight against Daesh, and that less emphasis is being placed on the long-term goal of more open and stable societies in the region. Even though this task has undoubtedly become even harder in recent years, we cannot lose sight of it, and I am sure the Minister will agree.
I know that many noble Lords wish to speak, so I will quickly reflect on three areas in our report, all linked to UK policy towards Gulf states. The first is Yemen. Millions of Yemenis are facing dire food insecurity, cholera and potential famine—not because of a natural disaster but because of the conduct of the war by all sides, including the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition. Whatever the complexity of the conflict, the UK and our partners should use the full weight of our diplomacy to insist on immediate and unfettered access for food, medical supplies and humanitarian assistance. I hope that the Minister can update the House on this.
The suffering of civilians in Yemen has also heightened existing public concerns about the use of UK defence exports to Saudi Arabia, with £3.3 billion of licences approved in the first year of the Yemen conflict, as our report shows. I know from my experience that Ministers weigh such decisions extremely carefully and scrupulously, and that they are not easy, but I put it to the Minister that the time has now come to reconsider any defence exports that could be used for offensive purposes in Yemen in order to be able to give the public more robust assurances.
The Foreign Secretary told the committee that he believed the United Kingdom to be “narrowly” on the right side of international humanitarian law when it comes to defence sales to Saudi Arabia. In my view, our country should never rest on being “narrowly” in the right. We must always strive to be absolutely sure, and wherever there is doubt we should err on the side of law and our principles. I say this while recognising the great importance of our security and defence co-operation with the Gulf states and of our defence industry.
The second issue is the demand from Saudi Arabia and others for the closure of Al Jazeera. The Government have been careful to avoid taking sides in the dispute over Qatar, but UK policy should be unequivocal on a fundamental issue concerning freedom of the press. Whatever our thoughts are on Al Jazeera, no country has the right to interfere with freedom of expression in another. Can the Minister assure the House that this is the UK position, in private and in public, with all the countries involved? Can he also shed light on any assistance that the UK is offering to mediate in the crisis?
Our report calls for much greater transparency in UK relations with the Gulf countries, recognising their importance to us. An immediate step that the Government could take towards this transparency would be the publication of the report into the funding of extremism and radicalisation in the UK. The public have a right to know the extent of the problem and the action that will be taken to address it. I hope that the Government will publish the report as soon as possible and do whatever they can to share information with Parliament.
Finally, I will take this opportunity to draw the Minister’s attention to the influence of Saudi charities in the Balkans, where non-European ideas and teachings are creeping into the European Islam of countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo and poisoning the minds of young people in the region. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will not lose sight of this as, together with nationalism, corruption and secessionism, it is becoming a growing threat to security in the region—and, by extension, a danger for this country, too.
The Government have their hands full with Brexit and counterterrorism efforts, but the world has not stopped and we cannot afford to ignore it. I therefore hope that we can rediscover both our focus and our ambition to defend Britain’s national interest and to pursue a more comprehensive policy across the Middle East.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and his committee are to be congratulated on this valuable report. I resonate to the very wise remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic.
It goes without saying that the situation across most of the Middle East is unstable and very dangerous. The committee has done a remarkable job in analysing many of the issues. The idea that we should do more to reach out, especially to the more pragmatic states in the region, is certainly very well made. The problem is, of course, that the issues change every day. The recent stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is but one example, while the dangerous flurry of activity across Syria’s border with northern Israel is of concern. Some things never change, of course; Iran’s continuing belligerent stance against the West in general continues unabated, and, while I agree that we should try to get the Iranians to behave towards their dissidents in a more humanitarian way and that we should maintain some sort of relationship with them, we should sup with them with a very long spoon indeed. Their daily threats to annihilate Israel should be deeply worrying to us.
I will concentrate my remarks on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where our efforts in the UK are, quite rightly, to press for a two-state solution. According to recent opinion polls, incidentally, that is also the strong and heartfelt desire of the majority of both the Israeli and the Palestinian population.
The question I raise is whether the tenor of the report will help or hinder the desired two-state solution. I fear that it may be unhelpful in one or two ways. If we are to be taken notice of by either the Israelis or the Palestinians, we have to be sure to be even-handed and unbiased one way or the other. In this, I fear that the report may not be as balanced as it might be. Inevitably, that will make its recommendations less acceptable and less likely to be taken notice of in the region.
The reason I say this is that, in focusing heavily on the settlements and settlements alone, the report may be missing a trick. Of course the settlements are problematic. They encroach on Palestinian land and make it difficult for the Palestinians to develop their own state, and I would not downplay their importance in any way. But I fear that that is far from the whole story and that there are many other causes of the failure to reach the two-state solution that we all want—and unfortunately they are missing from this otherwise excellent report.
Israel is hardly going to be convinced to withdraw from the settlements on the basis of its experience after it withdrew from Gaza and from four settlement blocks in the West Bank in 2003. That just brought out the worst that a belligerent Hamas could inflict on Israel: multiple rocket attacks and a charter that promised the annihilation of Israel and the Jews. The 10-month pause in settlement building a few years later by Mr Netanyahu, at the behest of the Americans, in the vain hope that Mr Abbas would resume negotiations, was far from encouraging.
Little wonder that my Israeli taxi driver—those drivers are never short of an opinion, nor are they inhibited from expressing it—said, “The Palestinians just want to drive us into the sea”. If Israel is to be encouraged to withdraw from settlements, it is unlikely to do so without something more positive from the Palestinians—but continuing incitement to terror and violence by Hamas and, I fear, by Fatah too, fails to offer any reassurance on that front. They will have to offer something that will give the Israelis confidence that their security will not be compromised if they simply withdraw. They will have to see the Palestinians be more open to the idea that Israel will not be able to accept all the refugees, now grown from the original 750,000 to about 5 million; that not all of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple, can become the capital—they may have to be satisfied with half of Jerusalem; and they will have to accept that Israel is a Jewish state, as Balfour and the British Government proposed 100 years ago.
Of course, all these ideas are not set in stone, and will have to be hammered out in direct negotiations between the two of them—yet there is little sign that Mr Abbas is willing even to start negotiations. That is why I fear that simply pressing the Israelis to withdraw from settlements in isolation from everything else that needs consideration is unlikely to be helpful. It is also unfortunate, too, that not much mention is made of the Arab peace plan emanating largely from Saudi Arabia. Should we not be doing more to encourage that?
Paragraph 247 of the report states:
“As political authority collapses in many Middle East countries, the UK needs a good working relationship with the remaining stable countries. We also recognise the shared interests: defence sales, non-defence commercial interests and trade, the fight against terrorism, and security of energy supply throughout the Gulf”.
This paragraph applies to the Gulf states, but could it not apply equally to Israel, a stable, democratic state with just as many shared interests that are enormously valued in the UK? The report talks elsewhere of the need to protect the Christian communities in the Middle East. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the number of Christians is rising.
I was pleased to read the Government’s response, with its stress on bilateral negotiations between the two parties. That seems to me more rational than the idea of internationally inspired negotiations that the report seems to stress. I hope that the Minister will consider that my remarks have been made in a constructive way towards the two-state solution that we all want.
My Lords, I looked forward to the report and this debate, not only because of the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and the distinguished membership of the committee—because I have always found that what he has to say and what other members have to say is thoughtful, helpful and challenging—but also because of the title, Time for New Realism. I declare my interests as the director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford and the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Belfast, especially its work with the Arab Network for Tolerance and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy on our own report on diversity, participation and tolerance in the Arab world.
The notion of a time for realism speaks to analysis of the problem. When as a doctor I found patients not getting better or even getting worse, it was a time not simply to redouble one’s therapeutic enthusiasm and increase the dose of medication but rather to pull back and ask whether I had made the right diagnosis in the first place. The very title of this report presses us to think again about how we view the situation in the Middle East, because our policies and approaches have manifestly not been successful. Therefore, it is a little unfortunate that the Government’s response—what I have been able to read of it—tends to speak to the things that the Government are doing or have been doing, when there is a faulty analysis of the problem in the first place.
When I started to take an interest in these things, “Middle East peace process” meant relationships between Israel and the Arab countries. After a while, it moved to mean relationships between Israel and the Palestinians—but now when we talk about the Middle East and the possibilities for peace we discover that disorder has spread through the whole of the region and much beyond. That speaks to a faulty, mistaken and thoroughly unsuccessful approach to politics in the region, and the essential British diplomat, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, pointed that out in delightfully understated terms. It is a mess—a disaster—and it is getting worse, so we must ask ourselves, “What is wrong with our analysis?”.
When I started to get involved in these things, I took the approach that has been taken in Northern Ireland—to go and meet all involved, including those involved in violence on all sides. I well recall, in a series of conversations with Khaled Mashal, who at that time was the leader of Hamas, him saying to me, “You know, people in the West don’t have to listen to us. They can ignore what we have to say, but they need to understand this: we are prepared to work the system. We will stand for elections and, if we lose, we will be in opposition; if we win, we will be in government. We might well do things that you might not like, but we will work the system. But people need to understand that, if things do not move ahead—and this is simply an observation—there are those coming after us who do not want to work the system; they want to burn the system”. Frankly, anybody who did not expect al-Qaeda and Daesh has not been paying attention to what has been happening for over a century in the Muslim world.
Going back 100 years, we have the Balfour Declaration—which, by the way, in a very short paragraph gave a national homeland, rather than a state, to Jewish people, but not only for Jewish people; it was very clear that the civil and religious liberty of those who were already there also had to be observed. Like many decisions of the time, part of it was observed, and part not. The same happened on my island. Going back 100 years, we had liberal democrat parties; in Egypt, for example, there was a real flourishing of liberalism. But when, after 20 or 30 years, liberal democracy did not seem to have been successful in freeing up countries to follow their own lights and wishes and those countries continued to be dominated by the West, it was replaced by pan-Arab nationalism and Nasser. When he was defeated in 1967, there was a further deterioration into authoritarian leaders. Eventually, when that was unsuccessful, there was a further deterioration and so on. The Arab spring, as it was mistakenly called, was simply a further fracturing into chaos of everything in the region; and no good comes from chaos.
We have to understand that this is the inevitable consequence if a group of people becomes frustrated every time it moves to take responsibility for its own affairs. Of course, if they take their own responsibility they will come up with different ways from ours of governing themselves. I remember Charles Kennedy telling me about a conversation he had with Tony Blair, who was complaining about the Welsh Liberal Democrats taking a particular position. Charles Kennedy said, “You see, we are a devolved party”. Tony Blair said, “But you are the leader: tell them what to do”. The Prime Minister of the time did not really understand that in Wales they had the right to make their own decisions about what to do—it seemed an alien concept to him. If people are elected and we encourage them to have democracy they will make different decisions about how they want to govern their country, guided by their lights, culture and approach. If we continue to interfere and prevent that happening because we do not like the outcome, the consequences will be disastrous, and that is what has happened.
We cannot press others to follow our lights; that is also true of Israel. It is not for us to tell Israel how it should behave, but it also is not for Israel to tell us how we should behave. I do not think a two-state solution is possible any more. For years I have heard Foreign Office Ministers say, “If it is not done by the end of this year, it is off the agenda”. The next year, and the next year, the message is the same. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, said, the message has been the same for 30 years. I do not think it is possible any more. Let us be clear: it is time for new realism; there is not going to be a two-state solution. If there is, we should recognise Palestine and get on with it. If not, and some are not prepared to do so, we must say to Israel: “You have not occupied, you have now annexed and you must govern the whole of that country with proper recognition for all the people who live there, not as a kind of apartheid state—which you yourselves would reject—but as a proper country”. We cannot continue because, apart from the difficulties it creates for those people in that place, it sends out the message to the whole of the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Morocco, that we say one thing but do something different, particularly when it involves Muslims. No amount of fine language persuades people in the Muslim world of anything different when they see the way we act.
It is time for a new realism and I hope the committee and the House take this report and go even further in following the consequences of a more realistic analysis of where we are in the Middle East.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I know, as the House does, how much he has done in fostering dialogue and co-operation at a local level between Arabs and Israelis and passing on his experience of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Organisations like Forward Thinking can do an enormous amount to help in the dialogue and discussion on how to find peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the longer term. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and all members of the committee who clearly worked extremely hard at this report, which makes us think again—which we need to do in the Middle East—and think afresh. I agree with the broad thrust of the report—there are parts of it with which I do not totally agree—and believe that it is making an important contribution.
As we have all discussed, the Middle East today is going through its own dark ages. We have been through ours in Europe centuries ago. Today, the Middle East is tearing itself apart with Arab versus Persian, Sunni versus Shia and dictators versus citizens. All this is exploited—as it will be, of course, so long as it lasts—by extremists such as Daesh and al-Qaeda. There is a collapse in Arab self-confidence and a deep anger and frustration, particularly among the young. We should all be very grateful for the discussion on young people as they are critical for the future of the Middle East. The shockwaves from extremism and migration are transmitting outwards, affecting us all. They have now become everybody’s problem.
We should pause and reflect for a moment and remind ourselves a little of the history. In the two centuries after the Prophet Mohammed, there emerged a great Arab empire which extended from Baghdad and Asia to north Africa and Andalusia. It was driven forward by innovation, scientific learning, a great diversity of races and culture, even freedom of travel—a contemporary issue—and a great deal of tolerance. This empire brought about advances for humanity through architecture, textiles, commerce, art, astronomy and mathematics. We have only to look at Andalusia today to see that extraordinary historic achievement. That so-called Arab enlightenment of that period all that time ago demonstrated a separation between faith and reason. There were fierce philosophical debates at that time but since then we have seen centuries of crusades, the Ottoman Empire and the colonial empires. This has led to a hardening of views, sometimes of both religions, and certainly to a growth in fundamentalism and a collapse in self-confidence at the end of the day. Today, in the Middle East we see poor standards of governance, lack of confidence, no internal capacity to escape oppression, economic mismanagement and the great frustration of unemployment, particularly for young people. We need to learn some lessons.
I want to reflect for a moment on this history. First, it is in keeping for Islam to have a separation of politics and religion. Conservative theocracy is not a necessity for Islam. Secondly, there is no case for having a clash of civilisations between Islam and the western world: 13 million Muslims live in Europe and 3.5 million live in the United States, many of whom live there happily. Thirdly, against the background of this collapse of Arab self-confidence we must remind ourselves that they should not wait for outsiders to solve their problems—exactly the point that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made. It is for them to solve their own problems. I understand that the Arabic interpretation of the great British saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is, “Trust in God but tether your camel”. They need to tether their camels a bit more.
My fourth reflection is that the West has no interest at all in trying to run the affairs of the Middle East. I have seen it all myself. I am the son of a former governor of Aden and political resident in the Gulf. Those days are over but we have a role in supporting and helping these countries to resolve their conflicts where it helps them and where it responds to their wishes.
On the United Kingdom’s role, I broadly agree with the report. We have to work multilaterally to help those countries find political resolutions to their conflicts. We have to use whatever influence we have, given our present post-colonial resources. We have to work multilaterally—I agree with the report that we should try to work as closely as possible with France, although with a sense of realism about that, trying to avoid the Sykes-Picot rivalry of the past. We should also have a comprehensive approach to the Middle East, not just trade or security but education, healthcare, culture and other areas as well, working in areas that we know something about and others may know less well. We should recognise the emerging powers of the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. We need to work with them and strike our own position with regard to the United States but be consistent in our advice and the views which we express to their Administrations.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran is absolutely key. It is a tinderbox which could lead to much wider conflict including in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. They are both important regional powers. Saudi Arabia has its 2030 vision of a way forward with which we can work and co-operate. On Iran, we should keep that nuclear agreement which prevents a nuclear weapons capability. What point is there in withdrawing it other than to exacerbate the tension? However, we need to take seriously the proxy wars that are going on, and I like the committee’s recommendation that we should use the same multilateral group for dialogue with Iran on proxy wars and try to help both those powers to move forward. We should certainly work with Iran in developing trade links and easing banking services and regulations. However, at the end of the day, only those two regional powers can find a solution to the regional conflict.
On the Gulf, I first visited that area in 1959, and today it is unrecognisable. With the change in oil prices it will change again, and we will see a different Gulf in 10 years’ time. We have some long-standing friends there, such as Oman and Kuwait—the two rulers of those countries—but we are moving on to a new age. The monarchies have survived although many forecast that they would not, but if they want to be stable, as we want them to be in the future, they have to evolve into their own form of a kind of Arab constitutional monarchy. We have critical links with the Gulf—£30 billion of trade in the last year—and we need to develop that relationship.
As to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this has happened before—it is not the first time, although the situation is tenser this time. I suggest that the new GCC-UK strategic partnership which the Prime Minister formed in Bahrain last December should also provide a framework, not for us to interfere but for us to have a dialogue with the Gulf countries about the definition of the groups and individuals that cause instability in the Middle East and to try to help them reach a common view about that.
Lastly, on the Arab-Israel issue, I would like to see—one day, in 10, 20 or 30 years—that remarkably vibrant nation of Israel have a closer and closer rapport with some of the Arab countries, to the benefit of the Middle East as a whole. I do not want to give up on the idea of a two-state solution and I support the recommendations of the report that we should try to help by recognising the Palestinian state internationally.
It will be a painful and long haul. We cannot yet see the framework for the future post Daesh. I would like to echo to the Government the advice given by that excellent journalist, Jeremy Bowen, in his recent broadcasts: “Don’t make things worse. Try to make things better”. The report certainly helps in that regard.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce. When he said he might have to wait 10, 20 or 30 years, my view is that we will not have to wait that long because there is so much activity already between Israel and some of the Arab countries. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Howell on his report. I have admired him over his many years of political service—his knowledge and wisdom are widely appreciated. I refer the House to my non-financial registered interest as president of the Conservative Friends of Israel.
I will concentrate on areas where I have some knowledge. I have a theme for my few words—it is called a blind spot. On Iran, I understand the concentration on the nuclear deal but there is hardly a mention of Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah. In Britain we have proscribed the military and not the political wing of Hezbollah. I have raised this before and I do not apologise for raising it again. Hezbollah has 150,000 Iranian rockets in south Lebanon facing Israel. Hezbollah is proscribed by so many countries in its entirety—the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League—but not us. Hezbollah does not distinguish among itself so again I call on the Government and the Minister to look again at proscribing Hezbollah in full.
I agree with the report that the UK should position itself for a better relationship with Iran, but again, as I mentioned, the blind spot is that there is no mention of the support of terror in the report. On the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, as has been said, things move so quickly. Paragraph 253 says,
“President Trump dropped the US commitment to a two-state solution”.
No he has not. It says he has threatened,
“to move the US embassy to Jerusalem”.
No he has not. It says the new ambassador,
“David Friedman … may raise tensions”.
No he has not, either.
However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and refer to paragraph 266 where it says:
“A negotiated two-state outcome remains the only way to achieve an enduring peace that meets Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty, ends the occupation that began in 1967, and resolves all permanent status issues. We condemn the continuing Israeli policy of the expansion of settlements as illegal and an impediment to peace”.
This is totally one-sided. There is condemnation of Israel but where is the condemnation of the Palestinians’ incitement, the Hamas control of Gaza, the rocket attacks and the terror tunnels? That is not in the report at all.
Paragraph 270 talks about the balance of power in the delivery of peace lying again with Israel. It says,
“the UK should be ready to support UNSC resolutions condemning those actions”.
Again, it is one-sided. The best way to show a determined attachment to a two-state solution is to encourage the two sides to sit together and, while at it, encourage the Palestinians not to be the two sides on their own.
Tomorrow, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, mentioned, there is a debate on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. There are so many speakers so perhaps today I can deal with one particular issue—again, there is a blind spot. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, just reminded the House about the second part of the Balfour Declaration and he was right to do so. The last part of the Balfour Declaration says,
“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
However, it does not end there. The sentence continues,
“or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
I remind your Lordships that in 1948 there were 726,000 Palestinians who became refugees but there were 856,000 Jews living in Arab lands. In reality, two refugee populations were created at that time—Palestinians and Jews displaced from Arab countries—yet since 1947 the UN’s predominant focus has been on the Palestinians. Over the years there have been more than 170 resolutions on Palestinian refugees, 13 UN agencies and organisations have been mandated or created to provide protection and relief for the Palestinian refugees, and tens of billions of dollars have been disbursed by the international community to provide for the Palestinians. But during those same years there have been no UN resolutions, no support from UN agencies and no financial assistance to ameliorate the plight of Jewish or other refugees from Arab lands. I believe that it continues to be a serious injustice by the international community to recognise the rights of one victim population, the Palestinians, without recognising equal rights for the other victims of the same conflict—that is, the Jews, Christians and other refugees from Arab countries.
Noble Lords should not take my word for it; I have proof, which I shall share with the House. It was 22 November 1967 when Resolution 242 adopted the words laying down the principles for a peaceful settlement. It stipulated a,
“just settlement of the refugee problem”.
There was no distinction between Jew and Arab. On 16 November, a few days before, the UK submitted a draft which was not exclusive in calling for a just settlement. Four days later, the Soviet Union submitted a further draft restricting the “just settlement” to only Palestinian refugees, but on 22 November the Security Council gathered and the UK version was voted on and adopted unanimously. The Soviets did not want a vote on their draft, although Ambassador Kuznetsov later said that the Soviet Government would have preferred the adoption of the Soviet draft. Thus the attempt by the Soviets to restrict the just settlement of the refugee problem to only the Palestinian refugees was not successful. The international community’s adoption of the UK’s inclusive version signalled a desire for Resolution 242 to seek a just solution for all, including Jewish refugees.
In conclusion, last night we had the government report. Today, a research document called Supporting a Two-State Solution: Effective UK Policy to Boost Israel-Palestinian Relations was published by BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. I picked up what I think the House will agree are the five key, relevant points. The first is the role of the UK, in concert with others in the international community, in helping to create the conditions for the peace process to succeed and to bring about a two-state solution. The second is the need to concentrate on areas where the UK is well placed to make a practical difference, increasing funding to train Palestinian security forces and promoting civil society initiatives. Thirdly, the UK could use its good standing in the world—we are on the United Nations Security Council and have a good relationship with the Arab states—to promote new opportunities for diplomatic engagement. Fourthly, UK finance for the Palestinian Authority should be based on appropriate measures to ensure that financial aid reaches appropriate places and recipients and that funds are not misused. Finally, with budgets under pressure, the UK should ensure support for international initiatives that have a positive impact on improving conditions for the future.
There is hope and one should never give up, but I urge the committee to eradicate blind spots and hope that the UK will do all it can to bring the Palestinians and Israelis around the table to hammer out a solution, which I believe is within reach.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for introducing this debate, highlighting many issues of profound importance in a violent and fragile region in which countless innocent civilians are suffering.
I wish to focus on Syria. During recent visits, everyone whom we met, including representatives of different faith communities and professions, highlighted four concerns. The first is the UK Government’s commitment to regime change and the removal of President Assad. It is impossible to condone violations of human rights, including the use of torture, by President Assad and other Middle Eastern Governments, but everyone to whom we spoke now sees President Assad as the only effective bulwark against ISIS and its related militias. These include people active in opposition who took part in the demonstrations that erupted into the current war. There is a widespread fear that any regime change and the removal of Assad would lead to a far greater evil—another Libya or Iraq.
In Lattakia, approximately 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, many having suffered atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and related groups. I met many of them, among them a Muslim woman who had been forced to flee from her home by ISIS. Weeping, she embraced me and told me how her husband and brother and their sons had been beheaded in front of her. She said, “In war, people on both sides are killed by shelling. But on one side, you die from shells; on the other, you die from shells and beheadings, and we don’t want the beheadings. The Government protects us from these”. Another person put the position very vividly, and his feelings were typical of many whom we met. He said, “I never voted for Assad. I always called for reforms and change. But now I would die for him”. Among those most fearful of regime change are religious minorities and women. Even those most critical of President Assad acknowledge his commitment to the protection of religious minorities and to the promotion of women’s rights. These approaches are to be respected.
The second concern is the UK Government’s role in the war. To many, it seems that the UK is now keener to strike at Syrian government forces than to destroy ISIS—which should surely be the priority. Robert Fisk, in the Independent, used virtually identical words regarding US policy. Britain is reportedly supporting and training so-called “moderate rebels”. Many are active members of radical groups, some of whose fighters are among the most ruthless in the Middle East. The UK has also effectively given air support to ISIS by apparently striking pro-Assad forces on more than one occasion.
I say “apparently” because it is difficult to be certain; the US, the UK and other allied forces operate under the appellation “coalition”. However, in December 2016 the coalition admitted killing 82 Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor, where they were defending that city against ISIS, and the British Government have not denied participating in that appalling action. More attacks were committed recently against forces allied to the Syrian Army in the Tanaf area on the Syrian/Iraqi border, allegedly to protect British and other forces working with anti-Assad militants—a mission for which British forces had absolutely no mandate from Parliament or the UN. Many civilians were killed in these attacks.
I ask the Minister for his response to deep and widespread concerns that the UK has no legal grounds whatever to intervene militarily in Syria. There is no UN mandate to do so, there has been no request from the legitimate Government of Syria to intervene, and the UK has not been attacked by Syria. In addition, I will ask two related questions: what has UK taxpayers’ money done for peace for Syria, and will the Government provide public accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money in supporting rebel groups in Syria?
The third concern is the US/UK response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad in April. To recapitulate, on 4 April a severe aerial attack occurred in Idlib, the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Syria. Reports emerged of the possible use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Within two days, without proper investigation, the Americans retaliated with 59 Tomahawk missiles, hitting an airbase used in the fight against ISIS near the government-controlled city of Homs. The UK Government praised President Trump’s response, despite the fact that questions remain about the details of the initial attack.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons produced a report concluding that sarin was used but that no conclusions could be reached concerning the dispersal mechanism—in other words, whether it was delivered by a bomb. The OPCW report itself has many flaws. The team of inspectors were unable to visit the site, as it is controlled by jihadists. The team took at face value evidence provided to it by people and organisations linked to the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra. The report also pays scant attention to disconfirming evidence, such as the fact that video evidence shows responders exposing themselves to materials which, if they had traces of sarin, would have killed them.
Moreover, a team from Médecins Sans Frontières, treating victims from Khan Sheikhoun at a clinic 60 miles to the north, reported that,
“eight patients showed symptoms … consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds”.
MSF also visited other hospitals that had received victims and found that patients there,
“smelled of bleach, suggesting that they had been exposed to chlorine”.
In other words, the evidence suggested that more than one chemical was responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case had the Syrian air force dropped a sarin bomb, which has no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and organic phosphates, used in many fertilisers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.
Yet, despite the lack of firm evidence, the President of the United States has warned the Syrian Government against a repeat of the April incident, threatening a devastating strike. Our Defence Secretary applauded President Trump’s threat and our Foreign Secretary continues the allegations that Assad bombed using sarin. These threats and allegations by the United Kingdom are deeply disturbing. Surely the priority should be defeating ISIS and related terrorists and protecting civilians rather than striking at those forces which are attacking ISIS and kindred jihadi groups. Moreover, President Trump’s threat is causing widespread, profound terror among civilians throughout Syria and can provide the jihadis with every incentive to stage a fake attack, with civilian victims, in order to precipitate the US strike that President Trump so unwisely promised.
Fourthly, I turn to humanitarian needs and the effect of sanctions, which are crippling the state and preventing it from providing essential supplies to its people. Syria is struggling to get machinery, raw materials, fuel and basic necessities such as flour and medicines. This is causing great suffering to innocent civilians. When we met the Syrian doctors’ society in Aleppo, it emphasised the disastrous effect of sanctions on the procurement of essential medicines and equipment such as prostheses, exacerbating the suffering of innocent civilians.
The effect of sanctions on food supplies is also having a detrimental effect on attempts to encourage people who have been displaced by ISIS to return to their homes once they have been liberated. The effect of food shortages was graphically expressed by a community leader from the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula. This town had been captured by ISIS, which perpetrated atrocities, including martyrdom of Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was subsequently liberated and he is trying to encourage citizens to return to their homes. This is difficult because of the lack of food. The situation regarding food shortages is exacerbated by the fact that much of the wheat-growing land in Syria is under ISIS control. This community leader told us, “If you don’t die from the bombing and the bullets, you die from the beheadings. If you don’t die from the beheadings, you die from starvation thanks to sanctions”.
Given the continuing suffering of the people of Syria, exacerbated by UK foreign policy, I was encouraged to read the committee’s conclusion:
“British confusion and disarray in Syria is a reflection of the contradictions in international policy on President Bashar al-Assad, which must be rethought. The objective of displacing Assad as a prerequisite of any settlement, with the current means and policy, has proved unachievable. Despite the chemical attack and the recent escalation of military conflict Assad, with Russian support, remains in power … There are no good options available in Syria but the recent chemical attack, the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, with the potential to destabilise the EU and countries of the Middle East with refugees, requires the UK, and international community, to redouble its efforts to achieve a negotiated solution”.
I emphasise the fact that deep concern over the UK’s policy regarding Syria is not new. Before Christmas last year, three former UK ambassadors to Syria signed a letter to the Times in which they expressed their criticism of the UK position regarding regime change. Will the UK Government consider establishing an embassy in Syria? It seems utterly unjustifiable to deny this when the UK has embassies in North Korea, with its deplorable human rights record and current concerns on nuclear weapons, and in Khartoum, despite the fact that the President of Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is continuing genocidal policies against his own civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Finally, I and many others were deeply disappointed by the Minister’s response when winding up the debate on the gracious Speech. It was a repetition of the Government’s mantra commitment to regime change and the displacement of President Assad. However, the situation in Syria has changed fundamentally and the committee’s report has recognised these changes, making well-argued recommendations for changes in UK policy. I therefore conclude by urging the Government to respond positively to the well-reasoned and significant recommendations promoted in this important report.
My Lords, I declare an interest because of past ministerial responsibilities and having spent a great deal of my life in the non-governmental sphere which is in many ways highly relevant to the situations we are discussing.
As a non-member of the committee, I place on record my absolutely unlimited delight at reading a report of this character. The report must be one of the wisest, most thoughtful and most provocative intellectually that there has been for a very long time. I hope the Government are therefore taking it very seriously. There are encouraging indications that this may be the case, and I hope that is so. I also am confident that my noble friends with responsibility in this sphere will take it very seriously indeed. So thanks to all concerned, both Members of the House and the staff of the committee.
The Government have rightly taken great pride in the part they played in bringing to a successful conclusion the Arms Trade Treaty. That was a very constructive role by the Government. Of course, we will be judged not just by what we did to get the treaty but by our consistency and integrity in applying it to our own affairs. There can be a big gap in that respect, and I am one of those who is deeply worried about the prevarication and equivocation on the issue of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Instead of looking for rationales and excuses as to why things are as they are, we should say categorically that, in terms of the treaty of which we were essentially pioneers, along with others, it is crucial that we take decisive action and leave the Saudi Arabians in no doubt whatsoever of where we stand.
At the turn of the century, I spent several years working as the rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the bitter and horrible conflict in Chechnya—I visited Chechnya nine times. There are certain things seared on my memory from that time. One is that the brutal, indiscriminate, insensitive action by the Russians was building up extremism. President Putin would say at that time, “But Lord Judd has to understand that we have an acute security problem on our southern flank”. That was certainly true—I did not differ at all from that analysis—but if that was the case, why were we driving people into the arms of the extremists who were making things worse?
What I like about this report is that there is a theme going through it: that these are the kinds of issues about which we should be thinking very deeply. How do we avoid making things worse? How do we stand up for principle? Bearing in mind that we cannot have it both ways, it is simply nonsense to pretend that there are not implications for security in this country arising from the way we may be conducting foreign policy. I wonder just how much we have thought about how many young potential recruits there are for extremist positions in this country by virtue of our failure to stand up as we should have done on Saudi Arabia.
On Iran, the report is magnificently written and the position of the committee members is courageous and right, but there are certain immediate points that we cannot brush under the carpet. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights. In light of paragraphs 204 and 205 of the report, does the International Relations Committee agree that it is not appropriate for Iran arbitrarily to arrest and detain British citizens, including British-Iranian dual nationals, and sentence them under judicial processes that fall far short of international standards and that Iran should release all such citizens immediately, including Kamal Foroughi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Furthermore, given the grave concerns about the deteriorating health of those individuals since their arrest and detention in May 2011 and April 2016 respectively, with the 77 year-old Mr Foroughi facing significant health risks of prostate cancer and blindness due to untreated cataracts and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe suffering serious mental health problems and the apparent denial of appropriate medical care by authorities in Evin prison, is it not essential that more must be done immediately to ensure their release and that further irreparable harm to their health does not occur?
Generally on Iran, on the strategic issues I am glad that the committee is as firm as it is. I am also glad that it made it pretty clear that the present President of the United States is not helping in finding a way forward.
On Palestine/Israel, I cannot help remembering that, as a young Member of Parliament, I was in Tel Aviv when the 1967 war started. I had arrived there for an international conference and the war started the next morning. Deeply implanted in my memory was how during a heavy period of bombardment and fighting, when I was taking shelter with some Israeli people, they were listening to radio messages beamed into Israel by people who were of a rather militant frame of mind in supporting Israel. I remember some of them turning to me in that situation and saying, “It’s all very well for these people, but we have to work out a future in this region and we have to think of our long-term relationships with the Arab world around us”. I have never forgotten that.
In the same way, I have also always admired those members of the Israeli armed services who have stood up to be counted and said that they are not prepared to be part of something which they believe is not acceptable. I also have great admiration for young Israeli lawyers who stand up and defend young people in military courts. From that point of view, we must ask why we have not been more firm in our position. Of course, the two-state solution is the right one. I cannot think of anything guaranteed to build more insecurity into the future of Israel than to abandon the two-state solution. We want a solution in which Palestinians have confidence, self-respect and citizenship that means something in their own society.
I am sorry to keep quoting experience, but when you get to my age you begin to think about your experiences in life. On the negotiators, I had a while as chairman of the Committee of Middle East Questions for the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I began to feel at times that the negotiators in both camps had become institutionalised, that in a sort of way they might be playing a game that they both understood. If you caught them in social moments, they would be laughing, talking and chatting together. They would not be sharing a drink for obvious reasons. Well, they would share a drink but not alcoholic ones, necessarily. I thought there was a huge challenge there to build more opportunities for understanding to grow up around the negotiators and political leaders.
The contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, today have been very important, as they always are. His work is absolutely terrific. However, we should seek ways in which young people and professional people can meet from both communities, looking, talking and sharing experiences in areas where they have mutual concerns. That could do a great deal to help in building up a situation in which progress becomes possible.
Obviously I would like to say far more, but my final point is simply that we must learn—I am so glad to hear this repeated, and stimulated by the excellent report we are discussing—now at last that we cannot manage the Middle East situation any more than any other similar situation in the world. The solutions must be found by the people themselves. Our job is to assist in generating experiences, atmosphere and relationships that can help with solutions being found. In so far as we start establishing deadlines, management targets and so on, it is disastrous. We should have learned that in recent years. Thank you to all those involved in the report, which is very refreshing and excellent. We are fortunate to have it.
My Lords, I declare that I am associated with a major Middle Eastern entity, although naturally the views I express are mine alone.
I offer congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and his team on their many thought-provoking assessments. As the title of the main report indicates, the region under consideration is primarily the Middle East, although extending to north Africa and the Levant. Defining a region can be elusive. I would always classify the Levant as being in the Middle East and wonder why there is not more consideration of Israel’s contribution within the Middle East. I remember well a conversation with Crown Prince Hassan in Amman when we discussed the role of Israel in the Arab world, as applicable then as now. Regional tensions might be reduced if Israel focused more on the Arab world rather than Europe or the United States and, conversely, if the Arab world was more accepting of Israel, although I accept that positive moves are afoot. The common thread of extremism and terrorism, cyber or otherwise, has to be tackled.
North Africa, included in the report under the banner of MENA, has a different dynamic from that of the Middle East. MENA, as it impacts north Africa—expedient geography to the Foreign Office, Brussels and the OECD, with their development initiatives on governance and competitiveness—is of course very much of the world of Islam, but with differing politics and trade issues. It is a pity, but in the circumstances understandable, that the committee was unable to visit Riyadh and Tehran—two Middle East linchpins. It is preferable always to test the broader world view from within rather than solely as perceived from London. Both offer a world of opportunity for the United Kingdom. All commentators inform me that the UK is lagging behind in connecting with Iran. The signing of a $5 billion contract with Total is testament to that. I see the inability of the Iranian embassy to open a bank account in London as a detriment. I ask the Minister: are there any developments in that regard and what is holding back the ability to do so?
Iran’s significant historical and current influence, the unresolved Israel-Palestinian situation and the recent Gulf rifts with Qatar exacerbate old and new regional tensions. Multiple crises define the MENA region. One also should not be blind to Afghanistan; the effects of the refugee exodus reaching directly into Europe, Italy in particular; and the bilateral tussle between Morocco and Algeria over Sahara. Matters are compounded on the one hand by an apparent withdrawal by the United States, while still defending its national interest combating ISIS and al-Qaeda, and on the other hand by Russia and its interests becoming increasingly centre-stage, with support for Syria and nuclear activities in Iran. Co-operation generally between these state actors needs to be established. Events have the potential to get out of hand.
The Middle East requires vital stabilisation. Trust and confidence-building measures are urgently required. Yet throughout the Arab world, with all its turmoil, Arabs, barring extremists, are intrinsically a peaceful people; to raise one’s voice is considered very much a non-Arab trait. Undeniable contributors to a more settled region would be a greater role for women in society and state affairs; a strengthened civil society; and, I suggest with respect to regional elders, a move to a younger leadership pattern, currently in the offing in Saudi Arabia, together with the acceptance of social media as a practical reality. Of course I recognise that these issues are anathema to many but they are none the less unavoidable for tomorrow’s leaders. There is much to reflect upon.
The report’s emphasis is more on political and security issues than trade. Given the importance of trade to a post-Brexit United Kingdom, perhaps I might offer one or two pointers. The unintended consequences of low oil prices and political instability are giving great cause for concern to UK trade with the Middle East. Trade figures show that the low oil prices are affecting spending plans, with countries now urgently seeking new models for financing future plans. The UK leads in this area and it is where we can help. On the positive side, wealthier GCC countries have adequate financial buffers to insulate them from the current volatility in the price of oil and other global factors, where non-oil sector growth is supported by high government expenditures on infrastructure, including public transportation, housing, healthcare and aviation. A real effort is taking place to diversify economies away from oil and gas. A good example of this is the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and Kuwait’s recently announced five-year plan, while in Egypt, where a more challenging market exists, the economic and political outlook should improve with enhanced security conditions, reduced fuel subsidies, tax-system reform and the Suez Canal expansion project.
However, trade finance for international trade remains a major challenge for economic recovery and development. For my part, I am engaged with two emerging initiatives. A new committee for Middle East trade—COMET—will work in an advisory role highlighting opportunities and challenges for members and government. COMET will provide a new approach in the UK by working with government and the private sector stimulating interest for British exporters where no UK advisory body exists. It is felt that the immediate future for UK trade should focus on British partnerships in medium-sized ventures, particularly those that support employment coupled to training, while keeping a watching brief on the high-value projects, most of which are long term. Key areas for growth range from legal and Sharia-compliant financial services to energy infrastructure, defence and security, educational and vocational training and healthcare. The key question is how the UK can best co-ordinate and mobilise its resources during these challenging times to ensure that British companies maintain their interest and do not turn away from these markets.
In addition, a meeting, lunch and gala dinner on 10 October under the banner of the global CEO club will take place in London. The royal families of various countries, together with industry leaders from throughout the region, are to attend. I have been asked to encourage the Prime Minister to address a strong guest list, and I wonder whether the Minister would consider this through his good offices. The purpose of the event is to introduce leaders in the region to partner with United Kingdom interests. There is much to play for.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the committee on this excellent report. I welcome the Minister to his new post and very much hope that he will continue the occasional briefings that his predecessors had for Members of the House of Lords; I suggest that some of the issues in the Middle East might be a very strong candidate for such a briefing.
I am not a Middle East expert, and I learned a lot from this report, including about the incoherence of British responses to the changes which are under way. It sets out very clearly the underlying instability of the region, the rapid rise in its population, with unemployed but educated young people, and the rapid transition from traditional society to cities and mass communication in one or, at the most, two generations. It has weak states, mostly run by old men or military men, but now some Gulf states are run by young men in a hurry. The Arab spring was a failed attempt at transition away from autocratic regimes, but the conditions that led to those popular eruptions across the region are still there and unresolved and are likely to create further eruptions.
Climate change threatens to make the situation worse. The likelihood of outward migration on a large scale is there for multiple reasons: refugees, economic migrants and the politically discontented. Migration from the Middle East and North Africa, not from eastern Europe, is the long-term immigration challenge that the UK and other European states face, unlike what Migration Watch UK and the leave campaign have been trying to sell to the British public over recent years.
The report also sets out very well the loss of western influence and the limits of British influence. After all, Britain’s moment in the Middle East ended 60 years ago with the disastrous intervention in Suez. The report does not go very far into the influence of Middle East states and elites in Britain, but the complexities of the relationship work both ways. Qatari, Kuwaiti and other Gulf investment in London property and British banks and companies is highly visible. The personal links between Gulf royal families and others and British high society is evident to anyone who goes to Royal Ascot or walks through Belgravia and goes into its restaurants. The question of who is influencing whom is not easy to determine.
At the other end of the social scale, there is a significant flow of influence and finance to Muslim communities within the UK. Saudi and Salafi influence within Pakistan flows indirectly back into British cities, mosques and madrassahs. The diversity of our British Muslim community means that conflicts across the Muslim world risk spilling over into our own country with attacks on Ahmadis or Shias in our cities. Much of the Turkish community in London is Kurdish, and some is Alevi. In Britain, Arabs and Turks, Iranians and Kurds breathe the freer air and plot peaceful or revolutionary change at home to the concern of their autocratic Governments at home. So we cannot disengage, but we have to recognise, as the report makes clear, that we have limited influence on our own and must work with others—above all, as the report suggests, with other major European states, mainly France and Germany, and, in so far as we can with the volatility of the Trump Administration’s policies, the United States.
The latest crisis is that between Qatar and rest of the GCC. Some of us are quite worried that this could become a long-term breach. For example, there have been suggestions from ambassadors of the UAE, which were reported in our newspapers, that third countries may after a while have to choose whether they wish to trade with Qatar or with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It is not at all in our interests to have to make choices like that. Given Saudi claims that Qatar is the main sponsor of terrorism across the Middle East, the case for publication, at least in part, of the UK government report on the Muslim Brotherhood and on Saudi support for radical groups in the UK and elsewhere is now even stronger than before. Will the Minister say what the Government’s intentions are on this? If we are to understand and respond to the comments and lobbying that some of us are getting about the positions we take on this dispute, it would help a great deal to have some sense of the Government’s interpretation of the Saudi record. There were promises to Liberal Democrats before and after the 2015 election that these reports would be provided. At the very least, we need a confidential briefing for parliamentarians. I note that this report supports a cautious dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a rather different position to the hard lines adopted over the past week or two by Dubai and Riyadh, and is cautiously critical of Saudi support for Wahhabi approaches to Islam in other Muslim states. I recently read a very worrying article in the Atlantic magazine on King Salman’s recent visit to Indonesia and the influence which the Saudis have had in Indonesia in changing the tolerant attitude which Islam has had to other faiths and to different varieties of Islam into a much less tolerant version.
There is a real danger that the UK will end up too closely aligned with the Sunni Gulf states in their political and sectarian conflict with Iran. I note that a number of noble Lords say that it is a fundamentally political not sectarian conflict, but when it reaches the ground, some Sunni kill Shia, so it unavoidably becomes deeply sectarian. The report again recommends a cautious but positive approach to Iran, encouraging the moderate and open elements in that country’s complex political system against the hard-liners. Iran is a major potential trade partner and a necessary element in any more stable Middle East. British Conservatives should not fall in behind US Republicans in their obsession with Iran as a global threat, which is itself fuelled by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Government in Israel.
The next crisis in the region will be over the future of Iraq and Syria after the defeat of Daesh, with Turks, Kurds of different factions and from different regions, Iranians, Saudis, Qataris, Russians and Americans all with different preferences to push. Britain, again, will have only limited influence but will be affected by what happens, and our influence will best be exercised in co-operation with our European allies.
The report is rightly critical of the confusions of British policy towards the region and of Britain’s failure to adjust. Boris Johnson’s speech last December on returning “east of Suez” was a blast of imperial nostalgia that had no strategic rationale behind it. Why are we expanding our military footprint in the Gulf? Is it to join the GCC states in containing—or even fighting—Iran, to impress the Americans with our claim still to be a global power, to compete with the French in selling arms to the Gulf states, or what? Was it wise to accept the Bahraini Government’s offer to pay for an expansion of our naval base there, which must look to the majority Shia population of Bahrain as a British commitment to defending the current regime against future change? The Government promised us a Gulf strategy paper before the end of last year. It has not appeared, presumably because there is no coherent Gulf strategy. Can the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to publish such a strategy?
The report notes that Brexit makes UK foreign policy more dependent on relations with other regions outside Europe and that Liam Fox, as International Trade Secretary, sees enormous potential for further growth in economic interdependence with the Middle East, above all with the Gulf states. But the report also notes time and again that we have to work with others and that it will be wise to co-ordinate our approaches as closely as possible with France and Germany—as the UK government did successfully in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
I worry about the incoherence of government policy towards the Middle East almost as much as I worry about its incoherence towards the European region. It is still operating on the assumption that we should follow the United States as closely as we can and still sees ourselves as wiser and more global than other European states. I wish that government policy were closer to that which this report recommends.
My Lords, all of us who have been fortunate enough to serve alongside the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, both here and in the House of Commons, have come to recognise his telling wisdom and prescience. He and his committee are to be warmly congratulated on this excellent report.
In several places, the report reminds us that the UK cannot act alone in addressing issues in the Middle East, while also highlighting the remarks of Dr Richard Haass that, in this world of bad options,
“not acting can be every bit as consequential as acting”.
As a BBC correspondent put it to the committee, in the Middle East,
“things come back and bite you if you walk away”—
a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in his remarks a few moments ago about the effect in our own cities of events taking place in remote parts of the world.
I first visited Syria in 1980, on the day the Iran-Iraq war broke out, when my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond was British ambassador in Damascus—where, like my noble friend Lady Cox, I regret the absence of a British diplomatic presence today. Over the ensuing decades, the consequences of failing to act, as Dr Haass put it, have been lethal for millions of people. One such consequence has been the migration and refugee crisis in which millions have been caught up. An estimated 13,000 have perished in the Mediterranean, the equivalent of both Houses of our Parliament being wiped out 10 times over.
Another consequence has been the spread of a murderous ideology that has no respect for the sanctity of human life, a point referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester earlier today. Perhaps the Select Committee could use a future report to examine our response to outright genocide and the slaughter of the region’s minorities. A region without diversity and without minorities will of course also be a far worse place for the majority too. Only last week, there was a truly shocking report in the Independent newspaper and elsewhere about how the region’s only Yazidi MP, Vian Dakhil from Iraq, wept as she described how a baby was butchered and fed to its own unwitting mother by ISIS, which had taken the mother as a sex slave. That Member of Parliament then went on to describe the rape and death of a 10 year-old girl in front of her father and five sisters. Such nauseating obscenity and barbarism breaks hearts but should also stir consciences. Imagine for a moment that this was your daughter, your sister or your wife.
Nearly 10,000 Yazidis are believed to have been killed or captured by ISIS, which reserves particular contempt for this minority group. Many women have been kept as sex slaves. Others have been discovered in mass graves. But the House will also recall the 21 Coptic Christians taken to a Libyan beach and executed by ISIS after they refused to renounce their faith. ISIS says of the Copts that they are its favourite prey. Then think of the countless atrocities in Raqqa and Mosul. Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, says that two-thirds of Syrian Christians have either been killed or driven away from his country.
Zainab Bangura, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, has authenticated reports of Christian and Yazidi females—girls aged one to seven—being sold, with the youngest carrying the highest price tag. One 80 year-old Christian woman who stayed in Nineveh was reportedly burned alive. In another Christian family, the mother and 12 year-old daughter were raped by ISIS militants, leading the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. One refugee described how she witnessed ISIS crucify her husband on the door of their home.
Three years ago, on 23 July 2014, I warned in an opinion piece in the Times that,
“the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement”.
But the world chose not to wake up, and for those caught up in these barbaric events, the stakes are utterly existential. If the Minister does not believe that these acts are part of a genocide, perhaps he would tell us precisely what despicable acts would have to occur which would constitute genocide? The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which we are one of 147 signatories, lays on us a duty to protect and to punish. The convention of course was the work of the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who lost 49 of his relatives in the Holocaust, and says that “international co-operation” is needed,
“to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.
In Syria and in Iraq, we have signally failed to do this.
It is 14 months now since the House of Commons, on 20 April 2016, voted unanimously to approve a Motion expressing the opinion that ISIS was inflicting genocidal atrocities on religious minorities. Our subsequent failure to act makes us derelict in our obligations under the 1948 convention. The Government have simply said they will collect evidence. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on how well this evidence collection is going. Are we, for instance, in touch with Ms Dakhil, the Yazidi MP I referred to earlier, to take a detailed statement from her about the appalling crime that she described?
I have been receiving disturbing reports from charities on the ground that very little evidence collection is under way and that crime scenes have been hopelessly contaminated while we have dithered. Is that true? How much evidence have we collected? Is it also true that those collecting the evidence have decided to disregard the atrocities committed against the Christian communities?
As we have seen in Manchester, at London Bridge and here at Westminster, these issues can indeed “come back” to “bite” us, as that BBC correspondent remarked. The Government need to see the clear link between the security and survival of the people of the region and our own citizens here in the UK. What security can there be when International Criminal Court-category crimes are left unpunished?
The committee’s report notes on page 4 that Russia is an essential partner if a global solution to problems in the region is to be achieved. What is stopping us from at least tabling a United Nations resolution at the Security Council to begin the prosecution of the ISIS leadership, even if it is just in the territory of Iraq alone?
The report also talks about the importance of building non-governmental links. Yes, but with a caution. Will the Minister confirm that he has received the letter I sent to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last Sunday about how UNHCR hands over control of its camps to local officials who have ideological agendas, impose sharia, intimidate others and on whose watch persecution, rape, robbery and violence occur, which is why many from those minorities avoid the camps? In other words, UNHCR is failing to provide safety and security to the very people who require it. I am told that locally contracted translators intimidate, browbeat, insult or threaten Yazidis and Christians, deliberately falsify information, lose files or tell such applicants to try elsewhere.
In this maelstrom, where is the future? The noble Lord, Lord Howell, pointed us to the changing face of our NATO ally, Erdogan’s Turkey. Last week, Turkey sequestrated 50 monasteries, churches and cemeteries. I have stayed at Mor Gabriel on the Tur Abdin plateau. It was founded in 397. It is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. I have written to the Minister about these sequestrations. Perhaps he could tell us where he thinks these seizures leave Turkey’s minority communities.
Meanwhile, across the border, joint Kurdish and Assyrian forces have recaptured a number of villages in the Khabur river valley area. They will need enormous help to find and dispose of mines and make homes and villages safe again. Will we be enhancing their military capability—their ability to protect themselves? Will we be guaranteeing, as John Major did in his day, a no-fly zone? What will we do to rid of munitions and armaments a region where assault weapons are more numerous than cooking pots?
In Washington recently, I met Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria. He said:
“Without achieving the full rights of all the minorities of Syria, no new Syria will emerge and no political actor will win”.
His vision for the region is one where rights are based on citizenship; where all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender are treated equally; and where women have a prominent role in the structures. Will we provide serious support for the Kurdish-Assyrian democratic self-administration governmental structure, with its commitment to civil society and the rule of law? Will we be backing the creation of the multidenominational Marshall plan called the Nineveh reconstruction project, which has already begun to rebuild and resettle thousands of people back in their homes and farms?
Matters are now at a tipping point: if these minorities fear that they will be unable to recover their homes, towns and villages, it will severely undermine the wider social and economic renewal of the region and result in thousands more refugees. There are incalculable benefits from religious pluralism, including stabilisation, growth and an easing of sectarian tensions. Of 12,000 known families, 500 have already returned to Telesqof, 74 homes have been repaired in Qaraqosh, and work is under way with other villages in the Kurdish-controlled areas. The project aims also to include provision of employment and the reconstruction of schools. Almost 13,000 homes in nine Christian villages in the Nineveh plains have been damaged, burned or totally destroyed in this genocide. Private charities alone cannot remake the broken places. Aid to the Church in Need, on whose board I sit, has costed the rebuild for homes and services in nine villages—excluding Mosul and Alqosh—at £254 million.
Our Government must play their part by ensuring that these ancient communities have fair and equal access to international and DfID humanitarian and development assistance; that persecuted minorities are part of the political settlement at national, provincial and district level; that safety and security of these minorities is provided in both the immediate and long-term; and that those who have terrorised and murdered them are brought to justice.
My Lords, it was a privilege for me to be a member of the committee. The report that we compiled has been pretty well received by most of its contributors. A special thanks, of course, to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who did a great job as chairman, and a very special thanks to the staff of the committee. It may not be apparent from the text of the report, but it was compiled in great haste because of the advent of a completely unexpected—certainly on my part and, I think, on that of most other people—general election, which put a heavy burden on our staff, particularly our policy analyst, who was outstanding in putting it together.
It has to be said that the evidence that we received and many of our findings about the Middle East today do not make happy reading. To describe much of the region as troubled and unstable is a huge understatement. As we put it:
“The region is violent; disfigured by inter- and intrastate conflict and by sectarian divisions”.
There is also the involvement of foreign powers in the region. One witness said to us in terms that there have been massacres and brutal episodes of sectarian violence intermittently for 1,400 years in the region but, he added, in the broad sweep of history, it is noticeable that tensions have been at their most bloody when external powers have been involved.
This inevitably raises the question of Britain’s involvement in the region. Our activities have been intense, over a very long period and often in dramatic ways. There is the drawing of international boundaries in the colonial period, the involvement in the region during two world wars, the Balfour Declaration, the overthrow of Mosadeq in Iran, the Suez crisis, wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, the oil trade and arms sales—on and on, not all triumphs.
It is not unreasonable to ask: might it not be better for Great Britain and everyone else if we disentangled ourselves and left well alone? The committee’s view was that this would be neither realistic nor desirable, if for no other reason—in truth, there are many reasons—than, as one of the witnesses pointed out,
“what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East”.
It seems impossible to discuss any aspect of British foreign policy these days without mentioning Brexit, and our committee does not disappoint. Nearly all the witnesses were questioned on the subject, and I can report—wait for it—that our conclusions are essentially benign. As we report:
“The significance of Brexit on the Middle East is, on balance, less than elsewhere. Policy in the region relies on bilateral relationships and security commitments”.
Sir Derek Plumbly, former British ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, told us that Arab Governments,
“tend instinctively to look beyond the EU to national governments”,
and we received evidence that a number of states in the region would welcome the development of bilateral trade and other relationships with Britain post Brexit.
On overseas aid, where much of our budget is channelled through the European Union, and while there can be economies of scale in doing so, in the words of Neil Crompton, director of the Middle East and north Africa department at the Foreign Office, Brexit might be “slightly liberating”, in that UK diplomats spent,
“an awful lot of time negotiating EU positions that we do not always agree with”.
Surely anything which eases the pressure on diplomats cannot be all that bad.
However, while our membership of the EU may not be pivotal to our trade, aid or defence policies in the Middle East, there is no doubt that our key allies in Europe remain, and will continue to remain post Brexit, enormously important. As Jack Straw, who gave evidence to the committee, said, the reality has always been that foreign policy at EU level requires France, Germany and the United Kingdom to agree to it, and that is how it will be in future.
That is particularly true in the case of Iran. As we write in paragraph 205:
“It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran, and we recommend that this should be a key priority for the UK”.
A pivotal part of that relationship is the joint comprehensive plan of action involving Britain, France, Germany, the US, China and Russia. The signing of an agreement on a subject as sensitive as Iran’s nuclear programme, while undoubtedly a considerable achievement, was unsurprisingly viewed with a mixture of anxiety and hostility by the Saudis, the Gulf states and Israel. And yet—and this is one of those things that often comes out when you are taking evidence—despite all the national rhetoric, frequently, and in many important ways, relationships between the Gulf states and Iran, and even between Saudi and Iran, in trading terms if nothing else, are developing all the time, whatever the comments by national Governments. But of course the Trump Administration are hostile to the deal and, as Jack Straw again said in his evidence, there is a feeling among the Iranians that their country was humiliated by the deal and has received nothing in return. Our committee said that it was in our country’s interests to continue to support the deal, irrespective of any opposition from the US, and that it is in our economic as well as our strategic interests to open up new sources of finance and investment in Iran.
While at least we could identify a strategy that, albeit slowly, might improve the Iranian situation, there was nothing positive whatever to report about Israel/Palestine. While virtually every international actor and, indeed, the principal parties to the dispute themselves pay lip service to a two-state solution, the prospects of it being achieved according to our witnesses are at best on hold or at worst diminishing by the hour. The central problem—and there is no way of evading this—is the continued growth of illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian land, which makes the possibility of a viable Palestinian state ever less credible. Since 2009 alone, more than 80,000 settlers have moved into Palestinian land, bringing the grand total to well over half a million. Our witnesses ranged from Jack Straw, who said that the settlement activity made the establishment of a two-state solution incredibly difficult, to the then Minister, Tobias Ellwood, who said,
“the growth of settlements is coming perilously close to making that”—
a two-state solution—“an impossibility”.
Yet I am sorry to say that our Government have been sending mixed messages, as we report, on this crucial issue. We supported UNSC Resolution 2334, which said that,
“the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory … constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution”.
Yet on 29 December, we distanced ourselves from then US Secretary of State John Kerry, when he said that the,
“status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation”.
In January this year, we again distanced ourselves, this time from the Paris conference, which included 70 countries that reaffirmed their commitment to the two-state solution.
It was absolutely clear from our witnesses that the two-state solution itself is perilously close to moving from being a difficult though feasible strategy to a meaningless, unattainable mantra. The Israeli Government’s public position is to support the two-state solution but, in practice, their policies are not even benign ones of inactivity; they are active ones of settlement-building, which inexorably makes their declared strategy unachievable. Our committee was clear that the consequences of the two-state solution becoming impossible would be a grave development for the region, and that playing our part in resolving the conflict must be a high priority for British foreign policy. Irrespective of any contrary view coming from Washington, we should give our clear support to the French-led international initiative. If the Israelis with their settlement activity further imperil the prospect of a solution, we should be ready to support appropriate United Nations resolutions. As a demonstration of our commitment to two states, we should give serious consideration, as the Commons did in the last Session of Parliament, to recognising a Palestinian state. There is a logical gulf somewhere between supporting a two-state solution and only recognising one state.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by any inquiry into the scale of the problems faced by a region as vast and challenging as the Middle East. We concentrated our recommendations on those areas where we could make practical suggestions that we felt were important for British foreign policy while being realistic about our country’s capacity to change things for the better. But doing nothing, as we are frequently reminded, is in itself a policy option, and by no means always the best one. I have focused on just a couple of areas, Iran and Israel/Palestine, where our extensive involvement goes back decades and where I believe we still have the capacity to make a difference—and I believe that we should.
My Lords, the report skilfully struck a note, not of pessimism, of the sort that drives Stephen Hawking to advise quitting this planet, nor of optimism, based on mantras of hope, love and expenditure solving everything, but somewhere in between. It is entitled, The Middle East: Time for New Realism, and new realism is the measure by which we should consider it. There must be praise for the report’s recognition of the cultural good that the UK has and will provide, including through the BBC World Service, which must be maintained, and especially in education. The oppressed people of the Middle East, especially women, could be helped by British pressure on human rights issues. There is a delicate balancing issue to consider, however, for British universities have taken very substantial amounts of money from Middle Eastern states, some of which is directed at promoting the agenda of the donor and buying influence. Any reduction in the UK’s reliance on Middle East oil would be welcome. I have just bought an all-electric car.
The recognition in the report that Christians in the Middle East are in danger is also welcome, in part because of the reflection it throws on religion as the cause of conflict. While the Middle East is in flames, as so graphically described by my noble friend Lord Alton, it is somewhat unrealistic to place Israel at its fulcrum, or as an exceptional flashpoint. The excessive focus on Israel by the UN and, indeed, by this House, has not been conducive to trust in peace brokering. Nevertheless, there are signs that the UK may be coming round to a better understanding. Our departure from the EU gives us a fresh chance to be constructive, rather than bludgeoning, and to increase our leverage. The UK has started actively to oppose the misinformation, distortion and discriminatory treatment regarding Israel in the United Nations and other international bodies. The Government’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 24 March that they will in future vote against UNHRC resolutions if they are not impartial, is very welcome, and may make amends for the incomprehensible support that the UK gave to UNESCO resolutions in October last and in May, which ignore the 3,000 year-old Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The treatment of Israel by UN bodies has done much to undermine the reputation of such international bodies as forces for good. The large voting bloc of the Islamic states with their allies are in a position, by virtue of numbers, to push through resolutions in UN bodies containing a litany of false allegations and distortions against Israel. One cannot help but contrast this with the non-intervention policy towards, say, Pakistan and Turkey, where the most dramatic breaches of human rights and the rule of law go unpunished for strategic reasons.
It was also realistic on the part of the UK to ignore the Paris Middle East conference, which took place without Israeli or Palestinian representatives, and which might harden Palestinian negotiating positions. The EU has maintained the position that Jerusalem should be divided, and it is at odds with Israel over labelling goods from the settlements. While the EU is happy to trade with Israel and benefit from its technology, its stance has been one-sided and not cognisant of history. As a country free from the EU, the UK will have a chance to restore its influence, especially if the UK takes the opportunity of the Balfour centenary to recognise how it was responsible for the current situation, both the good and the ill.
Our failure to take sufficient action against anti-Semitism and intimidation of Israelis and Jews at universities, and British failure to prevent boycotts and inflammatory propaganda and hatred at demonstrations in our streets and campuses, does not help. It is well publicised in Israel and indeed worldwide that our universities have seen violence against Israelis giving talks there, and that hostility on campus towards Israel-supporting students goes unpunished. Neither the Charity Commission nor HEFCE has upheld the Equality Act provisions when it comes to boycotts against Israel by students and university authorities. So why, asks Israel, should that state take advice from the UK in relation to matters of peace in the region, when peace on campus is impossible to maintain? On the other hand, this is countered by the heartening co-operation between the UK, Israel and Palestine on scientific, education and health initiatives. That is the way forward and I earnestly hope that the Minister will pledge ongoing support to the wonderful scientific and other collaborations that are pointing the way forward, under the radar.
It is striking that no Israeli point of view was taken in the gathering of evidence for the report. One Israeli student is listed as participating at the round-table discussion, and the witness most cited in the section on Israel is a Briton heading up an American agency. He and it have a reputation for their anti-Israel and pro-Hamas stance. Evidence was taken from many Arab sources. This cannot add up to a realistic picture of Israel in the Middle East: its voice was not heard. Moreover, there is no mention of any pressure to be put on the Palestinian Authority—or Hamas—to stop its terrorism, incitement, tunnel building and hate education for children. There is no mention of its repeated rejection of a state. Recognition of a state of Palestine is unrealistic because the skeleton of a state does not exist; there is no unifying political structure; it will not recognise or live in peace with its neighbour. Indeed, recognition has already been extended by some states without making a scrap of difference to the situation. The Government are turning a blind eye, or colluding with payment of taxpayers’ money to support terrorists and prisoners: some $l billion over the last four years from the Palestinian Authority. Funding other expenditure of the authority simply frees it up to use other funds, to which the EU is a massive contributor, to encourage more so-called martyrdom. Grant aid should be conditional on it ceasing to support terrorism. This works: when the World Bank withheld funds, reform followed rapidly. Funding should be directed towards state building and the excellent science collaboration I mentioned previously. Establishing a viable Palestinian economy is an essential condition for a successful two-state solution and would facilitate political progress towards peace. Israel has shown willing to co-operate on scientific and trade matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Stone, frequently mentioned, has invested in developing the Arab-Israeli economy to that end, and would be a constructive partner.
Israel’s fears should be recognised, including the less-than-reassuring nuclear deal with Iran. The report was right to draw attention to Iran’s planning for the development of nuclear weapons after the expiry of the agreement. Remembering that the surrender of Gaza led not to a new small state but to a rocket launching pad, realism requires a demilitarised Palestinian state, and a right of return to that state for the refugees.
This House has been vociferous and unanimous in not accepting the notion of pawns when it comes to European citizens in this country, but the Palestinian refugees have been used as pawns by the other Arab states for 70 years and we should be just as vociferous in condemning that. I still believe that it will be easier to solve the problem of Israel than the rest of the Middle East. Most Israelis still support a two-state solution and I believe that that will come about long before the other risks which noble Lords have mentioned in this debate have dissipated.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for his excellent chairmanship of the International Relations Committee. I am a member of the committee, so I declare an interest. I was there, making a nuisance of myself, at the start when the advisers and clerks were saying that we were going to do a report on the Middle East. Some of us were a little bit truculent about this and said, “It is simply too big: how on earth can we manage to do a report on the Middle East?”. We were politely reminded by our excellent adviser that she had sent around an idea for the group’s remit. It was going to be about Saudi and Iran, not every possible aspect of the Middle East. That may have been slightly overshadowed in today’s debate, and I will talk a little bit more about some of the other issues. The committee’s starting point was to think about two key players—Saudi and Iran—and to think about the Middle East in a slightly different way, moving on beyond the question of Israel and Palestine, which we could have spent all our evidence sessions looking at.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned, the work of the committee had a bit of a focus on Brexit. In part, this was because when our new committee was set up last year, just before the referendum, there was a question about what our role was going to be. The quite natural assumption was that we should be thinking about the wider world beyond the European Union. We clearly had no interest in trampling on the toes of the excellent EU Committee and its sub-committees. We had our first meeting, then there was the referendum and at our subsequent meeting we began to say that, as the UK had voted to leave the European Union, our committee might be of increasing importance in thinking about the United Kingdom’s role in the world post Brexit. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned, there were questions about Brexit and I was the person typically deputed to ask these. There was nothing calculating about the questions nor, I hope, the answers. They were intended to elicit from evidence-givers objective ideas about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s role in the Middle East and the wider world. Would it lead to enhanced opportunities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is suggesting, or could there be complications? Brexit will suddenly change the nature of the UK’s engagement globally, but it will also change the nature of the UK’s relations with the Middle East, precisely because so much of our activity is, and can be expected to be, with our present European partners.
We started off with the idea of a relatively narrowly defined inquiry, looking at Saudi and Iran and the relations between them. However, we had already heard the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, talking about proxy wars; there were already ideas that we were going to go well beyond just those two countries. The themes we were particularly looking at, and on which I will focus, were: the background context of the Middle East; human rights; arms sales; and, in particular, the changing demographics and educational opportunities in the region. I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty of every possible conflict in the Middle East. Otherwise, I will be winding up at 10 pm tonight and, as I am meant to be speaking in the next debate, that is probably not a good idea.
The issue is how the UK can think about its role in the Middle East. Was the committee going to write a report that a think tank could have done, simply saying, “Here are a set of challenges in the Middle East. Isn’t this terribly difficult and complicated, and can we come up with some possible solutions?”. The committee needed to think through what role the United Kingdom has played, what role it can play and how that role is viewed in the Middle East.
It was for that reason, in part, that we had the round tables with young people that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, mentioned. They were very much intended as a way of eliciting ideas from a different group of people. It was not as wide and open as it might have been. We did not go to the countries concerned and find ordinary citizens. We did not go to the villages, and we certainly did not go to any refugee camps and talk to people on the ground. So we cannot claim that we have been able to talk to ordinary individuals. Almost by definition, the students who are studying in the United Kingdom are some of the brightest and most privileged of the people coming from the Middle East. Nevertheless, they at least gave a different perspective. They also gave a different demographic perspective, because they were all under 35 and some were in their early 20s. Therefore, it was quite different from simply taking evidence from experts, many of whom, as has already been pointed out, tend to be ambassadors or retired ambassadors, who may be very erudite and expert but whose views will not necessarily accord with young people’s understanding of the problems in the region.
The insights from the young people were of interest, but in particular, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, touched on, for many of the young people the key issue was not democracy, as many of us might have expected, but stability. They were not saying, “Please liberate us and deliver us to a democratic system”, but rather, “Actually, we want stability”. However, they also want opportunities. They want to be networked, and many of them are, but they also want the opportunities offered by education.
Our report, like so many reports in the last year, urged the Government to think again about how they view international students. At this point I declare my interest as an employee of Cambridge University, where in part I co-direct a master’s in international relations, and where we have students from the Middle East writing about their region and certainly coming to, and studying in, the UK. This is one area where the United Kingdom could play a major role. The soft power that we see does not come just from the BBC or the British Council; it also comes through the export of higher education, and that means students coming to this country. It was deeply disappointing that the Government’s response to our committee report in many ways tried to answer the questions we had raised but on the issue of international students simply rehearsed the same answers we have heard again and again. Therefore, I yet again ask the Minister to ask his colleague the Home Secretary, and in particular their line manager the Prime Minister, whether they could begin to think about the importance of higher education and international students, because it would deal with one of the issues that is so intractable for them—immigration. I ask them to think again about that.
My committee colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, talked about Yemen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke movingly about Syria, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about ISIS. In doing so, they raised two other issues of fundamental importance. One is the issue of human rights. We talk about human rights, and there is a lot of rhetoric about supporting democracy and human rights—we tend to put those things together. And then there is the question of what the United Kingdom is doing, the extent to which we bother at all to respond to those issues and how we deal with one country in particular—namely, Saudi.
We continue to sell arms to Saudi and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, pointed out, some of those weapons may be used in the ongoing war in Yemen. I believe that is what she said, and it is certainly one of the issues in the report. It would be possible to impose sanctions on Saudi and thereby reduce arms sales to it. Will the Minister reflect on that? Will the Government consider whether they would be willing to reduce arms sales? As my noble friend Lord Purvis made clear in his excellent contribution, there is a danger when we are thinking about international relations and our role in the Middle East, that, in looking for opportunities arising from Brexit, we focus on bilateral trade, some of which concerns the arms trade. Some of those opportunities may be about delivering security, and there may be good reasons for selling arms. However, they may just be about commercial interest. As my noble friend Lord Purvis suggested, sometimes economic interest seems to trump the issues of politics, culture and, I suggest, human rights.
Therefore, I conclude by asking the Minister what work Her Majesty’s Government are doing to take seriously questions of human rights, because at the moment, as my noble friend Lord Alderdice suggested, the answers to the committee’s report do little more than rehearse certain platitudes.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, not only for chairing the committee but for his excellent, concise introduction. I also thank all noble Lords who served on the committee for their excellent report. However, as the noble Lord said, we are dealing with circumstances that are changing daily—in fact, hourly. One of the issues I have already raised with the Minister is my hope that he will continue to engage with noble Lords on foreign policy by continuing with the forum started by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, which ensured constant engagement in these changing circumstances.
The key message I took from the report was for the UK to fundamentally rethink its approach to the Middle East, and potentially distance itself from the unpredictable leadership of President Trump. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said:
“From inward investment to the UK, the impact of refugees from the region and our continuing reliance on gas and oil exports, our interests will continue to be intertwined with those of the region and the Government must ensure it has the right plan for our relationship with it”.
However, as Patrick Wintour of the Guardian put it, this message may also appear to be,
“a warning to the foreign secretary, who has devoted considerable personal energy to the Middle East and set great store by his relationship with the Trump administration”.
The Foreign Secretary claims that the refusal to challenge Trump in public has led to changes in US thinking, including towards NATO, Syria, Russia and even Iran. I very much hope that the Minister will provide the evidence for this at the end of the debate, especially in relation to Iran, as noble Lords have raised it. Suggesting that influence with Iran had dwindled, the report concluded that the Foreign Secretary should do more to,
“support the Iran nuclear deal”.
Let us not forget that seeking an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme was the right thing for the international community to do. It was a vital step not only in confronting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran but in moving towards the restoration of diplomatic ties between Tehran and the West. Therefore, we on these Benches back calls on the US to continue to honour its commitments under the agreement, particularly on waiving certain sanctions, and we urge the UK Government to do more to protect this hard-won deal in their relationship with Washington.
While we share the committee’s view that:
“It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran”,
including “political and economic engagement”, we remain deeply concerned about the continued reports of human rights abuses, as has been highlighted by many noble Lords. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, we strongly condemn the Iranian authorities’ continued imprisonment of British-Iranians, particularly Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht among others. There are others, of course. It is no longer good enough for Downing Street and the Foreign Office to quietly raise concerns about these cases. We urge them to speak out against the continued detention of these citizens and we call for their release on humanitarian grounds.
Labour remains committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, based on a two-state solution: a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine. I agree with the committee’s criticism of Boris Johnson’s decision to distance himself from the French diplomatic efforts last year to reach a solution in the Middle East. The Government argued in their response, which I received only an hour before the debate —I noted that the noble Lord the chair of the committee received it last night; however, I had the opportunity to read through it—that they were always clear that a conference so close to change of the US Administration and without the attendance of the two main political parties was not the best way to make real progress. A year on, is the Minister able to say whether the time is right for the UK now to support an initiative meaningfully, both politically and financially, as recommended by the committee?
Our position on Israeli state settlements on the West Bank, in line with decades of UK foreign policy under both Labour and Tory Governments, remains unchanged: settlements are an obstacle to the peace process and a clear breach of international law. The Government should be more forthright in stating their views on these issues, despite the views of the US Administration. However, as my noble friend Lord Turnberg said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be reduced to the issue of the settlements alone. We are clear, in particular, that the security of Israel remains an absolutely necessary precondition for a lasting peace, and we unequivocally condemn any and all attacks on innocent civilians in Israel. The UK must show leadership internationally, and we must support in our bones every effort to facilitate the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, which are ultimately the only means by which a lasting agreement can be reached.
The committee, anticipating the possibility of public concern about a possible UK-Gulf trade agreement, stressed the need for a transparent negotiating position. In its first summit in December 2016, the UK and the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a joint communiqué in which the leaders agreed to launch the GCC-UK strategic partnership to foster closer relations in all fields, including political, defence, security and trade. Following the summit, the GCC and the UK committed to hold a working group on counterterrorism and border security. Is the Minister able to update the House on whether the working group has met, and if not, when is it scheduled to be held?
In today’s Guardian there is an article on 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, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. The Home Office Minister, Sarah Newton, said that it has improved the Government’s understanding of the nature, scale and sources of funding for Islamist extremism in the UK. Will the Minister explain just how this report has improved our understanding of relations in the Gulf and what implications it has had for the UK’s efforts to de-escalate the crisis currently developing?
Over the weekend it emerged that the GCC has extended its deadline for Qatar to accept a series of demands and that if it does not, it could face further sanctions. These demands, as we have heard, include closing down the television network Al Jazeera. What is the Government’s view on that serious breach of the right of freedom of speech?
One of the most alarming parts of the blockade includes the closing of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia —its sole land link to the rest of the world and a key route for food imports. Some UK banks have ceased trading in Qatari riyals for retail customers. Does the Minister agree that an extended blockade could have a significant impact on the country?
On 29 June the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, met with the Kuwaiti Minister for Cabinet Affairs and the following FCO press release stated:
“The UK and Kuwait reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate to ensure a de-escalation, with the UK fully supporting Kuwait’s mediation efforts. They urged the need for dialogue and for all sides to work together to ensure Gulf unity”.
What further action will the Government take if the GCC decides to implement further sanctions against Qatar? The Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are meeting in Cairo today to discuss the crisis. What ongoing discussions are the Government having with these countries to ensure that the meeting does not result in further escalation and further sanctions against Qatar?
The report also deals with the crisis in Syria. Many noble Lords have referred to the confusion and disarray over Syria, particularly the policy over the displacing of Assad. Our first priority must be to do everything we can to help bring this brutal civil war to an end. We particularly condemn the continued use of chemical weapons—in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law—and we agree totally with the Government that there should be no impunity for the war crimes committed. We must ensure that we are able to act on this.
In conclusion I shall refer briefly to the situation in Yemen, which is facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, with the UN recording 4,971 civilians killed since the escalation in the conflict in March 2015. There have been over 1,300 deaths from cholera in the last two months and, more importantly, 6.8 million people are at risk of imminent famine. The civil war has pushed Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the region, to breaking point. The committee suggested that there was a,
“considerable degree of public concern”,
about British-supplied weapons being used against civilians in Yemen. But I would put it much more harshly than that. I have raised this issue in this Chamber on many occasions, particularly when we have had evidence provided by UN sources. I agree with my noble friend Lord Judd that the Government’s published response is totally inadequate. It cannot be right that, when faced with the conflict we see in Yemen and the scale of civilian casualties, the Government’s primary involvement is selling planes and weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, with no guarantees that they will not be used against civilians.
As the committee says, the Government must demonstrate that their private diplomacy is working, and that if not,
“it should speak out clearly at the UN, within the Human Rights Council, condemning violations, intentional or not, in clear terms”.
Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to immediately suspend any further arms exports to the Saudis pending a full and impartial investigation of the alleged violations of international law, and to prioritise efforts to allow humanitarian access as a matter of urgency. I hope that the Minister will take these calls seriously and that he will respond tonight.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful and at times insightful contributions to today’s debate. I am also extremely grateful to the International Relations Committee for its thorough and thoughtful report, to which the Government have responded. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of having sight of the Government’s response. That was indeed published last night, but I made sure, in light of the debate, that it was also emailed to all noble Lords who took part today. My apologies if it arrived a tad later than I expected but certainly I actioned it this morning to make sure everyone at least had sight of the report. I also put on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Howell. As other noble Lords have articulated, he led, and continues to lead, the committee both through experience and a very thoughtful guiding hand on the contributions.
The Government’s response to the report set out their detailed reflection on the 99 recommendations which, as I have said already, was circulated to all noble Lords. The committee’s report opened with a section entitled “Profound Disorder in the Middle East”. Indeed, in 2017, as my noble friend Lord Howell said so eloquently, the challenges in the region have been significant and numerous: the civil war in Syria; the great challenge of Islamist-based extremism—as someone of the faith of Islam, I say that it is the most perverse interpretation of a noble faith; the desperate need for political settlements, as we have heard, in Libya, Yemen and Iraq; and the stalled Middle East peace process.
Many of the challenges are long standing. Their roots reach back decades, perhaps even centuries. Some reflect challenges faced in many parts of the world such as a feeling of disempowerment, particularly among young people, as we have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, among others, and demands for better governance and economic opportunities to meet people’s hopes and aspirations. These were some of the underlying issues that led to the so-called Arab spring in 2011 but by 2017, as we have heard, the early shoots of hope have long withered away. The issues were bubbling away under the surface but the Arab spring still came as a surprise to many inside and outside the region. As pointed out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, hindsight is a wonderful thing and the reactions to it might have been somewhat different.
These events certainly put into perspective the political developments in the UK over the last couple of years, as we prepare to leave the European Union. Nevertheless, the decision to leave has been a momentous event for this country. I raise it because many noble Lords have raised it today; indeed the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, directly raised how this decision will impact foreign policy. I assure noble Lords that I wholeheartedly agree with the view expressed by the committee that the Middle East matters deeply to our country and requires our sustained attention, understanding and energy.
As we prepare to leave the EU, the UK continues to be an outward-facing, free-trading nation, a global Britain working every day to build security and prosperity in the world. We have great expertise and experience to build on in the years ahead. The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, among others, referred to the briefings that were held by my predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, engaging directly with noble Lords in this respect. I assure noble Lords and put on record that not only will that continue, but I hope that we can talk in honest and candid terms at times about the influence that the UK should and will continue to have on policy across the board. I assure all noble Lords, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the issues—and I will come to them—of freedom of religion and belief and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on human rights. As the Minister responsible for both these important issues at the Foreign Office I look towards all in this Chamber for how we move these important agendas forward.
Several noble Lords mentioned the current issue of Qatar and the GCC. I assure them that the UK fully supports Kuwait’s mediation. That is not just from behind the scenes. We are directly involved and looking to de-escalate the current tensions in the Gulf. As we have already heard, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has met various parties in this respect, including the Kuwaiti Minister for Cabinet Affairs. Equally, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister raised this issue in a call with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, calling for direct efforts to de-escalate the situation. Through usual channels and briefings I will seek to update noble Lords as I can on this fluid situation. However, I have heard very clearly the sentiments and concerns expressed by noble Lords on the situation, not least as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, illustrated in his contribution about Qatari investment in various interests around the United Kingdom and the need to seek early resolution.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about the GCC strategy as well. I assure the noble Lord that, as the Prime Minister said in her speech to the Gulf Cooperation Council in December, we will look to step up our relationship with the GCC on a number of matters, including security, counterterrorism co-operation, defence co-operation, cybersecurity and, indeed, trade. Work is under way in this respect and I will be happy to brief noble Lords as we move forward on this agenda.
We are working directly with countries in the region and with key global powers, including our European partners, who we believe very strongly can help move the region closer to solutions. Our determination also applies to our international responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a leading member of NATO and the G20. As the Minister at the Foreign Office responsible for the United Nations I will again look to update noble Lords on this, particularly as we move towards UNGA in September.
I also assure noble Lords that we are committed to our international partnerships, to deepening them and working together to tackle pressing global issues. As an aside, I have already talked to my noble friend—albeit somewhat briefly—and we will convene more formally on the role of the Commonwealth as we move forward, and on important agendas and the influence and role that the UK has in that respect.
The report finds that UK foreign policy has not always adjusted to new conditions in the region. I will set out how we have modified our approach to policy-making to make it more responsive to the changing environment in the Middle East and perhaps allay in part some of the concerns expressed. We have established a clearer, simpler, more strategic policy-making process, with increased direction set out by the National Security Council. We have country and regional strategies drafted and agreed across government departments to foster a common approach. These draw on the expertise of a wide range of specialist advisers, experts on conflict and stabilisation, experts on governance and economic reform and, importantly, experts on humanitarian assistance and gender issues. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about the need for a cross-Whitehall strategic approach. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has created a joint ministerial position to cover Middle East issues for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. This will allow a more strategic approach and allow us to better integrate our diplomatic and development activity across that important region.
I also assure noble Lords that we have bolstered our overseas network. For example, we spend over £200 million annually in the Middle East through our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund addressing the causes of instability. These programmes provide expertise to countries at risk of instability in support of reforms and economic growth. Several noble Lords asked whether these interventions were working. They work better with countries because they meet the aspirations of their people in a constructive way. This approach is helping us to face some of the ongoing and emerging challenges in the Middle East.
National security is important to the region, but also to the United Kingdom for our own security and stability. In the 21st century it is abundantly clear that the Middle East’s security challenges are our challenges. The Middle East has always engaged our national security interests, so this is not new. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about our historical roles. In the 1970s we helped Oman defeat a communist insurgency. In 1991 we helped evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. However, these were faraway engagements, fought to protect friends and uphold the international order. Today’s challenges in the Middle East impact more directly on British lives and politics. Islamist extremism has long posed a threat to both the region and the West. We, along with our allies and friends in Europe—France, Belgium and indeed right here on our own streets in London—have experienced the consequences of terrible and most heinous terrorist attacks.
The Syrian conflict and migration through ungoverned space in Libya have contributed to the largest migration challenge that Europe has faced since the Second World War. Our long-term goal is to see lasting stability in the region, to benefit it and the UK. That requires progress in three linked areas, which I will briefly mention in turn. The first is conflict resolution, and tackling the fallout from failures of governance.
The fight to defeat Daesh has required a hard-edged military response, and this has been the right response. To help keep the streets of Britain safe, we must continue to focus on attacking Daesh militarily in Iraq and Syria. We have a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh, working as part of a 71-member global coalition, in which we continue to play a leading role. Our Armed Forces have conducted more air strikes against Daesh than any coalition partner other than the United States—and, importantly, they have trained 50,000 Iraqi troops engaged in ground operations against Daesh. Our military response has been consistent with the vision for military preparedness and collaboration set out in the committee’s report.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked what had been achieved in Syria. She raised some specific questions and perhaps I may write to her on those. However, the coalition assesses that Daesh has lost 70% of the territory that it occupied in Iraq and 51% in Syria. More than 4 million people have been freed from its rule, and many who escaped have now been able to return to their homes. Defeat in Mosul and Raqqa will devastate Daesh’s so-called caliphate, but neither will be a fatal blow. This is a fight that will take time and require patience. Any long-term solution will also require political settlements in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. We also need to find diplomatic solutions to address the underlying failures that triggered the conflicts and created ungoverned space.
I turn to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly on human rights. Quite rightly, he pointed to the sickening, inhumane and heinous acts committed by Daesh. He specifically mentioned a Yazidi MP. As schedules allow, I will be pleased to meet her so that I can gain an understanding directly from someone who has experienced these crimes on the ground. The noble Lord also mentioned a letter. I have yet to see it but, as a government Minister, I know that sometimes such letters appear in the system. Therefore, although I have not seen it directly, I will follow it up and ensure that we respond to him on the issues that he raised.
The noble Lord also referred to minorities in Iraq. It remains our Government’s policy that there should be a judicial judgment on a declaration of genocide. That said, there is no doubt about the terrible crimes that have taken place in Iraq. I assure him that that is exactly why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has launched a campaign to bring Daesh to justice, and I will follow up on specific matters in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, along with others, also raised the important issue of freedom of religion and belief. From private discussions that we have had in this respect, he already knows that this will be a priority for the Government.
More generally in Syria, we continue to work for a political solution, in support of the work of the UN special envoy and the political process in Geneva. We call upon Russia to use its influence on the regime to help deliver a sustained reduction in violence and full humanitarian access. If Russia is prepared to use its influence positively, we will work with it in support of a political settlement.
Turning to some of the terrorist groups, the UK condemns those on all sides of the Syrian conflict who target innocent civilians and pursue a terrorist agenda. This, of course, is not only Daesh; as I have said repeatedly in previous roles, terrorism goes way beyond the Syrian conflict. I assure my noble friend Lord Polak that we will continue to keep under review whether groups should be proscribed and remain proscribed due to the actions that they are taking. For example, in 2001 the UK proscribed Hezbollah’s military wing, and al-Qaeda also remains of great concern to the UK and the international community. As noble Lords may know, in May 2017 the UK domestically proscribed Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a violent terrorist organisation aligned with al-Qaeda.
My noble friend Lady Helic, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, specifically talked about Yemen. The UK continues to play a leading role in diplomatic efforts at the UN Security Council, and we have also spoken out about concern for the humanitarian situation. We are currently the third-largest donor on the ground, contributing in the region of £139 million. I assure my noble friend that we will be working with our partners across the region and the international community.
Along with other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, my noble friend also raised the issue of arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I assure her that we take this issue very seriously. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The key test in relation to our continuing to export arms to Saudi Arabia is whether there is a clear risk that these items subject to licensing will be used in serious violation of IHL. I have heard the sentiments expressed by noble Lords and I assure them that we will keep this under careful and continual review.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. As pioneers of the Arms Trade Treaty, do we deal with the situation with Saudi Arabia, and the implications for Yemen, by taking a maximalist approach and saying, “What reasons are there for exporting arms?”, rather than asking, “How can we possibly justify exporting arms?”.
In the interests of the issues that remain to be covered the time available, I will come back to the noble Lord on that if I may. However, as I said, it is on the Government’s agenda.
I turn briefly to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of course we need to make progress on this. I listened carefully to the various contributions with their different perspectives on the issue from the noble Lords, Lord Turnberg, Lord Alderdice and Lord Grocott, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. My noble friend Lord Polak also raised important issues, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke from great experience. I make it clear that the Government’s position remains that we need to see a lasting solution to this crisis, which has gone on for far too long. We heard about the 1967 crisis, which occurred before I was born. This is an important issue which needs a resolution, and the Government’s position is consistent. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, articulated it very well, saying that we need a negotiated settlement which leads to a safe and secure Israel, living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state—and that is where our efforts will continue. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to work with France, the US and others to reinvigorate the peace process and support efforts to move towards a quick peace deal that meets the requirements of both parties and reflects our long-standing support for a two-state solution.
Stability beyond conflicts is the second key area where we are working for progress. We are promoting long-term stability beyond immediate conflicts across the wider region. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, said that at times there was a perception that this was a battle between Islam and the West. As a Muslim Minister and a Muslim of the West, I assure him that I am not self-conflicted. Indeed, I am proud that I am not the first Muslim Foreign Office Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box; I am the second to appear over a short period. That reflects the positive nature of Islam’s relationship with the West—it is a personal but, I think, practical example. The extremists who seek to create these battles need to be defeated by a unified front, and I assure noble Lords of our Government’s absolute commitment across all sectors. Whether it is the Foreign Office, the Home Office or other departments, we work hand in glove. We must defeat this menace, but we must do so with a unified response.
Finally, in addressing conflicts and sources of instability, we are also encouraging sustainable political and economic reform. We are taking a range of initiatives, including teaching Arabic in UK schools—a point that I noted from the valuable contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. Equally, we are working alongside other regions through, for example, the North Africa Good Governance Fund. We have also looked to invest in new development zones in Jordan, and we have jointly funded a scientific programme with Egypt to bring more than 200 of their brightest students to study in the UK. I will write to noble Lords about other ambitious programmes that we are running, including supporting Saudi Arabia’s blueprint for reforms, Vision 2030, which the noble Lord, Lord Luce, mentioned.
In conclusion, once again I thank all noble Lords for their important and valuable contributions.
I wonder whether the noble Lord would be so kind as to address one element which came up in innumerable contributions today and which is absolutely central to our report. I refer to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He has said not a single thing about our policy towards Iran—not a thing.
If the noble Lord will bear with me, there is one more important area which I was about to mention in my concluding remarks. There is an extensive response on that issue. Of course we are working with Iran in expanding not just our diplomatic ties. There have been issues since the visit of the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and subsequent ministerial visits also focusing on trade. It is a policy of engagement. For example, we are committed to the full implementation of the historic joint comprehensive plan of action, the nuclear deal. The UK has always sought a productive relationship with Iran, and we see the nuclear deal as central to ensuring the long-term stability of the region and Iran’s role in the Middle East. As the noble Lord and others have said, it is crucial to the future stability of that region.
In the longer term we want Iran to play a very constructive role in the Middle East, ensuring an end to its continued support for terrorist groups and militias across the region. In having that productive and constructive relationship, some of the issues touched on by, for example, the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Collins—in particular the human rights issues relating to that agenda—will be addressed. On a wide agenda and on the wide report, if specific questions were raised that I have not answered, I will of course, as ever, seek to write to noble Lords in this respect.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, which has focused on conflicts and overcoming security challenges in the Middle East. It also requires us to work quite extensively in the region with interested parties on future generations, on economic empowerment and on educational initiatives, to really ensure not just the long-term security of the region but its long-term stability. We are equally committed to working very collaboratively to bolster stability in the long term. Ultimately, we want a peaceful, stable and prosperous Middle East, with all key players having a key role in the partnership. That is the key to combating security threats and terrorism in the region and achieving the economic prosperity and peace that we seek.
My Lords, it remains for me to thank all those who have taken part, including the Minister. Like many others, I do not want to lose Al Jazeera. Its world coverage is often as good as the BBC’s—and, dare I say, in some cases even better. No one could expect solutions to these vastly complex problems, even from the wisdom and experience of your Lordships. But I believe that the case for the new realism that the committee is arguing for has been sustained. What we mean by “new realism” is the capacity to understand what is really happening in an utterly transformed international landscape, changed by digital power, technology and international relations on a scale never before known in history, and to respond as skilfully and wisely as we possibly can. That is the argument that I think has been sustained this evening. I beg to move.