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24 July 2007 : Column 205WH—continued

A critical advancement of Anglo-Saudi relations is our understanding of their peace plan for the Palestine-Israeli conflict, on which I want to focus with the Minister. As I said, in Beirut in 2002, the Saudi Arabians put to the Arab League their peace initiative for Palestine and Israel. Five years later, at the Arab League Riyadh summit of 2007, Saudi Arabia again managed to get the league to reaffirm its commitment to the peace plan. It
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is extremely important that the plan should be debated and implemented; extremist Muslim organisations such as Hamas will only continue to get stronger unless the terrible tragedy is rectified.

The Saudi proposal would give Israel peace and recognition if she withdrew to her ’67 borders. It calls for an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Let us pause for a moment and think about that—it is extraordinary that a country such as Saudi Arabia, together with her Arab partners, should come forward with a plan so revolutionary and imaginative as to say, “If you withdraw to your pre-’67 borders, we—all of us in the Arab world—will guarantee you recognition and give you peace.”

For me, that is breathtaking and something that our Parliament here in Britain should deliberate on and discuss far more extensively. The Saudi peace plan is so inspiring. If we are to have peace in Palestine, we need to ensure that the Arab League supports it and that it is in favour of the initiatives that we take.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Daniel Kawczynski: I shall give way in a second.

The peace plan is extraordinary. It goes on to say that there has to be an agreed and just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees. The Saudis say that we must recognise the injustices that have been perpetrated on the Palestinian refugees. What are the options for those refugees, if we go back to the pre-1967 borders? Some may return to their lands; others may wish to seek compensation. An international committee will have to deal with that compensation—perhaps there could be funding from international bodies such as the UN, who knows? The other alternative is that some refugees will simply not go back. They have made their homes all around the world, in Europe and north America. They may not go back to their lands. However, a vital part of the peace initiative is justice for the Palestinian refugees. I cannot emphasise enough my thinking that that initiative should be taken forward.

Our former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, is heading the Quartet’s look at the peace initiative, representing the US, Russia, the EU and the UN. I hope that Mr. Blair will attend the next meeting of the Arab League, and I shall be writing to him to ask him to do so. I hope that he will listen to the Arab League about the peace initiative. My understanding—the Minister may correct me if I am wrong—is that no British Prime Minister has ever attended the Arab League, yet it will invite any international statesman who wishes to attend. Recently, the Norwegian Prime Minister attended a meeting. Our former Prime Minister should attend the Arab League meeting, listen to the peace initiative and show that he is willing to take on its views. I will give way to my hon. Friend; I am being generous with him, as always.

Mark Pritchard: I thank my hon. Friend; I was about to say the same thing, before he mentioned it. On the issue of the wider Arab countries, does he agree that the stability of the region as a whole, including the Palestinian territory and Lebanon, would be better served and helped if those Arab countries financed the building of schools, hospitals and infrastructure rather than financing the army and equipping militia groups and terrorist organisations?

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Daniel Kawczynski: I concur that it would be interesting to know—we should try to find out more about this—how much money the Arab League gives to educational projects in areas of conflict such as Palestine. We in the European Union, and particularly in Britain, play our part in financing Palestine and the Gaza strip and in giving development aid to that territory. We have to do everything possible to ensure that the Arab League and wealthy states, such as Saudi Arabia, play their part in financing vital educational and humanitarian projects in those areas of conflict. I agree totally with my hon. Friend.

I want to talk now about how Saudi Arabia is fighting the war on terror. In April 2007, Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 172 suspected terrorists. The Interior Ministry said that detainees had reached

In this country, we have recently had to make a number of arrests, regrettably, due to the increasing threat to our security. When people are arrested on suspicion of terrorism, it receives a great deal of media attention and coverage. It is difficult to imagine having to arrest 172 suspected terrorists. Many terrorists are infiltrating Saudi Arabia who have been trained in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world. Saudi Arabia is facing a hugely difficult situation in trying to cope and grapple with that. Ultimately, as we all know, it has been ramped up since May 2003 following our invasion of Iraq.

According to official figures, about 144 foreigners and Saudis, including security personnel, and 120 militants have died in attacks and clashes with police since May 2003. Those are significant figures, as the Minister will acknowledge. In May 2003, al-Qaeda suicide bombers hit western housing compounds in Riyadh. In May 2004, 22 people, including an American, a Briton and an Italian, died in an attack on an oil company and housing compounds in al-Khobar. Days later, gunmen killed Simon Cumbers, an Irish cameraman working for the BBC, and seriously wounded his British colleague, Frank Gardner, as they filmed in Riyadh.

I have it on good authority from my contacts in Saudi Arabia that over the past five years they have foiled 180 separate plots of insurgency within their country. No one can doubt the Saudi Arabians’ effort in tackling international terrorism. The Minister knows, far better than I do, the help that our country gets from intelligence from Saudi Arabia. He knows, far better than me, a mere Back Bencher, what happens in the communication between Saudi Arabia and our security forces. I would bet my bottom dollar that the help that we are getting from Saudi Arabia to deal with insurgency and terrorism internationally is phenomenal. I am convinced of that. We owe a debt of gratitude to our allies, who show so much confidence in us and are prepared to share so much with us to enable us to deal with the increasing threat of terrorism.

I come now to the Gulf, which is a hugely important territory of water, and, in particular, to the strait of Hormuz. As the Minister knows, that strait is pivotal in securing oil supplies not only for us but for the entire world. Saudi Arabia’s eastern fleet patrols that part of the world. Up until now, France and the United States have been leading the way in supplying Saudi Arabia with all the necessary vessels for its eastern fleet. We
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must do everything possible to provide Saudi Arabia with British ships for that fleet. We have the best naval vessels in the world, far superior to those of the French and the Americans, so we should be saying loudly to the Saudi Arabians, “Buy British. Buy your vessels for your eastern fleet from the United Kingdom.”

In March 2007, Jane’s Defence Weekly stated that the royal Saudi naval force had an interest in type 45 air defence destroyers. According to that journal, between two and four ships could be purchased. That would realise, for us, up to £2.5 billion, providing a great many more jobs and more investment in our country. I would be grateful if the Minister could give me an update on that, and assure me that everything is being done to ensure that Saudi Arabia seriously considers British naval capabilities for modernising, upgrading and expanding her eastern fleet, which will inevitably do a great amount to help us safeguard the future and safety of the strait of Hormuz.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I am nearing the end of my speech, but I come briefly to the domestic front. Regrettably, I must say the most controversial thing that I shall say—even I have to be controversial at times. I am absolutely appalled by the honour of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie, and I believe that it should be rescinded. I should like to know who made the recommendation of a knighthood. In my estimation it was such crass management, such ineptitude, that it must have been either a deliberate provocation or incompetence of an unimaginable scale. Who suggested that our sovereign give such a huge honour to such a man? Not only is his writing appalling, but the fact that he has insulted Islam means that the honour is a deliberate provocation of Saudi Arabia and other moderate allies.

The honour gives succour to the fanatics in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries to fight the regimes in place, such as King Abdullah’s and the Governments who want to align themselves and show solidarity with the west. Ultimately, they will say, “There you are—you are negotiating and dealing with people who deliberately give honours to people who blaspheme against our religion.” I am sorry to end on a relatively negative note, but we must be extremely careful not to upset our key moderate allies.

I end by saying to the Minister that I shall continue, as long as I am a Member of Parliament, to promote Anglo-Saudi relations. Why? Because I genuinely believe that Saudi Arabia plays, and will continue to play, an increasingly important role in the stability of the middle east and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope that we will continue extensive ministerial visits to Riyadh and that we will invite senior members of the royal family to our country. I hope that the Minister can assure me that there will be a visit before too long. I would also be extremely grateful if he could assure me that everything possible is being done to ensure that our countries are brought ever closer together.

11.32 am

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate. I intend to make a brief speech, which is no reflection on the debate or on Saudi Arabia; it reflects the fact that the hon. Gentleman has covered many of the issues involved eloquently and comprehensively.

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I first visited Saudi Arabia approximately two years ago with the all-party group. I was stunned by the manner in which the Saudi Arabian people received us and behaved during the visit, which was nothing but courteous all the way. From the outset we met enthusiasm, particularly from young people. I said earlier that Saudi Arabia is striving for democracy, and the young people whom I met have a great appetite for it. They recognise the benefits of the current system but feel that there is a need for change. They are definitely up for change, and that particularly came across in the universities, where we went to see young people. The facilities that they have and the quality of the training and education are second to none, and the young people reminded us at every opportunity that that education system is based on the British one and that they are striving to achieve the level of education that we have.

Another thing that we saw in Saudi Arabia was the role of women. You may be aware, Miss Begg, that women are not treated very well there, judged by our standards and values, but, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier, it would be wrong for us to impose our values on another country. It will have to learn from its own mistakes, as we in this country did. The women there are looking for radical change. For instance, they are not allowed to drive cars, which is one thing that they are now saying that they would like to do, rather than having to depend on their husbands or brothers to drive them around.

If we look at the history of Britain—it is true of any country—we see that we have made an awful lot of mistakes that we are not proud of. When people set out to discredit Saudi Arabia, particularly in this country, they should remember that we do not have a perfect history and that we learned only from history. For us to lecture other countries that are trying to achieve the level of democracy that we have would be wrong. We should be doing everything that we can to help people in Saudi Arabia, particularly young people. If there is going to be change and transition, it should be peaceful.

When we were over there, we met the Saudi chamber of commerce. It was extremely disappointed by the lack of interest from British companies in securing more business from Saudi Arabia. It asked us to encourage the British Chambers of Commerce to be more proactive in encouraging British companies to do business there—not just the BAE Systems of this world but other companies in the UK that would benefit from working alongside the Saudi Arabians. That was encouraging.

One downside was that we were there just at the time when British Airways unfortunately decided to withdraw from Saudi Arabia. That sent a profound and unfortunate message to the Saudi Arabians that Britain did not want to be part of the new business culture there. It was a rather unfortunate incident. When British Airways pulled out, other companies moved in, and there are lessons to be learned from that.

I am proud of the role that BAE Systems has played in Saudi Arabia and of the jobs that it has created in this country. Just outside my constituency, the shipyards on the Clyde are building ships for BAE Systems and other systems that can be used in defence mechanisms in Saudi Arabia. That is creating a great deal of wealth for the country, producing apprenticeships and giving training and good-quality paid jobs to people who might not otherwise have got them.

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Daniel Kawczynski: On the hon. Gentleman’s point about British Airways pulling out of direct flights to Saudi Arabia, has he, as chairman of the all-party group, had the opportunity to communicate our frustrations to British Airways? If not, is he prepared to meet British Airways with me to ask it to explain why it cut that service?

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. At the time, the then chairman of the all-party group wrote to British Airways expressing our displeasure at the way that it had behaved. I would be more than happy to arrange yet another meeting with BA to see whether it will reconsider its position. My concern is that the market that was there for British Airways may now have gone. I may be wrong, but I think that it is Lufthansa that has moved in and taken up that market. I am more than happy to try to arrange a meeting with senior people at British Airways to attempt to re-engage that market because, if nothing else, it would send a clear message to the Saudi Arabians that British companies want to do business. I can think of no better way to communicate that than for British Airways to fly the British flag into Riyadh, which would send a clear message that things had changed.

On the whole question of jobs and BAE Systems, I think that this country would be worse off both financially and in job terms if we were to try to distance ourselves from Saudi Arabia. People will always think of reasons to find fault with other countries, but that is not helpful in the present instance.

On the peace initiative, I would like our new peace envoy to visit Saudi Arabia and do all that he can to ensure that peace can be sought in the unstable region that is the middle east. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that there will only be peace in the region if Saudi Arabia is at the heart of it. In my view, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the middle east that can deliver a sustainable peace and act as an honest peace broker in that region.

I am confident that, if Britain tries to exclude itself, whether it be in relation to jobs, education, universities or whatever, other countries will move in and fill the vacuum. We are extremely proud of the young people who are now being educated the length and breadth of Britain. Saudi Arabian students have a big interest in Edinburgh, for instance, which is greatly appreciated.

I said that I wanted to be brief. The only thing left to say is that I would like to see what the Government can do to embrace Saudi officials and diplomats and to ensure that they are friends of this country and welcome here. Any formal visits that can be arranged should be arranged. The Government should be doing all that they can to encourage Saudi Arabians to come here, and to encourage British companies to go to Saudi Arabia and learn and share our common interests, so that both countries can develop and grow for the future.

11.42 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I start by thanking the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing the debate, especially in light of recent tensions between the two Governments; the debate is timely to say the least. He gave an eloquent
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although, I am bound to say, rather partial account of the current state of our relationship with the Saudi Arabian Government.

Let me make it clear at the outset of my remarks that we should not underestimate the importance of Saudi Arabia. It has enormous influence in the region, as other hon. Members have said, and it has an invaluable relationship with the UK. It is our largest export market in the region—UK exports reached some £1.4 billion in 2002. We also have a close relationship with the Saudis on security matters. Our co-operation on terrorism is well known and highly necessary, as is the Saudi influence in the middle east peace process, to which hon. Members have referred as well. A close relationship with Saudi Arabia is of course worth preserving, not least because the issues that divide us can be resolved only through persistent dialogue.

That said, there is another side to the relationship from the side that we have heard much about in the debate. Before I reach the main part of my speech, let me say that I think that it would be wrong not to talk a little more about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and how that impacts on its relationship with the United Kingdom.

There is no doubt in the international community that there is still serious concern about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. The incidence of capital punishment in particular is clearly on the increase. This year there have already been 102 executions, compared with 38 in 2006. Discrimination against women has already been spoken of. It continues to be widespread and invidious, as do limitations on freedom of expression.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman mentions capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. We have many more debates on the United States in this Chamber than on Saudi Arabia, yet I have never known any hon. Member to criticise the Americans for having capital punishment. For some reason, however, when middle eastern countries are mentioned, capital punishment is always referred to. It is disingenuous of us to treat Saudi Arabia differently from the United States.

Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I have to say that colleagues and I have a very simple view on human rights, which is that they are indivisible and that they apply to all of us—wherever we are in the world and of whatever religion or faith we are. I am just as keen to make similar points about other countries, including the United States, where the death penalty is still in use. However, the United States is not among those countries that still routinely indulge in amputations—another of the human rights abuses that has been laid at the door of the Saudi Arabian Government by bodies such as Amnesty International.

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