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I want to be fair, however. It is true that Saudi Arabia has now established a national human rights association, but it is also fair to say that in many areas its actions still seem to speak far more loudly than its words. Let me make one further point on that. Amnesty has recently drawn the public’s attention to the example of Rizana Nafeek, a girl of 19 who is being sentenced to death for a crime committed when she was just 17. That is despite
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Saudi Arabia having signed the convention on the rights of the child, which specifically prohibits the execution of offenders for crimes that were committed when they were under 18. As it happens, it has also signed the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Yet, as hon. Members have said, it continues to discriminate against women in many ways. If signatory countries are allowed to behave in a way that flies in the face of the conventions that they sign, as Saudi Arabia seems to have done, that surely undermines the effectiveness of the relevant documents and treaties.

I should like to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to ensure that Saudi Arabia abides by the human rights agreements that they have already signed up to. Will he tell us his view of countries which sign such agreements and then fail to abide by them?

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on the question of discrimination against women. He may recall, however, that it is not that long since we discriminated against women in this country by denying them the right to vote.

Mark Hunter: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He makes a point, but I am not sure that the comparison is truly valid. It is some years since women were denied the right to vote in this country and, although the situation changed all too late in the opinion of many hon. Members, I do not entirely accept the analogy between what happened here and the kind of discrimination to which I am referring. We have heard about the limitations on women’s right to drive; they need written permission from a male in order to drive cars and so on. That is a type of discrimination that is entirely out of place in a modern society.

It would be impossible to discuss the current state of relations with Saudi Arabia without touching on the events surrounding the BAE Systems Al-Yamamah arms deal and the way in which it has affected the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The investigation into that deal by the Serious Fraud Office continues to put considerable pressure on the UK’s relationship with the Saudis.

One of the greatest tragedies of the alleged BAE Systems corruption is that it has besmirched the name of a fine British company, its dedicated work force, and the BAE Systems Woodford site in my constituency. I, too, am deeply concerned about the lasting damage done to the reputation of British business abroad and about the impact on British jobs at home. That does not alter the fact that valid questions need to be asked about the contracts and about how our relationship with Saudi Arabia affected the decision to abandon the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the BAE deal with the Saudis. The exact reasons for dropping the SFO inquiry are still somewhat unclear. As the matter has been discussed at great length by my colleagues on the Floor of the House, it is perhaps inappropriate to go into much more detail today. Suffice it to say that allegations have been made by the BBC, The Guardian and others that the deal was not limited to a single company or individual, but reached into the very heart of the Government. If the allegations are correct, the
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Government certainly have questions to answer and need to live up to some of their promises on accountable government and ethical foreign policy.

One of the reasons for dropping the inquiry was certainly pressure from the Saudi Arabian Government themselves—an issue that we think deserves to be probed further. Mr. Blair himself said that the SFO investigation would have wrecked the relationship with Saudi Arabia if he had allowed it to continue. I understand that the Saudi Arabian Government were reported to have threatened to pull out of the arms deal and to cut off diplomatic and intelligence ties if the investigation continued. Although there is no doubt that the investigation would have put a strain on Saudi Arabian and UK relations, the decision to drop it was in our opinion fundamentally wrong and inexplicable in the circumstances. Not only has the individual involved on the Saudi side of the arrangement now been named and shamed but the US is still determined to investigate the matter further, and, as we know, the US has arguably as much to lose as we do in Saudi Arabia.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman says that the individual has been named and shamed, but no such thing has happened. They have not been shamed because nothing has been proven. The BBC and others have simply made spurious allegations. I suspected that the Liberal Democrats would try to rake up the problems of BAE Systems again and I regret that the hon. Gentleman has done so. When we consider all the problems that our constituents are facing in this country—for example, with housing, floods and other issues—for the Liberal Democrats to use one of their Opposition days to debate a probe into BAE Systems was shocking, appalling and a gross abuse of the priorities of the House. I hope that he will move on and concentrate on the positive side of our relations and the vital importance of trade, rather than raking up such regrettable matters.

Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was surprising only in the sense that it took him so long to rise to his feet to make that point. In the context of today’s debate on UK relations with Saudi Arabia it would seem ridiculous not to spend at least some time discussing what is currently the single most prominent issue in that relationship, whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not. As I said when I started my remarks, this subject has barely been touched on by the hon. Members who have spoken so far. It would be quite wrong for us not to give a proper airing to something of genuine concern.

Hon. Members will know that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is still considering the issues relating to BAE Systems. It should concern us greatly that, although the UK is a signatory of the 1997 OECD convention on bribery, by halting the investigation, the Government are undermining its effectiveness. The chair of the OECD said that the decision by the Attorney-General to halt the investigation was contrary to article 5 of the convention, which states that inquiries

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The point is clear: nobody is above the law. An independent investigation needs to take place to determine whether there was any wrongdoing.

Although we do not underestimate the importance of our relationship and ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to security in the middle east, we stand by the OECD convention that any effect on the relationship between the countries involved should not prevent an investigation from continuing. Given those circumstances, perhaps the Minister will tell us what form the warnings from Saudi Arabia took. What was the Government’s initial reaction when Saudi Arabia threatened to break off diplomatic intelligence relations? Did the Foreign and Commonwealth Office attempt to pursue the matter through all available channels before the Government made the decision to drop the inquiry?

In addition, was there any discussion at the time about how credible the threats were? I raise the issue of credibility because it should be said that Saudi Arabia needs a relationship with us perhaps as much as we need one with it. Saudi Arabia has security concerns of its own, on which it needs our co-operation. According to the FCO, Saudi Arabia relies on the UK because we are its joint fourth largest investor. Surely the threat of cutting off all diplomatic and intelligence ties was, if not empty, at least unlikely. Does the Minister agree that the Saudi Government’s threats to withdraw security co-operation unless the inquiry was dropped were simply unacceptable? Does he not think that we have set a dangerous precedent to Saudi Arabia and other countries with whom we co-operate? Have any of the other countries that are being investigated in relation to BAE Systems made similar threats in response to the investigation?

Finally, if, as it seems, our diplomatic links failed on that occasion, how does the Minister envisage the relationship with Saudi Arabia continuing once our Government have accepted the ultimatum? Such questions need to be answered. It is extremely important that there is greater parliamentary accountability on such matters and we need to ensure that there is greater transparency in our Government’s dealings with the Saudi Arabian Government.

11.57 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. We look forward to the Minister’s response, particularly in view of the reference on today’s Order Paper to a written ministerial statement announcing a state visit by the King of Saudi Arabia to this country. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about that.

When introducing the debate, my hon. Friend was right to point to the breadth of interests that bring together the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. We have a long-standing set of relationships with the various countries of the Arabian peninsula, and this debate gives us the opportunity to reassert the importance of those relationships, particularly the one that we have with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At times, there has been a danger that we have neglected those historic ties and there is certainly evidence that our partners and competitors in France and Germany have mounted a vigorous programme of bilateral contacts with Riyadh and other capitals in the region.

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I would like the Government to lead a long-term effort, with cross-party support, to elevate the United Kingdom’s relations with all countries in the Gulf. As my hon. Friend pointed out, such an initiative would cover a wide range of political subjects, such as economic and commercial co-operation, security ties, links between the Parliaments and educational institutions in our various countries, cultural links, co-operation against terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and sporting ties, which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who is no longer in his place, mentioned.

Jim Sheridan: The socialist.

Mr. Lidington: Yes, the socialist.

It is not just a question of bilateral relationships. Through our membership of the European Union and NATO, we have the opportunity to strengthen multilateral relations between Europe and Saudi Arabia. I hope that the Minister will say a little about the state of the EU’s negotiations on a free trade agreement with Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the region and on the development of the strategic partnership between the EU and the Gulf Co-operation Council. The development of those twin initiatives would be an important way of strengthening long-term relations, at a time when, for reasons that we all understand—in particular, owing to events in Iraq in recent years—there is tension and suspicion between people and countries in western Europe and those in the Muslim and, particularly, Arab world.

I also hope that the Minister will say something about NATO’s Istanbul initiative, to which a number of countries in the Gulf region have signed up already. It would be to our advantage, and that of the EU, if Saudi Arabia were to participate as well. What are the latest developments on that front?

I shall mention briefly the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia on three international issues: the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iraq and our broader efforts against terrorism. I voice, at least in passing, my agreement with some of the comments of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) about human rights. Although we should continue to work for close and friendly relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, British Ministers should not be precluded from raising, with their Saudi counterparts, concerns about human rights. In particular, I am talking about complaints, sometimes from British residents in Saudi Arabia, about legal processes, allegations of torture and, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) mentioned in an intervention, the legal discrimination against minority religions.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) made about our country’s record; we can look back to the legacy of the penal laws, Test Acts and so on. I also acknowledge the unique sensitivity of Saudi Arabia as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, but nevertheless, it is quite fair that the debate about religious freedom and minorities should be on the agenda in an exchange on human rights concerns.

Daniel Kawczynski: Does my hon. Friend agree that although some countries are making progress on their
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human rights record, others are actually getting worse? I would cite Burma—Myanmar—as an example of where human rights are getting significantly worse, whereas I would argue that Saudi Arabia is starting to improve its record. It is looking at these issues seriously and is starting to make improvements.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend’s point reinforces the need for extensive contact and co-operation between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia across a wide range of institutions and covering many different areas of policy, because it is through those relationships that we start to understand each other’s particular political and legal traditions. That will also allow for an exchange of ideas that, I hope, will be fruitful in encouraging developments of the sort to which he referred.

Jim Sheridan: On human rights, the hon. Gentleman need look no further than Turkey, which is being encouraged to join the European Union. Saudi Arabia is a young country whose young people need to be encouraged to make changes. It is not for us to impose change or our values on them, but to encourage and assist those with an appetite for change.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: it is important that human rights are implemented in a way that allows people in a particular country to understand that it is a process of which they have ownership, and not a political model being imposed on them from outside.

I shall turn to the Israel-Palestine issue and take up the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham about the Arab peace plan, of which Saudi Arabia can be considered, fairly, to be the author. It is worth saying also that Saudi Arabia was instrumental in bringing about what turned out to be a short-lived Palestinian Government of national unity and in securing an agreement, earlier in the year, between Fatah and Hamas.

I would be interested to hear the Government’s current assessment of the Arab peace initiative, whether Britain is seeking to encourage further direct dialogue between Israel and the Arab nations and, in particular, whether the Government hope that Saudi Arabia would be included in such discussions. Furthermore, do Ministers envisage a role for Saudi Arabia in trying to re-establish some kind of stability in the Palestinian Administration? For example, does the Minister think that the Saudis might be in a position to persuade the leadership of Hamas to accept the conditions laid down by the Quartet, on behalf of the international community, for direct involvement in the peace process?

The Opposition welcome very much President Bush’s recent announcement of an international conference on the middle east peace process to be held in the autumn. It is very important that such a conference involves Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. The more that the regional partners feel that they have a role in shaping this process, the greater the likelihood is that the bitter mistrust that currently exists can be overcome. Have the Government had any indications from Riyadh that Saudi Arabia, in principle, would be willing to attend the conference that the United States plans to convene?

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On Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton report concluded that Saudi Arabia was capable of playing a key role in reconciling differences between the various Iraqi factions and in building broader support within the Islamic world for stabilisation in Iraq. However, does the current arrangement for meetings of Iraq’s neighbouring countries provide an adequate forum for such influence to be exerted? I noted with interest some press reports from Washington in the last week that the US Administration might be trying to find a way in which to institutionalise to a greater extent such meetings of Iraq’s neighbours. Would the British Government support such a move and do we need perhaps to have some kind of international contact group bringing together the key regional players with members of the United Nations Security Council?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham pointed out, on counter-terrorism, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has suffered grievously from terrorist attacks. The attacks on British residents and British visitors to Saudi Arabia attract the headlines in Britain, but many families in Saudi Arabia have lost relatives and friends and been put in fear as a consequence of terrorism. I will therefore strongly support any move that the Government make to strengthen co-operation between the two Governments, which is an essential part of a successful struggle against international terrorism.

Questions need to be asked, however. There are reports that a large proportion of the foreign militants who are targeting coalition troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces in Iraq have come over the border from Saudi Arabia. Anyone who looks at a map will know that that border is not easy to police, but are the Government confident that the Saudi Government are taking all the measures that they can to prevent infiltration across Saudi Arabia’s borders into Iraq?

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that this would be an opportune moment for the Government to state on the record whether British troops have interdicted Saudi nationals in Iraq and whether they have been detained and/or returned to Saudi Arabia?

Mr. Lidington: It would be helpful to have that information, and the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments.

We hope and pray that there will be no further terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, but clearly the risk still exists. Does the Minister believe that adequate contingency plans are in place in case of a major terrorist attack on British people and British interests in Saudi Arabia? In particular, is he confident that our embassy in Riyadh has the plans and the resources to be able to cope in such circumstances?

Deepening our links with the many friendly Muslim nations of the Gulf should be one of the prime goals of British foreign policy. Those countries—pre-eminently, Saudi Arabia—are vital interlocutors for anyone who wishes to understand what is happening in the region and they are, in many cases, important allies whose alliance with the United Kingdom goes back over a great many years. Above all, the long-term friendship of their Governments and peoples is essential to ensuring an international understanding that although we are committed to a struggle against international terrorism, we have no wish at all to embark on a clash of civilisations. We need a strengthening partnership between Britain,
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its western partners and Saudi Arabia and the other nations of the peninsula and the Gulf region. That is very much in our national interest.

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