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1.6 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), and I commend his and his colleagues’ initiative in visiting Gaza. I have also done so in the past year. The situation there is one of despair, with all the consequences that come from 1.5 million people living in terrible circumstances. Let me return to that issue later.

This is a topical debate on the middle east, but the middle east is always topical, and it would be interesting to know why it popped up today. I did not envy the Minister or his brilliant advisers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office having to produce a 10-minute speech to cover the middle east peace process, Iraq, the importance of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Iran, Syria and Lebanon for the edification of the House. It all makes this debate an exchange of headlines as much as anything else. It gives the Minister the opportunity to restate one or two Government positions, but it is almost impossible for us to get into the detail of any middle east issue.

However, let me try to get into the detail of one such issue—the United Kingdom’s representation and understanding in the middle east. Historically, we have an immensely strong position in the region. However, in the past 10 years we have lacked the joined-up thinking, ability and propensity to draw on our understanding as a nation. Part of that has been due to the emasculation of the policy making of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the first 10 years of the Labour Government. A concentration on policy making within a small cabal inside Downing street characterised the previous Prime Minister’s term in office, and that has wreaked havoc with our reputation in the middle east.

We have the benefit of years of experience among our diplomats and soldiers, who have taken time in their long careers to understand the region and the Arab perspective. The Government have preferred to trust their own dogmatic appreciation of events. In the past 10 years, we have chosen a path that has made our foreign policy on the region seem indistinguishable from that of our American allies. Our interests in the region are, however, profoundly different. We should recognise that.

Furthermore, the previous Prime Minister showed an interest that seemed sometimes childishly simple, and at other times deeply patronising, to those on the receiving end. He had a flair for fleetingly inserting himself into trouble spots as a sort of additional American Secretary of State—one thinks of his charge down the steps on to
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the tarmac in Syria for what ended up as a disastrous visit and his intervention in Lebanon—but it took him 10 years to visit the United Arab Emirates, which he did right at the end of his premiership.

That is one example of where our priorities were profoundly wrong in those 10 years, quite apart from all the conflicts we got into and the trouble elsewhere. I very much welcome the statement by the Minister that the Gulf Co-operation Council area is the area most visited by Ministers. I would particularly like to applaud the efforts of His Royal Highness the Duke of York in supporting the efforts of Lord Jones of Birmingham. The two of them are doing an immensely important job in fronting our business and trade interests in that region, and I am delighted that their efforts are getting the support from other Ministers that they so richly deserve.

As one of the parliamentary chairmen of the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Conservative Middle East Council, I, like a scratched record, again ask Members to encourage more engagement with and more understanding of the region. We need to engage in more patient study of the issues and their causes so that we can understand them. We need to spend more time listening to the Arab world, and we need to listen to the Iranians and understand their perspective. I advocate visits by parliamentarians and Ministers to the region, but we should not forget the scale of the British-Arab and the British-Iranian interest in the United Kingdom. Those communities should be better engaged in our domestic processes, which will offer benefits to our foreign policy as well as to community relations in the UK. The obvious benefit is that we will then have a better understanding of how to pursue our interest in the region.

In three or four years’ time, Qatar is likely to have the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Where the Qataris decide to invest will be critical to many of our businesses and our country. Indeed, to secure our energy needs, we are engaged in creating important links to get liquid petroleum gas from Qatar. Let us just imagine, however, Iran providing that opportunity as well as Qatar. Along with the United States, we have pursued a policy of confrontation with Iran. I say nothing to defend the deeply unattractive Government of Iran or their position, but our policy is based on a profound lack of understanding of the Iranian perspective. A lot of what they do in their pursuit of diplomacy internationally is unforgivable, but we should at least try to understand why they pursue their aims in such a way. If we understand that better, we can begin the process—it will be long, but we have to start somewhere—of moving to a position where 75 million Iranians are again an effective market for British financial services and manufactured goods. Our oil and gas companies should be able to go in to assist in the development of Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves, for their benefit and ours. There is a massive mutual interest.

The product of our policy on Iran has, ironically, turned this deeply unattractive Government into the leaders of the most significant regional power. The decisions that they take, particularly with regard to the neighbouring conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that we are engaged in, are immensely important for the United Kingdom and the thousands of our soldiers deployed in the region, whether we like it our not. We have to
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find a way of improving the outcome of policy on Iran, and we would be able to do that if we understood Iran better.

I briefly return to the Israeli-Arab conflict. We are debating the United Kingdom’s role and involvement in it, and by extension, that of the international community as a whole. I sometimes wonder whether it would not be better for the international community to step back a little. In the end, this conflict has to be resolved by the people of Israel and the Palestinian people. Until the basic insecurity of the state of Israel and the obvious injustice of what has happened to the Palestinians in the past 60 years are addressed—and those two can only be addressed together—the conflict will continue. The message I urge on Arab representatives to whom I speak and on the Palestinians whom I meet in the course of the extra work I do in Parliament is that they should address their policy to the people of Israel.

In the end, the people of Israel will have to vote for a Government who will do an historic deal with the Palestinians. In the same way, the people of Palestine will have to support a Government who do a deal with the people of Israel and their Government. That will happen only when there is a sufficient kernel of opinion in both countries that people want peace and are prepared to go through the pain required to get it. That means the Israelis have to appreciate the importance of the Arab peace plan, rather than just trying to push it away. It also means that the Arab League has to reinforce the statement of the Arab peace plan—an historic offer to live in peace in Israel and to offer it the prospect of normalisation with its neighbours. That peace plan must be driven through and reinforced with a soft diplomacy aimed at the people of Israel. It must convince them that Arab states really mean it when they talk about normalisation.

Once that message is put to the people of Israel, they can begin to address the insecurity at the heart of many Israeli people’s existence, reflected by the experiences referred to by the hon. Member for High Peak. I hope that such a position would give the Israelis confidence to begin to address the terrible injustice that has been meted out to the Palestinians. The story of the past 60 years is a horrifying one, which has overflowed into all the nations that border Palestine and Israel. One has only to look at the catastrophic effect of the involvement of Palestinian refugees on the politics of Lebanon—the awful Lebanese civil war and the enormous complications that that produced—to understand how important it is that the two peoples are reconciled.

I leave the Minister and the House with this thought. The international community is an external actor in this situation, and for the main players, the Israeli and Palestinian people, it tends to be a question of manipulating that community to achieve a particular objective. I sometimes wonder whether the international community should try to remove that opportunity from them, and ensure that the responsibility for resolving this conflict is not something for the Americans to broker, or for other external actors to deliver. This is about Israel getting its security within a region that is Arab, and how the Arabs and the Israelis deal with the situation together. They have to stop looking to the rest of us to sort it out for them. I offer that reflection having spent a long time
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thinking about how the UK and others can contribute to the situation. I sometimes wonder whether doing a little less might achieve rather more.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): There is very little time left for Back-Bench contributions in this debate. I ask Members to reflect on that, and hopefully, all will be able to catch my eye.

1.18 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I followed with interest the comments of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). In the context of his comments about Iran, I can tell the House that during the spring recess I met a number of senior Iranian local authority officials who were over on a study tour at Glasgow university. That visit was sponsored by the Foreign Office, and I thought it was a useful way of exchanging views on a wide range of areas that did not involve the more controversial political issues that have bedevilled our relationship with Iran.

In the short time available, I want to highlight the situation in Gaza, which several colleagues have mentioned. The International Development Committee, on which I serve, produced its report on the occupied territories about 15 months ago, and it gives me no comfort to say that the pessimistic conclusions that we reached on the future of Gaza have largely come to pass.

Yesterday, we followed up that inquiry by taking evidence from John Ging, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and his message about the reality of life today for those who live in Gaza bears repeating. He said:

Violence in Gaza between armed groups has become endemic and there is a culture of impunity. We have heard that the economy has effectively collapsed, with 80 per cent. living below the poverty line, and the price of food and basic necessities has rocketed.

We have reached the point where UNICEF is literally trying to stop sewage backing up through the manholes on the streets of Gaza. As colleagues have said, the efforts of the Quartet’s special representative to build the urgently needed sewerage plant in Beit Lahia have been frustrated by Israel’s restrictions on importing concrete and electric motors for generators.

Almost all journeys have to be undertaken by foot, be it to schools, hospitals or work. Medical facilities suffer the consequences of fuel cuts, with no capacity to deal with difficult cases. I read with despair the World Health Organisation list of people who died between October last year and March because they had to wait for permission to leave to seek urgent treatment in Israel or Egypt. Some died while waiting at crossing points, and others, such as a one-year-old female child with liver disease, are refused a permit for security reasons. She died in March. The list is deeply depressing.

John Ging advises that on Tuesday UNWRA received a supply of food to enable it to deliver food aid for
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roughly six days, after having had to freeze its operations for the previous three. However, there is no promise of future supplies, and half of Gaza’s bakeries have had to close for lack of cooking gas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said, the inescapable conclusion is that the residents of Gaza are enduring a collective punishment, as defined in international law, to a horrific extent, and there is apparently no end to it. Does the international community have to wait until an outbreak of cholera occurs before we decide that the current stalemate cannot be left unchallenged?

I join agencies such as Oxfam in praising the efforts of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development staff in Jerusalem, especially their attendance at the Israeli supreme court case on the challenges to the cuts to fuel and electricity, and their engagement with the Israeli authorities on that issue. Having met officials on our visit for our report 18 months ago, I know how hard they work there. However, that is simply not sufficient.

A new strategy is urgently required, and that includes facing up to the realities on the ground. Former President Jimmy Carter recently stated that little progress had been made since the Annapolis peace talks last November, and he is right. Construction of settlements on the west bank has continued, despite the pleas of our Government and others. In its evidence to our inquiry, the Department for International Development states:

Yet little public comment has been made, nor has there been any indication that there will be consequences for Israel if that course of action continues.

I urge our Ministers and other European Union Governments, as a matter of urgency, to speak up forcefully for the United Nations plan and take every diplomatic avenue to secure the opening of crossings to Gaza and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The donor meeting tomorrow and the Bethlehem investor conference on 21 May offer two good opportunities this month to raise the issue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

We also need to apply more pressure to Israel to uphold its international obligations to protect and provide sufficient humanitarian assistance. I especially urge the Minister to consider using the human rights articles in the EU association agreements to bring an end to policies that breach human rights. If such breaches are proved on either side, we should condemn them unreservedly.

I highlight the recommendation in the International Development Committee on the need to end the isolation of Hamas. That is not to condone its actions or policies, but to recognise that our strategy to date has failed and will not succeed in future. We need to support the moderate voices in the region who are trying to establish a ceasefire and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. That requires courage, but let us not forget that until we take those steps, the intolerable suffering in Gaza will simply get worse.

1.24 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): As chairman of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, I felt that this was an opportune moment to make a few
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brief comments on that country and share with the Minister some of the reflections on my recent visit to the kingdom with fellow parliamentarians. I led a delegation to Riyadh in February, and I am grateful to Prince Mohammed of the Saudi embassy here and Prince Sultan for their extraordinary efforts to make us feel welcome and ensure that the trip went smoothly.

Saudi Arabia is an important ally, especially in counter-terrorism. During our trip, we received many briefings from Saudi intelligence officers, who started to tell us about the extraordinary exchange of information that goes on between them and our intelligence and security officers. I was pleased to hear about the co-operation and mutual trust on sharing information and fighting terrorism.

As the Minister knows—he spoke so eloquently at the recent two-kingdom dialogue conference—Saudi Arabia is grappling with terrorism and it has equal difficulty in trying to tackle the problem. However, we were shown, as was the Foreign Secretary last week on his visit to Saudi Arabia, many of the pioneering ways in which that country is trying to rehabilitate offenders and dissuade them from wanting to be terrorists.

We also met many Ministers and King Abdullah, the custodian of the two holy mosques. In our discussions, he showed a great fondness and respect for our sovereign. I believe that the two sovereigns have a close working relationship and I was therefore pleased that he came to our country for the state visit. He sincerely wants good links with the United Kingdom and I hope that the Government will continue to promote Anglo-Saudi relations at every opportunity.

As the Minister may know—I have informed the Foreign Secretary—the king is initiating a forum for multi-faith dialogue in Saudi Arabia. Although he is the custodian of the two holy mosques, he wishes to hold more of an inter-faith dialogue between Islam and all the other religions around the world. We should support him in that. The Saudis are slightly dismayed about the total lack of media interest in King Abdullah’s tremendous efforts to initiate that forum. I regret that lack of interest, and I hope that the Minister will do everything possible to ensure that the British media start to report more effectively and more widely the king’s tremendous efforts to pursue the matter.

During our visit, we also heard discussions about the possibility of building the first Christian church in Saudi Arabia. The Minister knows that many Christians live in Saudi Arabia and I spoke up on the issue when I visited the kingdom. Starting to allow Christian communities to build churches would be a healthy step and I hope that the Minister will use his influence with the Saudis to promote that.

Our meetings with Saudi young people showed me their determination to achieve change and modernise their society. Time and again, I refer to the liberal elite—the BBC and most newspapers—who run our media. They like to denigrate Saudi Arabia and always focus on the negative aspects of that society. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) talked about being like a scratched record. I for one intend to be like a scratched record in the House of Commons, in putting forward the alternative—the positive side of Saudi Arabian culture—and confronting our liberal elite media, which focus only on negative stories and
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denigrating Saudi Arabia. Saudi is an oasis of stability in the middle east and we need to support it as much as possible.

Mr. Blunt: I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he is presenting the positive case for Saudi Arabia. I hope that he will get across the message that we will never again expect British citizens to be treated in the way that Sandy Mitchell and William Sampson, a Canadian-British citizen, were from 2001 to 2002. I hope that my hon. Friend can get that message across, because if we and citizens of other countries cease to have such experiences in Saudi Arabia, the outlook for the positive things that he is describing will be so much better.

Daniel Kawczynski: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the other day I had discussions with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is extremely upset about the treatment that one of his constituents has received in Saudi Arabia. I have assured him that I will set up a meeting for him to speak with the Saudi ambassador about the issue. Of course we need to challenge the Saudis. They are our friends and if we are to have a healthy relationship, we will sometimes need to challenge them. That is an intrinsic ingredient of a healthy relationship. We should show mutual respect, but challenge when we need to.

I spoke to the Minister about the huge opportunities that we saw for British companies in Saudi Arabia in construction, finance, mining, oil exploration and education. I was not trying to put him in a tight spot regarding Lord Jones of Birmingham, but I would like him at some stage to consider having an envoy specifically to promote British business in Saudi Arabia.

I am conscious of the time and know that other hon. Members want to get in, so I will make two brief final points. The first is slightly controversial, but as we are speaking on middle east affairs, let me say how concerned I am about the judicial review of BAE Systems’ deals with Saudi Arabia. The Minister may be aware of an organisation called the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Frankly, I am appalled by these unaccountable groups—I do not know who funds CAAT, but it is an extremely murky body. I want to know why CAAT is spending so much money on challenging the Government over BAE Systems, when so many British jobs are dependent on that vital trade and when there are so many problems in our country such as poverty—we are about to talk about poverty in Scotland. This murky organisation is trying to destroy British jobs by challenging the Government and BAE Systems over our vital trade links.

Mr. Davey rose—

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, I thought that the Liberals would want to intervene at this point.

Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that the challenge by CAAT and Corner House was successful in the courts?

Daniel Kawczynski: That challenge may have been successful in the courts, but the Minister may want to comment on that—I do not know—and the Government may challenge those initial decisions.

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