Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 88

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 5 March 2013

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr Bob Ainsworth

Ann Clwyd

Mike Gapes

Mark Hendrick

Andrew Rosindell

Mr Frank Roy

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, and Howard Wheeldon, independent Defence, Aerospace and Industry Analyst, former Director (Policy, Public Affairs & Media) at ADS, gave evidence.

Q171 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is the fourth evidence session for the Committee’s inquiry into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We will first hear witnesses on the defence industry, to discuss the defence and security relationship more broadly. We will then go on to take evidence from the most recent British ambassador to Saudi Arabia on the current state of relations and Saudi Arabia’s role as a foreign policy partner.

For the first panel I welcome Dr Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security studies at RUSI, and Howard Wheeldon, an independent defence aerospace and industry analyst and a former director (policy, public affairs and media) at ADS. I give a warm welcome to you both. Thank you for coming. Would you like to say anything as an opening statement, Dr Eyal?

Dr Eyal: I just want to say I was warned by you, Chairman, that I must not drone on, which I wouldn’t. I have a few talking points, if I may, to supplement the evidence that my institute has submitted in writing.

The first is that the apprehension in the Gulf about British and US policies towards the region is growing. I am talking about the chattering classes and the Governments of the region. The second point is that we tend to underestimate the genuine fears that Governments have about the geopolitical situation on the ground. We tend to assume that a lot of it is a by-product of a certain national schizophrenia, and that we should simply discount a lot of it. I think that is a mistake.

Finally, we overestimate our-I mean the UK’s-ability to influence events, or at least assume a very direct connection between our diplomatic inputs and the potential outputs. So, we overestimate our abilities and we don’t seem to realise that there are many other players in the region when it comes to defence expenditure and defence supplies, for instance. There are many other players in the region that do not necessarily displace us but certainly put us in a diminished position as far as our leverage in defence relationships is concerned. I should stop there.

Q172 Chair: Thank you. Mr Wheeldon, I have a general question that may allow you to make points. Was there anything you wanted to say as an opening statement?

Howard Wheeldon: Just a couple of sentences, if I may. Our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia has been enduring. It dates back to the 1930s. It was founded on and remains based on serving mutual interests of trade and security. That close relationship in trade underpins a bilateral security relationship that benefits both the UK and its allies, together with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as you have just indicated.

The Gulf region is considered critical to UK foreign policy, quite rightly in my view. Bilateral trade between the UK and the Gulf region as a whole has increased by 39% over the past two years, according to Foreign Office figures, from £21.5 billion to £29.8 billion. That is an enormous sum that shows exactly what is going on out there.

Q173 Chair: Would you say that that illustrates that defence and defence sales are critical components of our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Howard Wheeldon: Certainly. UK-Saudi trade relationships extend through energy, through pharmaceuticals-in fact, through a broad spectrum of product. I have been most engaged with defence, over many years; that goes back, really, to 1966. We have been selling defence equipment to Saudi Arabia for a long and enduring period. They have behaved, in my view, extremely responsibly through that time and through the whole relationship in how they have used the power that we have provided them with.

Q174 Chair: So is it fair to say that Saudi Arabia is very important to the British defence industry?

Howard Wheeldon: Yes. It would be foolish to say otherwise. It is very important.

Q175 Chair: Could we survive without it?

Howard Wheeldon: Of course we could survive without it-we have a lot of other markets-but it is a very important market, as of course are other defence markets in the middle east.

Q176 Chair: One more question for you while you are wearing your specialist hat. As you know, a number of Typhoons are being sold to Saudi Arabia. Some have been delivered, but there is now a pause as a result of price issues. Do you happen to know what those price issues are?

Howard Wheeldon: All I can say to you is that I believe that 23 or 24 aircraft have actually been delivered. The negotiation that has yet to be completed between the Saudis and BAE Systems revolves around the type of equipment that will be supplied on the remaining aircraft. If you look at it in terms of how the UK has been buying its Typhoon aircraft, we have a tranche 1 aircraft, which has been in service for some considerable while now, a tranche 2 aircraft, which is substantially upgraded, and a tranche 3 aircraft, which is yet to come, but will be an air-to-air and air-to-ground aircraft. The Saudis tend to do similarly to the UK: they want what the RAF has. This is a matter of negotiating a price so that they can have the air-to-air and air-to-ground aircraft.

Chair: It is just old-fashioned haggling over the price?

Howard Wheeldon: Indeed.

Q177 Chair: Dr Eyal, there were a series of questions there. Would you like to give me your take on this?

Dr Eyal: First, I would agree with what Howard has said. In terms of the current contracts there are some local difficulties. It is very easy to jump to the conclusion that what we are being subjected to is sort of-how should we put this politely?-a political blowback or that there is a suggestion that somehow if we do not behave in a particular manner, Riyadh would draw the consequences. I am sorry to disappoint some people, but I have not seen evidence of that. I have not seen direct evidence of that. I think they cherish the relationship and want it to continue.

It is, however, true to say that the British export markets are being squeezed all the time in the region. If you look at the arms fair that took place in the United Arab Emirates last week, it is quite telling that most of the contracts were with countries that were certainly considered second-tier players in military terms in the region-for instance, South Korea, which bundled a lot of military equipment as part of its nuclear reactors deal with the UAE, or Serbia, which now has an integral part in the purchases of the region for missile defence technology. They are the kind of actors that we did not have before.

There are many reasons for that. One of the most important reasons is an apprehension in the region about how steadfast, as they see it, we are in protecting their interests. There is a feeling that there is the beginning of a diversification attempt, although I dare say that at the end of the day they know that the top quality, leading edge technology still comes from a handful of western suppliers.

Q178 Mark Hendrick: Mr Wheeldon, looking at the two Al Yamamah projects and the Salem project, how important do you feel those deals are in economic terms? Europe can obviously produce aircraft: it has the technology and the know-how. In terms of economics, without those exports do you still think that the British aerospace industry is sustainable?

Howard Wheeldon: The only wholly British-built aircraft sold to Saudi Arabia in either Al Yamamah I or II was the Hawk, a trainer aircraft which is still in build to this day. Some 998 of them are either on order or have been delivered. Typhoon, of course-and its predecessor aircraft, if I dare call it that, the GR4 Tornado-is, or was, a partner aircraft. It was a European partnership. Tornado was smaller in terms of the number of partners, then Typhoon, which is four partners. We are not just talking about the UK industry; we are talking about the industries of Italy, Germany and Spain. Of course France is involved, because the French company Aérospatiale merged into EADS. There is a French involvement, but not in work sharing.

Q179 Mark Hendrick: What do you think the impact on a region like mine-Lancashire, in the North-West of England-would be if Saudi Arabia suddenly said, "We don’t want to buy Typhoon"?

Howard Wheeldon: "Devastating" would have to be the word after the build for the European partners was complete, because Saudi is a large customer for the aircraft. There are currently 72 either delivered or being built, there is always the prospect of additional aircraft in future and, of course, we have recently received an order from Oman. There are other potential orders as well. Clearly, the Lancashire parts of BAE Systems are very reliant on their involvement in Typhoon, Hawk and indeed the more international programmes, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter being built by Lockheed Martin, where BAE and the British Government are full partners. There is no Middle East involvement, but your question very much relates to that. It would be devastating.

Dr Eyal: I do not have much to add, because I do not know whether I can assess in quantitative terms the impact that it might have on either your constituency or the region that you represent, but what is absolutely incontrovertible is the fact that the unit pricing, which is partly connected to the question of how many we can sell and to the work share arrangements with other European partners, would be affected were the deal to collapse. What most people effectively do not realise about deals that are forfeited is that not only is it a lost sale, but it changes the entire dynamic of the project, especially multinational projects, and it makes it much more difficult to sell elsewhere.

I would be foolish to predict anything that puts a figure on the impact that it would have, but I repeat that we are under pressure in this industry, which is still important for the UK. It is one of the main contributors to engineering skills in the UK, and we are under pressure. Please look at the figures in terms of world league tables for exports. Some people may find it refreshing that we are under pressure on this score, but we are.

Q180 Mark Hendrick: Mr Wheeldon, how effective do you feel the British Government are through the FCO or UKTI in selling British equipment to Saudi Arabia? How would we compare, for example, with the United States?

Howard Wheeldon: It is not, of course, the job of Governments to sell defence equipment to other Governments, but Governments are necessarily involved, for the simple reason that Governments are the only customers for defence equipment, so there has to be an involvement by the heads of state or the various Ministers concerned. It is very important.

To answer your question, the British Government has been very supportive through all the years that I can remember. I can certainly go back to when I started following this industry, in about 1966. From 1985 onwards, when the first Al Yamamah arrangement was signed, British Governments have been very supportive, but only on the surface, where they needed to be. The inter-company arrangements have been dealt with very adequately by MODSAP-the Ministry of Defence Saudi Arabia Protocol office-both here in London and with the Saudi authorities, so it has been very well handled and very well supported.

Q181 Mark Hendrick: How do you think our Government’s involvement compares, for example, with that of the Americans? Indeed, how much do you think political considerations come into this, compared with economic or technical requirements for those aircraft?

Howard Wheeldon: That is a very interesting question. The Saudis have had a long-standing and very strong relationship with the United States. They have bought many military aircraft from the United States, but they do have memories. They remember a time back in about 1978-79, when the Carter Administration decided that they would not sell more F-15s, I think it was. It was at that time that the UK, and indeed France, came back into the equation, for want of another expression. I think the Saudis realised they needed to have more than one partner to ensure that they could go anywhere they wanted in the world to ensure that they could adequately defend themselves.

Q182 Mark Hendrick: So it is a bit like Airbus and Boeing?

Howard Wheeldon: In a sense, yes.

Dr Eyal: There is a problem with American suppliers because Congress tends to see any such suppliers as a factor in the balance of power between Israel and its enemies in the region. For instance, quite a number of Saudi contracts were delayed for a considerable amount of time pending congressional approval. There does not seem to be an objection now that some of our biggest competitors in the region are French. The Americans are rather less of a competitor in the past few years for a variety of political reasons, but both Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande have made a very personal push. There have been four presidential trips to the region in 2012-two each for the outgoing and the incoming President-and defence has been at the top of the agenda for both Presidents. Incidentally, I have not noticed any French newspaper make mocking remarks about that.

Q183 Mark Hendrick: How much impact do you feel the United Kingdom’s Bribery Act 2010 has had on how business is conducted between the UK and not only Saudi Arabia but any other country with which we might want to do business?

Howard Wheeldon: Those who are well studied on the bribery and corruption laws that the UK has passed since 2006 would agree that we have some of the toughest-if not the toughest-rules in the world. It is a pity, of course, that the rest of the world does not necessarily play with us on a level playing field. That apart, the Government have decided that Saudi is a good customer that meets all of the issues that may or may not be raised within the current practice and that we want to continue doing that. Saudi fits very well as a customer of the UK.

Dr Eyal: I do not think I have any more to add, apart from to say that there is an inherent problem with procurement and quality of governance in the region. Almost every field of business realises that. The region’s economies are not diversified enough, so energy and defence are the two big-ticket items.

One is absolutely right to tackle the phenomenon of corruption from the supplier end, but if one looked at Transparency International’s efforts to gauge the whole question of defence procurement from the consumer end, one would see that an enormous amount of work needs to be done. Sadly, often a lot of the discussion is about the supplier end. I agree with Mr Wheeldon. If you compare us with American regulations, for instance, we compare favourably to most of the international suppliers.

Howard Wheeldon: Yes, we are just one notch ahead.

Q184 Ann Clwyd: The UK is constantly being criticised for its co-operation with Saudi Arabia on counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing, mainly from human rights campaigners and others. It has been suggested that there would be a threat to continued co-operation if we cracked down harder and criticised them more for the human abuses that undoubtedly occur. What is your view on that?

Dr Eyal: I would say this. First, the nature of intelligence co-operation is that it is enormously difficult to talk about in public. What is absolutely incontestable-I hope that our former ambassador to Riyadh will testify to this immediately after us-is that the link between Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior and us was not only one of the most productive and important post 9/11, but was, bizarrely, one of the most innovative.

The resettlement policies that the Saudis applied to Islamic extremists, or to people suspected of engaging in politically-related violence, was innovative in the context of the Middle East, and was actually quite enlightened. In fact, there was a big discussion in the intelligence services in London about whether it was as successful as was claimed, or whether it was a revolving door for people to be recycled back into terrorism. I think it was successful.

I do not think there is much doubt about the level of co-operation. I am not sure whether all that co-operation would be withdrawn if we had a more tense relationship, shall we say, with the Saudi Government. I submit that it suits the Saudi Government to engage in this co-operation, so I assume that a level of co-operation would continue. I do not make a direct link between the two.

Nevertheless, I submit that there would be damage to the quality and the timeliness of the information provided to us. Far from aiding and abetting a dictatorship using repressive measures, we have paradoxically, given the media coverage of Saudi Arabia, engaged with a Government who have tried to be very innovative on the subject of counter-terrorism.

Q185 Ann Clwyd: But do we, on the other hand, gain from this relationship by seeing an improved human rights situation in Saudi, as some people argue?

Dr Eyal: I do not think the two are related; I do not think one can establish a causal link. It is absolutely true that if you establish a close operational relationship with people, you have the ability to talk to them frankly in private; it is like two human beings.

If we can reassure them that our aim is not to undermine their regime, we have the ability to talk to them more. It always puzzles me that when it comes to a settlement about Iran everyone says we must give the Iranians a guarantee that we do not want regime change, but when it comes to Saudi Arabia it is somehow bizarre to suggest to them a guarantee that we do not want regime change. I do not see the logic there. The reality is that we can go a bit further. I would not submit that we can change or reinvent the country, but we can go a bit further if they feel comfortable with us.

I followed closely the dialogue between the UK and Bahrain after the tragic events of 2011 onwards. I can assure you that in private it was very intensive and shockingly frank. I mean, I heard things being said that would have made me blush had they been addressed to me in public. But we cannot say them in public. We can only do that because we are perceived to be friends. I know that is a rather old, boring argument, but I happen to believe that it is true.

Q186 Ann Clwyd: Can I mention one thing to you from a 2010 WikiLeaks document? It quoted Hillary Clinton claiming that the Saudis constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. What would your comment be on that?

Dr Eyal: I do not think it is remarkable. In one sense it is almost the mirror image of the problem that we have with Pakistan, which is that they are part of the solution but also part of the problem.

There is absolutely no doubt that a lot of the funding that came for various terrorist organisations came from various Saudi sources. Whether it was bad governance, whether it was individual millionaires giving cash to whatever they considered their pet project-it is a mixture of all these things. I don’t think it was ever Government-sanctioned money and I believe that the Saudis have realised that this whole activity is a cancer to themselves. I believe that they realise it now, which is why the Ministry of the Interior is probably one of the more efficient organisations in the Kingdom.

Have we resolved the issue? No, we have not but I would just point again to the question of Pakistan. Nothing can be done without them but they are not the whole solution. They are also part of the problem.

Q187 Mr Ainsworth: Can we look at our two countries’ interests with regard to two topical and regional problems-Syria and Iran? To what degree are our interests and Saudi Arabia’s aligned?

Howard Wheeldon: I will just make a brief comment on that and bring another country in if I may, but link it to Iran. There was a huge sea change in Saudi attitude when Kuwait was invaded in 1990. That changed their whole approach. That made them see security, and it frightened them. I think it is from there that we move forward.

I have been there many times and I see it from perhaps a different perspective from my colleagues who have either lived there or the former ambassador who has obviously spent a lot of time there. They do look over their shoulder. They are concerned. Iran, Syria and, indeed, Israel are all big concerns to them. So I think we should not underestimate how they see security and how they fear the potential of what could happen if they don’t get it right.

Dr Eyal: To answer your question, Mr Ainsworth, I think that our security interests are very closely aligned to those of Saudi Arabia when it comes to the two countries that you have cited. The Saudi perspective would be to create a unified Sunni-dominated Syrian Government, which is not necessarily pro-Western but is not dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, keeps its distance from Egypt and keeps its distance from Iran.

I submit that we may not put it in such stark terms, but HMG’s intentions would not be that different. In the case of Iran, the same. They do not want an Iran that sponsors a variety of proxy militias throughout the region, supplies weapons to everyone, proliferates a variety of weapons and acquires nuclear capabilities as well.

I think the differences, however, are on the degrees. For instance, we would not see Shi’a as being necessarily impossible to accommodate in the structure of the Middle East as it is now. We accept that Iran is a big country in the region and deserves and has to have its secure place. Indeed, all the discussion with Iran is predicated on that. I do not think that we see eye to eye with Saudi Arabia on that; I think that their belief is that the weaker Iran is, the better. That is not our view necessarily. But I think that, in broad terms, if you look at the kind of security challenges facing us at this very moment, we approximate quite closely to the Saudi interests in the region.

Q188 Mr Ainsworth: I am a little confused. Are you saying that in the near term our interests are aligned but in the longer term they are not? I do not see how you can say that they are aligned and then indicate that we have a very different approach to how we see Shi’a and other minorities being treated-indeed, to how we see the biggest Shi’a country in the region being viewed and treated. Surely it is self-evident that we have a very different approach to Sunni hegemony than Saudi Arabia does.

Dr Eyal: Yes, absolutely, and that is what I was trying to say. I think it is only a question of shades of grey. We do want a resolution in Syria and we want a resolution in Syria with a Government who are not aligned to Iran. In that respect, tick the box with Saudi Arabia. We do want an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons; another box ticked with Saudi Arabia.

However, the method of going about it may be very different. There is an area where there is fundamental disagreement, as you mentioned, and that is the question of seeing the Shi’a as automatic disruptors of the status quo in the Middle East, which we have never accepted and I think rightly so. I think that there are methods for accommodating them in the Middle East. It will be delivering Iran an own goal if we were to accept a narrative that the only way that Sunnis and Shi’a can co-exist is by fighting. So we do not agree on that.

We also do not agree on the view in which we see Gulf stability; there is a fundamental difference. I think that the big danger in the case of the Gulf Cooperation Council is that we may end up-there are two ways in which the GCC can go. It could go the way of NATO-namely, a structure that co-ordinates the militaries of the region and perhaps even lowers the defence expenditure of some of them. Alternatively, it could go the way of the Warsaw pact-namely, an alliance that invades its own countries to keep the status quo.

Unfortunately, if you look at the case of Bahrain, it has up to now gone down the route of the Warsaw pact structure. I am afraid that this is how the Saudis perhaps see the GCC developing, as a sort of self-defence mechanism of local Governments. So there is a big difference there.

Again, however, I refer to the shades of grey. For the moment, we have some immediate burning-literally burning-issues: Syria and the Iran nuclear issue. On both of them, our views coincide with those of the Saudis, in terms of where we want to get to. They do not coincide on how we travel down that route.

Q189 Mr Ainsworth: What about attitudes towards a nuclear-armed Iran and different methods of potentially preventing that? How would Saudi Arabia react if attempts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon led to military action, either by the United States of America or by Israel?

Dr Eyal: To refer again to the WikiLeaks information, one could see that there were a number of country leaders in the region who suggested to the United States that it is already too late or that it should have done it much earlier. I am not sure that that is the Saudi position. I think that, deep down, if they could be sure that there would be no repercussions and that "the snake", to quote the Bahraini King, could be beheaded with one blow, they would be delighted to see it happen.

But I think that views are divided. I think we make the mistake of assuming that the Saudis as an entity have only one voice on the matter. The views are divided. Let us remember, as my colleague said, that each one of these countries has its own collective memory. Their memory is that we come in, we smash things up and we usually go away. The problem for them is how long we will stay after smashing things up, if we do in the case of Iran. But they are in the same cleft stick as we are, which is that, on the one hand, they do not want a nuclear Iran. That is an absolute red line but, at the same time, they would not want a convulsion if they could avoid it.

Howard Wheeldon: I agree with much of what you said. I have two quick points. One, we should remember that one concern of the Saudis is that there is no outside influence on the Gulf Cooperation Council. They see that as the responsible body of a group of nations, so they do not want to see influence on that. This is very much a personal view. If Iran had a nuclear weapon, I do not see that Saudi would automatically want to do the same.

Q190 Mr Ainsworth: If Israel were to take military action to prevent the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, what would happen?

Dr Eyal: The Saudi reaction would be to say, "This is terrible. It is regrettable." They would condemn it terribly and then ask the Americans privately if they had intelligence information on whether the Israelis had succeeded.

Howard Wheeldon: That is a very nice way of putting it.

Q191 Mike Gapes: Dr Eyal, you referred to the Gulf Cooperation Council and, in that context, you referred to the Saudi-Bahrain relationship. Before I come to the UK-Bahrain relationship, I have a quick question to follow up that. How important for the Saudis is the stability of the current regime in Bahrain?

Dr Eyal: It is really important for about three or four different reasons. The first is that it could be the first monarchy to collapse in the region. That would have an enormously bad effect throughout the region. Up to now, let us not forget that the only regimes that collapsed out of the so-called Arab Spring were the monarchies masquerading as republics-Egypt, Libya or Tunisia. Now, if it were the turn of a real monarchy to topple, that would be very bad news for the Saudis.

My second point is that it would be seen throughout the region, regardless of how we put it, as a victory for Iran. No one who I have met in the Middle East believes or sees it otherwise. We could claim that it was a victory for the street, democracy or whatever but, throughout the Arab world, it would be seen as a victory for Iran. Thirdly, a Shi’a-dominated Government in Bahrain will be the outcome. That is without any doubt, and it will be smack-bang on the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which has its own problem with Shi’as. From almost every angle that you can imagine, this is really thoroughly bad news for the Saudis.

Q192 Mike Gapes: Can I now switch to a question about the UK-Bahrain bilateral relationship? In the written submission that we received from RUSI, you referred to the Bahrain defence relationship as crucial to the UK pursuit of its national strategic aims. How important is that defence relationship? Are we and Bahrain, in a sense, equal partners in this relationship? Do they have as much to gain from it as we do, or is it a much more UK-dominated relationship?

Dr Eyal: If you are asking me, Mr Gapes, whether it is sort of irreplaceable, the answer is clearly no. There are other countries in the region that can fulfil the same job, assuming that the Government wants to have a British military presence in the region, which the current Government has indicated it does. However, it would be costly. It would have to be negotiated, and it would have to be negotiated for the time when none of the countries of the region want to negotiate basing agreements if they can avoid it, for political reasons. It is important in that respect.

It is very important for the Bahrainis as well. One of the unstated issues with Bahrain is that they themselves are desperate to counterbalance the overwhelming influence of Saudi Arabia. They are grateful to Saudi Arabia, they could not live without Saudi Arabia, but they would dearly like to have others involved. From their perspective the UK is one of those key partners, so they derive an important advantage from this relationship as well as giving us an important advantage.

Q193 Mike Gapes: And there are two hundred years of history and more recent agreements behind that relationship.

Dr Eyal: Indeed there are. History cuts both ways. I know the previous witnesses before this Committee tended to pooh-pooh some of the connections between the royal families, for instance. I can assure you that in those countries such connections go a long way and are supremely important. But apart from that, it cuts both ways. In many respects every time in Bahrain I got-and I think our Embassy got as well-a sort of feeling of sorrow from the local leaders. It was as though they were saying, "We did not expect it from you. We expected you-the Brits-to support us to the hilt," precisely because of the historic relationship. It is rather strange that the Government are criticised here for not doing enough on Bahrain, and in Bahrain for doing too much. But I guess that is one of those things.

Q194 Mike Gapes: May I then ask how the Bahrain-UK defence and security relationship has been affected by the events since 2011? Perhaps Mr Wheeldon could come in on this as well.

Howard Wheeldon: There has been no equipment supplied to Bahrain for some time, to the best of my knowledge. We would have to go back quite a few years before the last equipment was actually ordered and supplied.

Q195 Mike Gapes: That is not related to the human rights situation, or the unrest?

Howard Wheeldon: No, not at all.

Dr Eyal: The Bahrain defence market was always very small. We provided some figures in our evidence. It was not a very large market and it never can be a very large market, given the size of the country and the size of its standing armed forces. So in that respect it is not a big issue.

Q196 Mike Gapes: So the defence accord which was signed last year in October in London was more about the continuing strategic relationship and the bases, rather than anything to do with defence sales?

Dr Eyal: Indeed.

Q197 Mike Gapes: Why do you think that the British Government seemed so reluctant to make it public, whereas the Bahraini authorities were reporting it?

Dr Eyal: For very obvious reasons. When you have street demonstrations, people being arrested and human rights violations being reported, it is a bit embarrassing to sign an agreement with that country, especially on a military subject. From the Bahraini perspective it is in their interest, for the reasons that I mentioned, to suggest that their country is not being ostracised-that its traditional allies are standing by it. That is part of the narrative. I should say, however, that we make a mistake again in assuming that there is only one view. I think one should look-dare I say it-at the Bahraini royal family as a coalition Government. There are wings within it on both sides, and very often the job of delivering any policy towards Bahrain depends on talking to particular elements within the royal family.

Q198 Mike Gapes: So it was perceived in this way by both wings, or by more than one wing? I do not know how many wings you are referring to.

Dr Eyal: At least three.

Q199 Mike Gapes: Was it seen by all of them as an endorsement by Britain of the authorities in Bahrain?

Dr Eyal: I am sure that that is how they would like to portray it in public, but I do not think that is the view in private when they know where we stand. I repeat that on a number of occasions they have expressed their displeasure. In fact, the media in Bahrain is almost constantly hostile to us, as you will hear when, as I hope, you manage to get to the region. Most of the reporting is hostile. There has been a lot of reporting about the supposed British plot to divide Bahrain with Iran-all the usual kind of nonsense that one gets. But I would say that we do not have a good media in Bahrain. We are not seen as their stalwart supporters, although officially that is the position being made.

Howard Wheeldon: I am deferring on Bahrain, but I might add-you have brought up media-that Saudi Arabia look at our media here and take fright because of the innuendo that I think we see so frequently published without any underlying facts behind it. It really worries them. They cannot just ignore it, as we might choose to do if we see particular issues in the press that relate to the UK. They are hugely embarrassed by just seeing their names associated-that is something that worries them.

Q200 Mark Hendrick: UK sales to Bahrain are for equipment used for external defence only. Nevertheless, at the time of the Arab Spring, the UK revoked 23 individual export licences and removed the country from 18 open licences. The licences that were not revoked included goods such as airport components for the Bahraini defence force. Are those continuing defence sales a symbolic gesture of support for the Bahraini regime?

Howard Wheeldon: Factually, I do not know the answer to the question in terms of what the actual items were. I may imagine that, as we sold a number of Hawk aircraft to Bahrain over 20 years ago, there may be some parts and components related to the support of those.

Dr Eyal: In any case like this, one has to balance a set of interests. One of them is that of being a reliable supplier. A lot of this equipment has been in the possession of the Bahraini forces for quite some time, and it is very difficult to say how it could be used for any repressive measures internally. Therefore, I would say that the whole purpose of continuing some items but not others was precisely in order to emphasise that we remain reliable suppliers as long as this is feasible. I repeat-I am not saying anything unusual here-that the British position has been of an extra or deeper engagement with Bahrain, not ostracising the Government.

Q201 Mark Hendrick: What would happen if those sales were further restricted-for example, the aircraft parts?

Howard Wheeldon: If I am correct in my assessment, these are very old aircraft now. They are trainer aircraft, not fighter aircraft; Hawk is not and never was a fighter aircraft. It is an entry into and used for fast jet training. They would stop; they can’t get those parts from anywhere else.

Q202 Mark Hendrick: You say that, Mr Wheeldon, but there was some evidence at the time that, for example, similar aircraft was used in Indonesia against the inhabitants of East Timor.

Howard Wheeldon: You are correct. That was back in 1998, and the UK Government stopped the whole issue as soon as we found out what was going on.

Q203 Sir John Stanley: Dr Eyal, can you tell us what interpretation you put on the fact that, following the Arab Spring, there was a substantial number of revocations of extant arms export licences to Bahrain, but the British Government have not so far made one single revocation in relation to Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the Saudi Arabian military intervention in Bahrain in the course of the Arab Spring?

Dr Eyal: There are many ways of referring to this. One is the distinction between what kind of weapons we are delivering and whether they could be used for internal repression. The second one, which is slightly more cynical, is that we tend to react more strongly when there is an eruption of violence on the ground. As long as there isn’t a sustained eruption of violence on the ground, the Government are not put by the media under pressure to do very much about it. I suspect that it is a mixture of both answers.

Q204 Ann Clwyd: There are lots of views on what is going on in Bahrain, but the commission of inquiry did not find any credible evidence that Iran was involved. Why should the commission of inquiry come to that conclusion and you come to a different one?

Dr Eyal: Thank you for that question. I am genuinely very grateful for it, because it gives me the opportunity to expand. I have read the evidence of other witnesses who also suggest that there is negligible evidence of Iranian involvement. I believe this is absolutely true. The eruption of the tension was probably unrelated to Iran, which in any case at the time had other fish to fry than to stir up trouble on the ground.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that the Iranian involvement now is massive-indirectly. First of all, we tend to forget the propaganda bombardment of Bahrain. There are at least five television stations broadcasting in Arabic, 24 hours a day, into Bahrain. The Iranians have perfected a new technique, which is the invention of news stories. A lot of the tension in Bahrain is from invented stories. Press TV has buried the Saudi royal family three times over, simply by announcing that the Saudi King is dead. They know that people will discover that it was not the case, but it keeps the tension going.

By asking and threatening to raise the question of Bahrain in official forums-for instance, they even toyed with the idea of raising it in the nuclear discussions taking place between the P5+1 and Iran-the Iranians have raised the bar. I would say that there is no contradiction in saying that originally, the roots of the crisis were domestic and not assisted by Iran, but the bombardment of Bahrain by Iranian propaganda and the raising of the stakes have made it impossible for any Bahrainian leadership to deal with it rationally. In that respect, I would say the Iranian involvement is massive, but not in the way that some people suggest.

Q205 Chair: That concludes our questions. Mr Wheeldon, we have spoken about 65% of the time about the more international aspects. Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion about defence sales, or any point we may have missed?

Howard Wheeldon: No, I don’t think so. I mentioned that we have had a long history of support. It has been mutually beneficial in defence terms, intelligence terms and trade and industrial terms. I can only speak for the Saudis; they have been great customers for the UK, and we have been for them. Some five years ago, King Abdullah began a policy of industrialisation; "Saudi-isation" was the word used. British companies working in Saudi have embraced that. There are a large number of partnerships, and UKTI and the Saudis have worked hard together. We have a mutually beneficial state of trade relations, and I would like to think that that will continue for a long time to come.

Chair: Thank you both very much for coming. It is really appreciated and very useful to us.

<?oasys [pg6,cwe1] ?>Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir Tom Phillips, former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2010-2012), gave evidence.

Q206 Chair: Sir Tom, you were British ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2010 to 2012. Welcome. Is there anything you would like to say by way of opening remarks?

Sir Tom Phillips: It may be helpful if I try to set out how, when I was there, we defined the spread of UK interests, and how we sought to pursue them, which is a point that I do not think has quite come through in some of the previous evidence sessions. First, as Sir Alan Munro and others have said, this is a country where we have extensive interests at stake. Saudi Arabia is a long-standing ally and a key partner in a complex and volatile region. We have many shared interests there, and that came up in the previous session. It is a G20 partner and an important CT partner, again as came up in the previous session. I hope that I will have a chance to come to that in more detail. It is a key player in world energy markets, a supplier in OPEC, and was able, for example, to supply additional oil during the Libya crisis, to keep prices down. It is a member of key groupings such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council and a significant voice in the Islamic world and on issues such as interfaith dialogue. It is a major market for British goods, and with £6 billion of goods and services a year it is the biggest in the Middle East. It matters on the consular front, which again has not quite come through before, with tens of thousands of British citizens going over there every year for the Haj and Umra, apart from other purposes. At the same time, it is a very different country with different values and traditions, so there may be issues on the values compatibility front, if I can put it that way.

When I was ambassador there, we tried to map as clearly as we could the spread of the relationship and the UK interests at stake for the whole of Whitehall. We put together an across-the-board engagement strategy aimed at Whitehall as a whole, not just the Foreign Office, and designed not simply to boost the bilateral relationship for its own sake, but to provide a mechanism to advance our interests. High-level visits were a key part of that, as they always are in the Middle East. We made the case to London against the background of the Arab Spring that the way to reconcile our values and interests was indeed by means of such an across-the-board agenda with a friend and ally, and that engagement strategy in essence comprised the Saudi leg of the Gulf Initiative.

On the values agenda, we worked under the rubric of the Foreign Secretary’s September 2010 speech on British values in a networked world, in which he spoke about seeking to work with the grain of particular societies to advance UK values, against the assessment, which is in line with the input you have had from Sir Alan, Robert Lacey and Caroline Montagu among others, that the current Saudi regime is in Saudi terms a reforming one. Many issues flow from that, and maybe we can talk about them in detail, but I never interpreted the working-with-the-grain <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>mantra as meaning that one should not be clear when necessary about our principles on any particular issue.

On the values front, there is one particular text that I don’t think the Committee has looked at. The Riyadh Declaration, which came out of the December 2010 GCC summit, was essentially a Saudi text and highlighted the role of leaders in meeting the aspirations of younger generations and achieving greater participation of all citizens, specifically men and women. I saw that as something of a landmark text in indicating Saudi thinking.

I certainly do not want to underplay the problems in Saudi Arabia. It is a country where a great deal needs to be done-women’s rights, the death penalty and a whole series of socio-economic challenges-plus living in a high-risk region to live in. However, I am convinced that sustained across-the-board engagement, including between the Shura and the Parliament, can help with the positive evolution of Saudi society.

I think the British Council’s written evidence was very impressive in what it said about what is happening on the education front. We have spoken about the CT front and the co-operation there. As an example, the forensics training we have provided makes it easier for the Saudis to have evidence to go to court with, rather than relying perhaps on other means to get material or information out of people.

On the military front, the training that we are providing, for instance, to the National Guard-based on the rule of law and the rules of international conflict, etc.-again, allows us to put across a values element in that sort of thing. Moreover, I was consistently struck, and remain so, that when you talk to people who went to Saudi Arabia 5 to 10 years ago and then go back now, they consistently talk of it moving in the right direction, being a more open society. Of course, it is at its own pace and wherever it ends up, it is not going to look like the British parliamentary model.

There were a couple of specific points that came up in the previous session that I wanted to comment on. First, on the Bahrain front, for the record, it was, of course, at the invitation of the Bahrain Government that Saudi forces went in, under a GCC banner. The second point was that when trouble started to occur, in the context of the Arab
Spring-at that stage, there were some fairly minor outbreaks of unrest, I think in the Eastern province-we did a review of all extant licences to Saudi Arabia against the EU criteria and concluded that there was no evidence of any of the material that had been sold being used for internal repression. I note, too, that the commission of inquiry report in Bahrain also gave a clean bill of health, as it were, to the Saudis, saying that there was no evidence that the Saudi forces had been involved in internal repression in Bahrain.

Q207 Chair: Thank you. There were a lot of important points in there, and it was very useful. On a fairly general point, you spoke about it being a <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>reformed country, and that people were coming back and seeing a change after being away. You say that, looking back over the past decade, it is a country that has changed; is that trend going to continue?

Sir Tom Phillips: Well, I certainly think that King Abdullah, the current King, will go down in Saudi history as one of the great reforming kings. He has done a great deal to set the direction. I think that, very interestingly, in terms of the Saudi response to the Arab Spring, they were one of the few Governments that got it-that the answer is not to clamp down, but to move faster in some areas. Of course, Saudi-fast may not be as fast as everybody wants it, but they immediately came up with a large $137 billion economic package focused on such as employment and housing, which were some of the causes of concern. The King has, of course, moved further on the reform agenda, particularly regarding women’s rights-women have been appointed to the Shura, and they are able to vote and stand as of the next municipal elections, and so on and so forth. So the signal he has sent is of maintaining the reform pattern.

Of course, there is a question mark over what comes after King Abdullah. I know the individuals, in a way, likely to be in immediate succession, so I am not feeling over-worried. A key point here is that the al-Saud do try to shift the consensus, but they also try to rule within a consensus. They try to judge the pace of change. I think it would be very difficult-almost impossible-to reverse the course that the King has set. The exact pace that they move at, I cannot predict.

Q208 Chair: On a different point, you said that Saudi Arabia went in to help Bahrain in 2011 as the result of a request under the scope of the GCC. Does that not illustrate that the GCC is slightly different from NATO? NATO will help each other out when there is an external threat. Here, this was an internal threat. Is that quite common in the GCC?

Sir Tom Phillips: I am trying to think if it was the first of its kind. You are right-I do not think the GCC has a clear military model for itself; it is what it is trying to evolve. Part of its raison d’être is a defensive alliance, particularly against the Iranian threat. Of course, they would have seen Bahrain in the context of an Iranian threat and would have wanted to send a very clear signal to Iran. I think the GCC is still evolving, in terms of what it is going to mean over time. I think that they are looking at NATO and other models as ways to go, and they are looking at military compatibility, security, co-operation and all those areas. Those are high on the agenda.

Q209 Chair: We upgraded our relationship to a full strategic partnership. What was the objective of that? What were we hoping to achieve? What were we not achieving that we hoped that we would achieve by having this full strategic partnership?

Sir Tom Phillips: We had had, before my time, what was called the Two Kingdoms Dialogue. That Had been in particular areas quite driven by the business community. When we had mapped the interests under this engagement strategy, we wanted to send a signal of the importance that we attached to that huge spread of UK interests that was at stake, hence the proposal that we put to the Saudis. I do not know how formalised it has yet become for a full-scale strategic partner dialogue, as it were.

In many ways, any formal structure that one did get to, or a label like that, would be formalising what is already taking place. In all the areas that I ran through-that stretch of UK interests-we do have a very intensive dialogue with the Saudis already at ministerial and lower level. In some ways, it is recognising the reality of what goes on anyway.

Q210 Chair: Was this ever formalised into a formal agreement?

Sir Tom Phillips: When I left, we put the proposal to them. I do not know whether it has been carried forward.

Q211 Chair: It is still on the table, is it? Why did it take the Prime Minister 19 months to visit Saudi Arabia?

Sir Tom Phillips: He had hoped to visit earlier, but there were health reasons why the Saudis asked for it to be delayed.

Q212 Mr Roy: Sir Tom, we know that the Saudis sign contracts Government to Government and in our case it is with the MOD in relation to defence. Is there a school of thought there that, by that type of relationship, the MOD has more sway over foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia than the Foreign Office?

Sir Tom Phillips: No, I do not think so. It is certainly true that, for big-ticket items, and not just on the defence front, the Saudis like to know where a particular Government is coming from-they like to know if you are behind your company on that. That is part of the way that they go about the world. But I certainly did not feel that I took my orders, as it were, from the MOD. I was happy to work extremely closely with the MOD on all their items, but the Foreign Secretary is my boss and, more than that, I was an ambassador, so I was representing the whole of Whitehall. What I found particularly helpful was going and presenting to the National Security Council, because there you have got the spread of UK Ministers who are going to have a stake in my country. On one occasion, I came back to the NSC to present on Saudi Arabia, and I found that to be a very natural point of docking in, given the range of UK interests.

Q213 Mr Roy: But you did not feel that you had to shape the policy towards the Saudis because of any MOD contracts or anything else that was going on?

Sir Tom Phillips: No.

Q214 Mr Roy: May I ask about the British defence industry? In your opinion, does it need Saudi Arabia more than it needs the United Kingdom?

Sir Tom Phillips: It is a very large market. Of course, the British defence industry are looking for a lot of other markets. In the end, I do not know. It is a key market, but, as I think one of the previous witnesses said, we could undoubtedly survive without it. The thing is not going to fall off its perch if you take Saudi Arabia out of the equation, but it would be a major-

Q215 Mr Roy: And if we stopped selling arms to Saudi, is it right to presume that the UK defence industry would find itself in a perilous position?

Sir Tom Phillips: Saudi Arabia is a long-standing friend and ally in a volatile region with legitimate defence requirements. So far, in Arab Spring terms, looking at the sort of dumb things that people in Syria and Libya have done, Saudi Arabia has acted with restraint when it comes to coping with pressures, and it is pursuing a reform agenda. I find it hard to think of the scenario that you are sketching out. What would get us there? That is why I stress that we did do this review of the licences while I was there, and it was done very thoroughly.

Mr Roy: What I am trying to get at is what would happen if our foreign policy got to the point where there was such a breakdown in communication between both countries that our defence industry was affected?

Sir Tom Phillips: If you ever got to the point where the relationship broke down and we were not selling any arms, it would obviously have a major impact on the British defence industry, yes.

Q216 Mr Roy: Can I ask about the 2010 Bribery Act and the effect on UK defence sales to Saudi Arabia? How did it affect it-or did it affect it?

Sir Tom Phillips: As far as I know, it didn’t affect it. Certainly, I saw nothing to suggest that it did. We briefed British companies in Saudi Arabia on the Act when it came in that is the various business groups in al-Khobar, Jeddah and Riyadh. It went smoothly and people understood the briefing. No company then came back to me suggesting major problems.

Q217 Ann Clwyd: You mentioned the appointment of women to the Shura Council. Of course, that is very much to be welcomed. I wonder if you could clear up one or two questions? While the women are on the Shura Council, apparently they are not allowed to sit in the same room with the men. They can communicate, but not in the same room.

Sir Tom Phillips: I do not know what physical arrangements they have come to. If that is how it is going to be, it sounds a bit crazy for us. It is still an important step forward. This is one of the interesting areas of what one means by engagement. Of course there is a range of opinion, but if you talk to many of the women pushing for change in Saudi Arabia-and there are some admirable women out there-most will say: "We trust the King. We think he is trying to move things in the right direction. Work with him and don’t hit him round the head with big public statements from time to time".

An instance of that would be the Olympics, where we were obviously keen for there to be women in the Saudi Olympic team. We made our views clear to the Saudis and they told us-indeed the women told us-"That is our goal too. Work with us, as it were. Don’t make large public statements". In the end it wasn’t our decision; it was largely a negotiation between them and the International Olympic Committee, but through the process of engagement and being in on that debate it was helpful in finding a way forward. It is massive, in Saudi terms, to have two women in their team; it really sets a trend. Of course, it is not at a pace that you or I would like, but it is still very big.

Q218 Ann Clwyd: Despite that, are women still not allowed to take part in competitive sports?

Sir Tom Phillips: There are huge problems, with schools and all sorts of things, although one of their deputy education ministers is a woman. I have met her and she is doing sterling work. They are trying to move the agenda, but there is a lot still to be done.

Q219 Ann Clwyd: Then there’s women’s right to drive. That still remains taboo and the Shura Council has widely publicised a study claiming that allowing women to drive would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse. That doesn’t sound very progressive.

Sir Tom Phillips: It’s certainly not very progressive. Driving is a tricky one, because somebody wins and somebody loses. It is a zero-sum game so it has become an iconic issue for the more conservative establishment, whereas if you look at what the King has done in terms of moving women’s empowerment, and education especially, when you go to Riyadh, almost the first thing you will see as you drive in from the airport is a huge university for women. In the British Council paper there is a statistic about how many women the British Council are giving language and other training to in Saudi Arabia. If you look at the number of young Saudis abroad under the King Abdullah scholarship programme, I think there are over 20,000 in the UK and about 40% are women.

So the Saudi Government are making important steps forward. Yes, of course, from the point of view of our society we would like it to be more, faster and so on, but I believe it is a system that is trying to move in the right direction and that we get more traction by working with it and encouraging it, rather than banging from the outside.

Q220 Ann Clwyd: But then, would we have got women into the Olympics had we not made a noise about it? Doing it all very quietly and politely sometimes seems not the best approach.

Sir Tom Phillips: You have to judge it, but that is what we are paid for, as diplomats-to make the judgments and give the policy advice.

Q221 Ann Clwyd: Do you feel fairly relaxed about the present people in power in Saudi Arabia handing over to the next generation, or will they hold on to power as long as they possibly can?

Sir Tom Phillips: You mean the generation of sons of Abdul Aziz? I do not know. It is always interesting with Saudi Arabia; one cannot avoid the succession issue, and clearly it is at a very interesting moment as the generation of sons of King Abdul Aziz - Ibn Saud - ages. All of us trying to understand what is going on are looking at the current slow, rolling Government reshuffle that seems to be going on, which is bringing some of the very bright members of the next generation into more prominent positions. I think Alan Munro in his evidence ran over some of the names involved there. All I would say is, knowing those people, there is a real talent base in the royal family in the next generation. They are going to be in positions over the next few years with a chance to prove themselves, which I assume is part of the purpose of the reshuffle, and I admire the political nous of the king in the way in which he is obviously trying to move it forward and get ready for that moment of transition.

Q222 Ann Clwyd: What do you think would be a realistic goal for political reform in Saudi Arabia, and how do you think the UK can assist that?

Sir Tom Phillips: Again, it is very hard to know. When the Arab Spring started, the Saudis would come to me and say, "Are you saying that every country in the Middle East should be a Westminster democracy?"-or an Israeli democracy, or an American one, or whatever-and I said, "No." The point is that any Government in the world is based on some kind of contract between ruler and ruled. It can be written or unwritten. It can be one based on fear-if you do x we will lock you up or kill you-or it can be one based on consent. One of the best ways to get consent is through participation. The judgment we tried to make of a particular system is, "Does it have consent, and has it got meaningful participation?"

Then of course you have to try to make the judgment about where Saudi Arabia stands on all that. I think the al-Saud are pretty good at getting out there and listening to people. I have been in on some of the Majlis meetings held by members of the royal family, and it is quite striking. I sometimes wonder how many MPs see that many people on a Friday. They work very hard at trying to work within the consensus while changing the consensus. If you asked me to make a judgment at the moment about whether there is meaningful consent in Saudi Arabia to the current regime, I would say yes. That is my dipstick view as ambassador, having been out there. Of course, I cannot guarantee that it is always going to be like that, but yes, I would say so.

How it is going to evolve, I do not know. I do not think that the royal family are looking to be a constitutional monarchy any time soon, but we now have municipal elections and I hope that over time we will see elections to the Shura. You may well get to a point of some kind of Prime Minister, as it were, separate from the royal family. All those evolutions seem to me possible over time. I do believe that there is discussion at the top of the Saudi family about what is the right way to go.

Q223 Ann Clwyd: When you were ambassador, did you feel you could speak frankly with them about human rights concerns expressed in this country?

Sir Tom Phillips: Yes, against the "working with the grain" mantra, as it were. I had frequent meetings with the chairman of the Human Rights Commission. I had slightly fewer meetings, but the embassy as a whole had meetings, with the National Society, which is another body there.

Q224 Ann Clwyd: Sorry, what was it called?

Sir Tom Phillips: There are two human rights bodies: there is the Human Rights Commission and there is the National Society for Human Rights. The Human Rights Commission is the more formal one. I had frequent meetings with the chairman and I ran over our concerns. As part of the EU, we had some very good exchanges with the Minister of Justice, including on issues such as the death sentence. Of course, the Minister of Justice then made a very good visit to the UK and saw our system.

Again, that seemed to me to be the benefit of engagement-"Come and see how we do things over here," I will leave it to when you have a Foreign Office Minister in front of you, but I know that Foreign Office Ministers raised human rights issues with Saudi Ministers in the room when I was there and, indeed, on visits over here. Yes, we do raise issues.

Q225 Ann Clwyd: So you think that public pressure is important to accelerate reforms in Saudi Arabia?

Sir Tom Phillips: This was not public pressure; this was in meetings.

Q226 Ann Clwyd: There is public pressure in this country-for example, on Government Ministers or anybody who is meeting the Saudis.

Sir Tom Phillips: That is part of our system on a lot of issues. I have got no problem with that.

I have contributed to the FCO’s human rights annual report and all of that, and part of our system is to put it out there. Of course, no Government like being listed as a country of concern. I am sure that the Saudis do not enjoy it. There might be an issue: if you really want to encourage the Saudis to move, do you get more or less bang for your buck by having a public document like that, which will probably make them feel, "Those Brits are at us again"? I do not know; that is a tough judgment. The Saudis know enough of our system to know that that is the way we are, as it were. I never had a major problem with that.

Q227 Ann Clwyd: It is not counter-productive?

Sir Tom Phillips: I do not know-possibly, but I am not 100% sure. Having some sense of the current leadership in Saudi Arabia, I think that they would be moving in a reform direction anyway. I do not think that the fact that the British public want human rights in the Middle East is the determining factor.

Q228 Chair: May I press you on that very last point? To put it evenly, do you think that it is better to put on pressure privately or publicly?

Sir Tom Phillips: Privately.

Q229 Chair: That is your preference?

Sir Tom Phillips: Absolutely. That is part of this engagement strategy. We are working with a friend and an ally. They are trying to go in the right direction, and we are trying to encourage, speed it up or whatever.

Q230 Chair: May I go back to an answer that you gave Ann a moment ago, when you were talking about women’s participation in sport and driving cars? Can you confirm that that is cultural rather than statutory-that there is no statutory basis for that?

Sir Tom Phillips: There is no statutory basis for women not being allowed to drive.

Q231 Chair: Indeed, there are some regions in Saudi Arabia where women quite freely drive cars.

Sir Tom Phillips: Well, so they say; I have not seen it myself.

Q232 Chair: That is important: you have not seen it.

Sir Tom Phillips: But they say that Bedouin women out in the desert drive and so on and so forth, and in other parts. I am sure that that happens, because I have been out in the desert and there is nobody there to watch what you are doing.

Q233 Chair: There is no prosecution for breach of a law by women driving.

Sir Tom Phillips: Occasionally, when I was there, women tried to drive in Riyadh and Jeddah. They did have problems and were locked up, but I think that they were all let out. I do not think that anybody faced a charge because, as you say, there is not actually a law preventing it.

Q234 Sir John Stanley: Sir Tom, during your time as ambassador in Saudi Arabia, was it made clear to you formally or informally by the FCO back in London that, while you should do your best for human rights, you should not under any circumstances do anything that would jeopardise either our defence exports to Saudi Arabia or our intelligence relationship?

Sir Tom Phillips: No, it was never put to me in those terms.

Q235 Sir John Stanley: So you just exercised your judgment as to how far you could go without jeopardising those other two British Government objectives.

Sir Tom Phillips: Yes, to a degree. That would be what I am paid for. This is also why we tried to put together a formal engagement strategy-these are the priorities and this is what we are going to do under each of the headings-and to focus Whitehall, as it were, on seeing the thing whole and understanding that bigger picture. I cannot think of an instance when this was problematical in the way that you are suggesting.

Q236 Sir John Stanley: You made it clear, in answer to the Chairman’s question, that your preference was to go down the private dialogue route as far as human rights are concerned. Did you, while you were ambassador, make any public expression, either through speeches or the media, setting out the British Government’s views of human rights as far as Saudi Arabia was concerned?

Sir Tom Phillips: Oh yes, very much so, and it touches on a point I made in my opening remarks about never ducking on issues of principle. If you are lobbying on a particular case, or trying to get something done, I do not think it is particularly helpful to go public, unless, ultimately, you have utterly failed and that is the end. But whenever a Saudi journalist asked me an issue of principle, such as should women drive or should women take part in the Olympics, I always said yes. One of the things that British ambassadors out there are privileged to do is to write a fortnightly column in Al Riyadh, which is the biggest Arabic language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. All of us-I am sure William did it as well-used that. You cannot every week simply set out British Government positions, because nobody will read you if you do that. All of us tried to give it a personal touch in our different ways. I certainly used that to give a sense of British values. On the web, you can see my last one, which has a barbed bit at the end of it about how women driving would certainly improve the standard of driving in Saudi Arabia. I felt able in those articles, especially when you have been there a little bit of time with some sense of the market and what people are reading and getting feedback on that column, to put across British values.

Q237 Sir John Stanley: Again, while you were ambassador, did you, or members of your embassy staff, have meetings with individuals who may have been jailed or been threatened with criminal prosecutions as a result of their support and the pressure they were seeking to apply on human rights issues?

Sir Tom Phillips: I did actually meet some of the older critics of the al-Saud regime who had in their time been locked up for one reason or another. And other members of my embassy did meet some of the younger critics. Of course when trouble broke out in the East, one gets a lot of people giving you in a way too information, you cannot verify it all. It is quite hard often to verify what is going on. I do think that, through the process of engagement, we did have means to put questions to the Saudis. For instance, when there were clearly problems in the Eastern province in the latter half of 2011, we, through our links especially with the Minister of Interior, were able ask what was really going on and they gave us some assurances, so that dialogue helped.

There is another interesting point here in the Arab Spring context. When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, some of what I would call the traditional critics of the al-Saud on the East and the West would joke about needing to take a visa to go up to Riyadh. Some of those very same people a year into the Arab Spring were saying, "Look what is happening around the region. Change comes at a price. Maybe democracy could mean tribalism, at least the al-Saud have unified the country." Some of the impact of the Arab Spring was to make people understand more what the al-Saud have achieved, to put it that way. That was in the older generation of critics. There is something else happening within the e-world, the social media world. Like many of the Arab Spring countries, there are a lot of young people out there looking for jobs and needing change. The real challenge for the al-Saud is meeting the aspirations of those people. That is one of the reasons why I referred to the GCC Riyadh declaration text. There was a very interesting recognition from the leadership that that is what they have to do; that is the challenge. I think, from my own exchanges with them, they recognised that.

Q238 Sir John Stanley: You have just touched on my final question, which is on the e-world. It is, I suggest, one of the world’s most powerful and ever-more pervasive forces in favour of basic human rights. Can you tell us how concerned the Saudi authorities are about it? What is their attitude to freedom of expression and how far are they trying to curtail it to prevent their own people from seeing the experience of human rights not just in European countries, but in other countries, including those in the Gulf states, quite close to them, that have a very different and more progressive attitude to human rights, including women’s rights?

Sir Tom Phillips: I don’t know how concerned they are about it. I am sure they watch pretty carefully what is happening as part of trying to keep their finger on the pulse of what is going on and monitor it. Quite a lot of what is happening in the e-space out there is coming from the right-not the left-from more conservative critics of the regime. That is a factor that one should not rule out. If you have elections in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, the chances are you would get a more conservative Government than the one you have. Part of what they are watching is whether they are getting criticism from the right, not the left. I am sure they watch it very carefully.

Is there freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia as there is here? No. I cannot imagine "Spitting Image" or suchlike in Saudi terms. Overt criticism of the royal family would not go down well over there. Having said that, I come back to the point about people who were in Saudi Arabia five or 10 years ago. I was always struck when they would come back and say how much more is now being talked about. In the time that I was there, I certainly got a sense of an evolving space with more being said and more being doable.

Q239 Mike Gapes: Sir Tom, you mentioned the Arab Spring. In the response to John Stanley, you talked about the impact within Saudi society. Did the events that took place while you were there result in any strain in the UK-Saudi relationship, because of the different perceptions of the Arab Spring between our Government and the Saudi Government?

Sir Tom Phillips: That is very interesting. I referred earlier to their asking me, "What do you want? Do you want us to turn into a Westminster democracy?" and the exchanges that that led to. I think that at the beginning of the Arab Spring, they were obviously worried about what was going on. Like everyone, they were struggling to analyse and assess. They noted how we "drop" traditional allies rather quickly. I mean Mubarak and so on.

On the conversations that I subsequently had with senior Saudis-I will obviously protect which ones-I would say two things. First, I was struck by their recognition from the start that the Arab Spring was a really deep historical movement. Something important was happening. They compared it from the start with the French and Russian revolutions, as something that will work out over time. Secondly, and in a way that I found really interesting, when we had the discussion about dropping traditional allies, it was not in fact the substance that they disagreed with; it was the western tendency to say things publicly very quickly.

I think that the Saudis-clearly, in a case like Egypt: a significant ally for them and a pole of moderation in the region-were unhappy about what was happening and uncertain about what the future was going to bring. But they recognised from the start that Mubarak had made mistakes and had fallen behind the curve in terms of meeting his people’s aspirations. In any exchange that I have had with the senior Saudis, it was not the substance of British policy that troubled them, because they recognised when Mubarak, and indeed Assad, had gone wrong; it was western public lines that I think caused them some unease.

Q240 Mike Gapes: You mentioned Egypt. Were they also concerned at the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood? Were they concerned that that might have knock-on consequences domestically and in terms of their position of pre-eminence within the Muslim and Arab world?

Sir Tom Phillips: As you know, there is a complex background to Saudi relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. They were certainly worried about what change might lead to. One of their worry lines from the start would have been that whatever happens in Tahrir square now, organised political parties would come through, the Muslim Brotherhood. They probably predicted pretty accurately what would happen there and what the problem might be. Where they are on all that now, I don’t know. They did move to pledge quite a lot of money to support Egypt. I don’t know how much of that has been paid, but they recognise that Egypt coming through in some coherent way is strategically important in the region. I think they would recognise and acknowledge that.

If I had to speculate on what they will think of President Morsi now, probably the jury is out. They will be saying that it is very interesting the role he played in Gaza, and on the whole good. It is very interesting that he went quite soon, I think, to Tehran to an OIC meeting and spoke out very critically about Syria quite early on. They will be watching and keen that Egypt survives and comes through. Yes, there are the traditional deep reserves about the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, I think.

Q241 Mike Gapes: May I ask you about Bahrain? The official position is that the Saudis were invited in by the Bahraini Government. Is that similar to what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968, where the Soviets were invited in?

Sir Tom Phillips: Well, I wasn’t ambassador in Moscow at the time, so I don’t know. Nor do I know if what happened in Bahrain choreographed in the way you say.

Q242 Mike Gapes: The BBC had a December 2011 news report that basically said that the Saudis said to the Bahraini Government, "If you don’t stop these protests, we’ll come in and do it for you." I am paraphrasing.

Sir Tom Phillips: I have no idea if that is true. I have great respect for the BBC. In my view on Bahrain, there are a lot of Saudis and not all of them are going to think the same thing on an issue such as Bahrain. One of the analytical issues you always have to ask yourself out there is who is in charge of a particular dossier.

What I experienced from my own direct dialogue with the Saudis on Bahrain was that they acknowledged from the start that there had to be a political process there. It was not something that you could control from a purely security perspective. So they were encouraging that political dialogue. I think the problem they have got is that they don’t quite see what the end result is of the dialogue. What is the confessional balance you get to that does not mean it is, in some sense, a Shia-dominated risk? There is a bottom line there; that Bahrain does not become what they would see as an Iranian client state.

Q243 Mike Gapes: Did we, as the UK Government, at the time have concerns about this GCC intervention?

Sir Tom Phillips: Did we have concerns? Well, they explained to us the terms on which it was being done, that it was under the GCC mutual co-operation and defence agreement or whatever invitation. So we were able to talk to them about it. They also explained to us from the start that their troops would not be in "front-line positions", you know, at the roundabout. They would be protecting critical national infrastructure behind. There was a dialogue from the start.

Q244 Mike Gapes: So, did we express any reservations or concerns to them?

Sir Tom Phillips: I am trying to remember. As I remember it, they actually proactively explained to us what those troops would be doing, so the question of our expressing concern as it were did not come up in that way. However, I was not at every exchange on that.

Q245 Mike Gapes: May I switch to Yemen? Saudi Arabia has played a very important role in the transition in Yemen. We and the Saudis jointly co-chair the Friends of Yemen group. How did we work with Saudi Arabia to achieve that transition in Yemen? Has it been successful, or is the jury still out? Were we really involved with them in what they did with the GCC, or was it very much a Saudi initiative that we were giving support to?

Sir Tom Phillips: To change the order of your questions; has it worked? I am almost a year out. I came out last summer, so I have not been back to the Gulf since then. I know there is a Friends of Yemen meeting this week, so I am sure they will be taking stock. At the end of the day, this is a massive strategic interest for the Saudis; on their border, a lot of people-AQAP-down there, the al-Houthi and so on. It is very high on their strategic radar, so we worked closely with them, but I recognise that their stake is a bigger one. They also have more levers than anything like we do, including person to person, as it were, from the king to the former president down there. We worked closely with them, but I think in some of the key moves to pursue the transition it was a GCC initiative that was at play, and the Saudis played a very dominant and, I think, helpful role in all that.

Where I think the co-ordination was really useful-for us, the Saudis and a group of other key players on this-was on the ground in Sana’a, where the group of ambassadors-

Q246 Mike Gapes: That includes the Americans.

Sir Tom Phillips: Americans, and I think a group of about 10 was called, including the Russians. That grouping was very important, because it ensured that the international messaging to the Yemenis at any one time was consistent. I think that was a real example of successful diplomacy on the ground.

Q247 Rory Stewart: Sir Tom, I will try to keep it under nine minutes, but thank you very much. What is your sense of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy capacity and will?

Sir Tom Phillips: They have got some very capable people. They have got an extremely experienced Foreign Minister, I think he is now the longest serving Foreign Minister still going, as it were. They have got good people, and not just in the Foreign Ministry. When they are looking, especially in the region, sometimes you get a bit of a carve-up among the senior princes on who is going to lead. At the top, there are very capable people at stake.

Like other systems in which I have worked, it is sometimes harder to engage at lower level because the senior players are so good, and working on mobile phones, as it were, I think that sometimes when engaging with the lower levels of the system, however capable the people are, you did not always hear everything that needed to be said. The real competence was at the top, and that put a premium on the top-level engagement.

Q248 Rory Stewart: Jane Kinninmont said that one thing that we need to be careful of is that the Gulf countries are not necessarily representative of wider Arabic opinion. Neil Partrick also told us that they do not have a significant policy-making capacity, and there is the problem about willingness to advance policy, so as a foreign policy partner they are not exactly the same, presumably, as France.

Sir Tom Phillips: No, but if I look back over the last two years, I would say that what we have seen is, with the pressure of events-the Iranian threat, events in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and so on-the Saudis playing an increasingly important role, not just in the regional groupings, such as the Arab League and the GCC, but even on an ad hoc basis. I think that is because they have recognised the growing scale of the challenges that are out there. You are right, it is not like working with the French or the Americans but, to take something like Libya, we were talking to them all the time and they played a very helpful role in the Arab League and the GCC in the early stages in encouraging those organisations to take a certain line-to push for a no-fly zone and things like that. On Syria, again I think we had a very close dialogue, and we have a very close dialogue with them on Iran.

Q249 Rory Stewart: Just to clarify, because we cannot cover all of them in the time, let us take Syria as an example. To what extent do they have a clear strategic mission? Do they have a clear idea about what kind of outcome they want? We know that they are arming people, but is that because they have a clear strategy in some PowerPoint presentation which they could share with the world on where Syria is supposed to turn up?

Sir Tom Phillips: I think Syria is an example of how Saudi policy evolves. It would go from a starter position of: "Let’s hope Assad does the right thing-reforms." Heads rolling in the region are not generally a good thing, even if they were not a particular fan of him. Secondly, when he did not reform and missed the opportunity to make the speeches, to change the pace, and he started to bomb and shell his own people, you got a very striking statement from the King in Ramadan 2011 saying that this is just not what leaders should be doing. That then led through to a policy of much more active support for the opposition. Once they had recognised that this guy was not going to hack it, as it were, they were certainly and I think genuinely morally affronted by what Assad was doing and they moved to more active support for the opposition.

Q250 Rory Stewart: Apart from their affront, what is their vision of a post-Assad Syria and how they achieve it?

Sir Tom Phillips: I am not sure now where that would be. When I left, like all of us, they were trying to assess who the opposition were, who the key players were, who was going to come through and who was going to matter. I do not know if they were arming at that stage, but they were already very focused on what they called the Syrian people having a right to self-defence against the way their regime was attacking them.

Q251 Rory Stewart: I am sorry to push this too much in a short time, but a lot of these things seem like slogans-right to self-defence, moral affront-but what I am trying to get at is that, to have a foreign policy, they have to be able to-

Sir Tom Phillips: What I was going to say was that I think that they were trying very hard at that stage to get a real feel of who the key people in the opposition were. I am sure that they will have carried that much further forward. I do not know whether that means they will now have: "This is what the Government…"-whatever.

Q252 Rory Stewart: They armed, as we did, people like Hekmatyar in Afghanistan; they are now arming rebels in Syria but, certainly in the Afghan case, it was not because they had a clear vision of what a post-Soviet Afghanistan would look like. They have made a different decision from us: we have not decided to arm the rebels. Is that because they have a different political calculus about what the end state will be? What does that tell us about their foreign policy?

Sir Tom Phillips: What they learned in Afghanistan was that arming people carries risk; it turned into al-Qaeda and came back to bite them. I do not know because I have not been in play for a few months, but I think that they have taken time to reach a decision on actually allowing arms to go through, because I think-my judgment would be-they have been looking for people whom they could work with and who are not people who will turn into the al-Qaeda threat down the pike. My assumption is that that is what they have been trying to do: to find who to support and who will not become an own goal down the pike.

Q253 Rory Stewart: Very quickly, on the Middle East peace process and military action against Iran, is Saudi still the key to Middle East peace processes? What attitude would they take to military action against Iran?

Sir Tom Phillips: The Middle East peace process, yes, although like everybody else they have got a lot of priorities at the moment. The Saudi view would be that 70% to 80% of the region’s problems will be substantially alleviated or helped if there is meaningful progress and resolution of the Palestinian issue, quite apart from the fact that they see it as a sacred cause in its own right. They are very focused on it and I think that they were disappointed, to say the least, by the way in which President Obama played it in "Obama I"-that there was no meaningful follow-up to the Cairo speech. They regard the Arab peace initiative as being still on the table and it matters to them that there has been no formal Israeli Government response to that initiative-at least saying that it could be one of the bases, or a basis, for a negotiating process. If there is now to be any sort of revived peace process, my own view would be that there is a lot there to work with, in terms of the API.

It has not come through quite as strongly as perhaps it should have in the remarks to date, but Iran is Saudi Arabia’s No. 1 foreign policy strategic priority threat, and they do feel threatened, and encircled indeed, by what they think Iran is trying to do. What line would they take on military action? They certainly do not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. They hope diplomacy will achieve that goal, but they are probably pretty realistic that that might not be the case. I think the King’s WikiLeaks remarks about cutting off the head of the snake are significant, and I think they probably would like the Americans to have done it; I don’t know if they think that the Americans are going to do it.

On the Israeli front-again, this is all conjecture-my assessment would be that they do not think Israel could do a thorough enough job and that they think that Israeli action would increase Iranian resolve to get there in the end, having not been that much delayed in the first place, and that it would have difficult consequences in the region to handle as well.

Q254 Rory Stewart: Finally, and with apologies about the time, I have two very quick questions on the Foreign Office. First, clearly under Michael Jay, the pendulum swung in the direction of a focus on core management skills rather than on more traditional linguistic and policy skills. Do you feel, on the basis of your experience in Saudi Arabia, that the pendulum should swing back a little in the previous direction? And secondly, is it a problem in terms of getting independent advice out of the Foreign Office that such a very large number of our senior diplomats and soldiers go on to take jobs where they are employed by members of the Gulf royal families, or work with businesses with significant interests in the Middle East? Does that get in the way of our being able to achieve objective criticism of these Governments?

Sir Tom Phillips: On the second question, I do not think so. I know a few people out there in the positions you mentioned, but I do not think that it has ever come up as a factor or affected the way in which ambassadors on the ground seek to give advice upwards within the Whitehall system.

On the core management skills and all that, the pendulum has been swinging back for some years now, at least since the current Government came in. I think that the Foreign Secretary has been pushing back towards what he would see as core diplomatic skills. While I think that we do have to be good managers and good leaders as ambassadors, I certainly welcome the emphasis on core diplomatic skills.

Chair: Thank you, Sir Tom. That’s it. I thank you very much for giving up your time, and at the outset I should have thanked you for your flexibility over the timing when you came here; I think that we originally booked you for a different time and changed it once or twice. Anyway, thank you very much for coming along. It is very much appreciated.

Sir Tom Phillips: Thank you.

Prepared 21st November 2013