Foreign AffairsSupplementary written evidence from Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I undertook to write to the Committee on certain points raised during my recent evidence session on your inquiry into the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

You raised the goals of doubling two-way trade, which we share with some Middle Eastern governments, and Andrew Rosindell asked in a related question why we had trade targets for some GCC markets but not all.

We have a commitment to double two-way trade with the governments of Kuwait and Qatar, reflecting a desire by the host government or a representative national business group to match our determination to increase our own exports. These targets cover the period 2011 to 2015. The UAE’s target, set in 2009 ahead of the UK/UAE Joint Economic Committee, is to increase bilateral trade by 60% by 2015—from £7.5bn to £12 bn. But not all Gulf states think in these terms, and the markets vary; as Jon Davies pointed out during the evidence session, the Saudi market, for example, is more mature. And our oil and gas imports cannot easily be shoe-horned into this kind of model. So we need to stay focussed our own primary role—to increase British exports. This is underlined by the UKTI team in Saudi Arabia setting themselves a target of increasing exports by 10% as part of their wider performance targets for 2013/14.

On our own export targets, each Gulf Embassy works to a performance agreement with UKTI headquarters based on targets relating to two things; how much help it can give to how many companies, and how much value it can derive for British business from campaigns focussed on high-value opportunities within the market. These campaigns match Gulf demand with British expertise and include GCC-wide rail and metro projects; oil and gas, airport, health and education opportunities, as well as a focus on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar—part of our London 2012 legacy agenda. Our posts also work hard to encourage investment into the UK from the Gulf, and we are now looking to put more people into the region to do this.

The Committee asked whether Embassy officials attend the trials of individuals being charged on human rights or counter terrorism cases in Saudi Arabia. Embassy officials can attend any trials in Saudi Arabia, but with some limitations. Attendance by diplomats requires the agreement of the presiding judge in each case. As this depends on the views of the individual judge, our recent experience is that permission for Embassy officials to attend is not generally given. Embassy officials most recently attended a trial hearing of a human rights activist in November 2012.

I also promised to write about the Freedom of Expression charges in Bahrain. On 24 December 2011, the Bahraini Public Prosecutor, Dr Ali bin Fadhl Al-Buainain, announced that charges relating to speech protected by the right to freedom of expression would be dropped in a number of cases stemming from the unrest earlier in the year. According to the Public Prosecutor, the decision affected 343 individuals in 43 cases and was based upon the ongoing assessment of the National Safety Court procedures and review of the legality of charges levelled against the accused. Other cases that involved crimes of violence would remain pending. Mr Gapes’s question related to the high-profile case of “the 13” political activists. The Information Affairs Authority in Bahrain issued a statement on 12 January 2013, following the Cassation Court’s decision to uphold the convictions and sentences, which stated:

“On the charges considered by the Court, firstly it must be emphasized that the decision of the Court of Appeals on 4 August 2012 did not include any charges against any of the accused related to freedom of expression which were all dropped by the Public Prosecution against all the accused. Moreover, the Court of Cassation, in its decision of 7 January 2013, did not address those charges, and limited its deliberations and decision to the above mentioned crimes.

Henceforth, the Court’s deliberations were confined to accusations related to the formation of a group in violation of the provisions of the Law, the purpose of which was to overturn the Country’s Constitution, topple its political regime, disrupt the application of laws, prevent State’s institutions and public authorities from performing their functions, impair private liberties of citizens, undermine national unity, attempt to overturn the State’s Constitution and topple its monarchy by the use of force”.

Therefore, as I explained in my response to the Committee, these individuals remain in prison due to other serious offences. This does not, however, lessen our concern about reports that some of the defendants had been abused in detention, denied access to legal counsel and coerced into confessing. We have raised these concerns with the Bahraini Government on numerous occasions and continue to call on them to meet all of their international human rights obligations.

8 July 2013

Prepared 19th November 2013