Mark discussing the UK relationship with Saudi Arabia

July 24, 2007 10:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

I want to be fair, however. It is true that Saudi Arabia has now established a national human rights association, but it is also fair to say that in many areas its actions still seem to speak far more loudly than its words. Let me make one further point on that. Amnesty has recently drawn the public's attention to the example of Rizana Nafeek, a girl of 19 who is being sentenced to death for a crime committed when she was just 17. That is despite Saudi Arabia having signed the convention on the rights of the child, which specifically prohibits the execution of offenders for crimes that were committed when they

were under 18. As it happens, it has also signed the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Yet, as hon. Members have said, it continues to discriminate against women in many ways. If signatory countries are allowed to behave in a way that flies in the face of the conventions that they sign, as Saudi Arabia seems to have done, that surely undermines the effectiveness of the relevant documents and treaties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another state, or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved".

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

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

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

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

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