Hugh Robertson responds to debate on human rights in Saudi Arabia

Hugh Robertson responds on behalf of the Government to a back bench MP’s debate on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) for securing this debate. I join the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Nahid Almanea, the Saudi Arabian student who was tragically killed in Colchester last Tuesday. I am sure I speak for everyone in saying that our thoughts are with her family.

Before I address the individual contributions made in the debate, it may be helpful to set out some of the current political dynamics that influence our relationship with Saudi Arabia. The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is a long one, and this debate is timely, as the kingdom prepares for the holy month of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia of course being the worldwide centre of the Islamic faith for the UK’s near 3 million Muslim citizens. Many thousands of Britons will visit Saudi Arabia this month during the Hajj period. Some 16,000 Saudi students are currently studying in the UK. As others have mentioned, the UK also has a strong bilateral trade relationship with Saudi Arabia. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Wrexham will believe me, but I can reassure him that that is not the only thing that guides our relationship. Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in the region and our relationship is not simply about selling military hardware. Both the UK and Saudi Arabia have seats on the UN Human Rights Council, which is one of the many areas in which we work with the Saudi Government on issues of mutual interest.

All that said, today’s debate has shown some of the fault lines and judgments involved in the relationship. We have a frank and robust relationship with Saudi Arabia and the breadth and depth of the relationship matters to both sides. The relationship is at its most acute where we have shared priorities in foreign policy, defence, energy and counter-terrorism, and is underpinned by close personal and institutional ties. That does not mean that any particular issue is off limits, however. When we have concerns, we make them clear to the Saudi Arabian authorities, just as the Saudi Arabian Government are frank with us when they disagree. The review of the Muslim Brotherhood, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), is one such area.

To make it clear and put it on the record, we regularly make our views on human rights known through the UN’s universal periodic review process and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights and democracy report, which many hon. Members mentioned. Saudi Arabia continues to be a country of concern and we represent those concerns to Saudi Arabia at the very highest level. However, we have to balance that with the point my hon. Friend made: this is a country with widely held conservative social values. In a sense, the judgment we always have to make in trying to make progress is whether it is best to highlight a case publicly and make a fuss or to try to effect change through private diplomacy. We will come to the princesses in a minute, but the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran made the point that highlighting the case in public actually made their conditions worse, so standing up and shouting at people is not always the best way to effect change.

Let me go through the various contributions and try to address some of the points that were made. I have touched on the issue of the Saudi princesses, and the Government line will not, I am afraid, move from the one I have set out, but that does not mean these issues are not raised. I would absolutely encourage the hon. Lady to make use of the offer to go to speak to the Saudi embassy. As I say, however, there is always a real judgment over whether change is best effected by public or private diplomacy. Where we need to conduct private diplomacy, we are not shy about doing so.

Katy Clark: I would just advise the Minister that private representations have been made for more than a decade, but they do not seem to have been successful. Obviously I encourage the Government to use any avenues available to them to continue to raise this case.

Hugh Robertson: It is a point well made and one that I have clearly taken on board.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for his work with the all-party group, and I wish him good fortune in expanding the number of people on his visit next time round. However, there is a serious point here. He is absolutely right that although Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country, powerful elements in Saudi society are trying to change the way it approaches these things. By far the best way for people in this House to help to effect change in Saudi Arabia is to engage constructively with the system to see what we can do to help, but that does not mean that we have slavishly to agree with everything that is said or to accept every single explanation. Going there and questioning things is absolutely the right approach.

My hon. Friend helpfully highlighted some of the improvements in women’s rights. He mentioned the appointment of female Shura council members. There is also the right to vote and run in the municipal elections in 2015, which is the first time that option has been open to women. In 2013—the last reporting year—more women than men were in tertiary education, which is an extraordinary statistic. Many had enrolled via the King’s scholarship programme. In terms of effecting change over the longer period, that is an extraordinarily encouraging statistic.

It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) speak. He asked specifically about migrant workers, and I absolutely acknowledge that there is some way to go. In a sense, however, as with other issues we have touched on, there is some progress, albeit not enough. He will be aware that the recent legal reforms have tried to improve migrant workers’ most basic rights. Such workers are now paid at least monthly and they have access to their own identity documents.

The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the issue of domestic workers, and they must now have at least nine hours’ rest a day and a day off a week. Those are small, incremental steps and they are not enough, but at least some progress is being made. In addition, Saudi Arabia finally became a member of the International Association of Labour Inspection on 12 June. I therefore take the hon. Gentleman’s point that not enough has been done and he is right to highlight that; again, however, there is some progress.

At the risk of annoying you, Mr Gray, let me touch on the issue of ISIL. I think it is clear that the ISIL we thought we were dealing with two weeks ago is not the one we are dealing with now. There are terrorist elements in it, but there are also a considerable number of Ba’athists, ex-Saddamists and tribal members—it is a very different body from the one we originally thought we were dealing with. However, let me move swiftly back to the subject of the debate.

On many occasions, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I have discussed Christians’ role in the middle east and what they are subjected to. As I have told him, I have made it a mission of mine to make contact with Christian communities when I am in the middle east. Indeed, I took time out during a meeting of the international contact group on Libya to visit the Holy See to co-ordinate our activities in the region. So far, I have managed to make contact with the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Christians in Jordan, and I am going to see members of the Christian community in Lebanon next week. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that I will continue to raise the plight of Christians in the area. I have enormous sympathy with his point of view.

I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) for his very balanced contribution, which, in a sense, showed the dilemma that underpins the whole debate. He raised a number of cases, which I will be happy to take up if he wants to write to me. I will look into them personally and get him a proper answer.

The hon. Member for Wrexham returned to a theme that many people have touched on. The difficulty is not only striking the right balance, but finding the right way to pursue our foreign policy objectives. Having spent a year in the Foreign Office, I am not necessarily sure I have spotted a contradiction between the desire to promote Britain’s commercial interests around the world and a values-based foreign policy. Where the issue is most acute—to be completely honest with him—is over arms exports, and we rigorously follow the guidelines. The Foreign Affairs Committee hauls the Foreign Secretary in front of it at least once a year to go over the issue, and the Committees on Arms Export Controls—CAEC, as they are known colloquially—do a similar job. As a Foreign Office Minister, I am very conscious—I deal with them regularly—of the legal advice and rules that underpin our decisions, and I can promise the hon. Gentleman that we follow them scrupulously.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Foreign Office policy on ministerial visits to countries of concern. As I said, in a sense, in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, the Government would encourage people to engage with countries of concern. I really believe—this is a self-fulfilling element of being a Foreign Office Minister—that, through contact with countries, we give ourselves the best chance of effecting change.

I have talked about arms export licences. As I say, we abide by the rules. I appreciate that the assurances I have given about the princesses will not be enough, but there is a judgment as to whether to pursue the issue publicly or privately. Unless there are any other issues, I will return to where I started: I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran for bringing about this important debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part in it.

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