Dr Julian Lewis: If ever there were a prime candidate to be the subject of that excellent BBC Radio 4 series, “Moral Maze”, it would be Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Alistair Carmichael) on securing the debate and on the measured and temperate way in which he presented the case.
All the Back-Bench Members who have spoken have shown wisdom and moderation in their remarks. I was particularly struck by the contribution of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who knows more about the Arab world than just about anybody I have come across in 22 years in this House. Even he, though, with all his knowledge of the subject, made no bones about the extent to which one must be conflicted about a relationship as complex as this.
I mentioned that I have been in this House for 22 years, which takes us back to 1997, when the Blair Government came in on a tide of optimism and idealism, and Robin Cook, who became Foreign Secretary, stated his admirable objective of importing an “ethical dimension” into foreign policy. The problem with trying to find an ethical dimension, however, is that the choices we face, far from being between good and evil, are often about which is the lesser of two evils. I am afraid that that is the situation in which we find ourselves regarding our decades-long involvement with the countries of the Middle East.
It is sometimes tempting to feel a sense of superiority about the way in which our society conducts itself, compared with the brutal and authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world in general, and in the Middle East in particular. It is good to remind ourselves, therefore, that a few hundred years ago people in this country, who regarded themselves as Christians, thought nothing of inflicting terrible barbarities on one another, similar to what happened to poor Mr Khashoggi in that embassy, in the name of a belief as to which was the true branch of Christianity and which was what we would call, in another context, an infidel variation on that theme.
If we think of that in the context of our history and say, “What could have been done several hundred years ago to rapidly bring those societies to an appreciation of human rights and democratic politics?”, we realise how difficult that process is. That is why revolutions often have such bloody consequences and make bad situations even worse. That is also why I would like to think that most hon. Members believe in the evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary, process. If we are going to make improvements, we have to take society with us from the point at which we find it.
Let me give an example of the dilemmas that arise in relation to Saudi Arabia. On 20 June, I asked the Secretary of State for International Trade:
“Do the Government accept that, as the years have rolled by since the 9/11 atrocities, it has become harder and harder to justify the closeness of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but in defence of what the Government are trying to do, would it not be sensible for my right hon. Friend to have conversations with the Foreign Secretary, perhaps with a view to publishing a digest of some of the representations that we make to the Saudis in trying to keep them from straying further away from acceptable standards of international behaviour?”
We could add to that the dimensions of human rights abuse. The Secretary of State’s reply, rather predictably, was as follows:
“The Foreign Secretary and I have answered numerous questions on this issue in the House of Commons, and we have certainly cited some of those incidents and been questioned on specific incidents in the House. On my right hon. Friend’s key point, I do not think the proximity or otherwise to 9/11 is the key determinant here; rather, it is whether Saudi Arabia acts as an important source of intelligence for this country in our shared combat against a global terrorism. It is a valuable partner in that particular battle and has helped to keep numerous UK citizens safe.”– [Official Report, 20 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 379.]
This is where we begin to run up against a dilemma, because we all know that much of the problem of international Islamist totalitarian terrorism derives from sources in Saudi Arabia. When 9/11 happened, it was widely pointed out that there was some sort of pact between the authorities in Saudi Arabia and the totalitarian Islamist revolutionaries that basically they could do what they liked abroad, as long as they kept their activities limited at home. That is what we might call a form of the devil’s bargain.
Because I am not within the ring of secrecy, I am not in a position to know whether the Saudi intelligence services are really constantly feeding us vital information to thwart terrorist plots, or whether, as well as promoting and funding madrassahs all around the world that leach out this terrible form of totalitarian ideology, they are actually just giving us what I believe is known in the trade as chickenfeed, to keep us satisfied that it is better to remain, rather than cease to be, their friends.
Crispin Blunt: I think that the position in Saudi Arabia has radically changed since 9/11. Its Government have had to take on board some of the consequences of their policy up to that point, and of the large scale of their investment to support madrassahs in most of the rest of the world. As I understand it, it is now illegal in Saudi Arabia to make a cash donation within a mosque, and everything now has to be accountable in terms of where the money is going. That is the scale of change that is happening in Saudi Arabia, and it is why our Government are right to see it as a practical and important ally in this ideological battle in which we find ourselves on the same side.
Dr Lewis: That welcome intervention, if accurate – I have no reason to believe that it is not – is a powerful argument in favour of continued engagement with the regime, even though from time to time it does things that we would regard, with justification, as barbaric. That has often been the nature of international relations, and those are often the difficult choices that have to be made. To give the most extreme example, Sir Winston Churchill had a lifelong hatred of bolshevism and communism; he said at the time of the 1917 revolution that he wanted bolshevism to be strangled at birth. When he found himself in alliance with Stalin after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, he was twitted by a political opponent who pointed out his lifelong hatred of communism. His famous reply was:
“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
The history of diplomacy is that we often have to have relationships with unsavoury regimes in order to avoid something that would be even worse. However, having to have a relationship with a regime that does terrible things does not mean that we should go silent on criticising it. That is why I particularly welcome this debate. In some senses, it was a relief to discover that it would be more about human rights than about the arms trade. Believe me, if we had to have the same debate about the arms trade, which has been touched on slightly, we would face an infinitely more difficult dilemma. We would have to decide, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate said in passing, whether it was better to wash our hands of supplying military hardware to Saudi Arabia if the consequence would be to anchor that country in the orbit of Russia or China, as the Iranian regime already is.
I conclude by commending the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for securing the debate, and by endorsing his notion that pressure on the Saudi regime on the human rights front is one area in which we can safely express our differences without risking a rupture that we cannot afford on overall strategic grounds. I wish him well in his campaign and congratulate all those who stand up for human rights in Saudi Arabia. I hope that they, in turn, will recognise that vast geopolitical forces are and will continue to be at work in the area, and that there are no morally perfect solutions to dealing with an environment like this, in which frankly all the actors are tainted.
I have mentioned Sir Winston Churchill, but perhaps we should go back to the 19th-century concept of the balance of power, which expressed the interests of Britain by ensuring that no one power could become overwhelmingly dominant on the continent and that we did not get drawn in too closely with any power. My fear, which I have expressed before, is that in the conflicts in the Middle East we are sometimes in danger of getting too closely involved with one side rather than the other. That side, I am afraid, is Saudi Arabia.