The second hearing session for the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry on UK policy in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has taken place with evidence from 3 more experts on the Gulf.
The group of 10 MP’s heard from Ms. Rosemary Hollis, Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University London, Chris Doyle the Director of Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding, and Sir Alan Munro, who’s distinguished career has seen a stint as the Foreign Offices’ Under-Secretary for Middle East and Africa as well as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
All of those giving evidence discussed the difficulties the UK faces in balancing a set of interests in the Gulf, of which Professor Hollis described exporting values of human rights democracy as “the poor relative” of trade and security.
As with the previous session last week this was once again a key feature, with no one attempting to deny that there are not large scale human rights abuses, but the debate centered around what to do about it, or even if it is possible to do anything.
Professor Hollis highlighted the UK response to the experience of the Arab Spring in the Gulf as being to choose quiet diplomacy and to not treat all uprisings in the same manner. She argued that it is not in the interests of the UK to see the Bahraini Royal Family toppled, but at the same time the UK doesn’t want to face the British public without having been seen to be criticizing their human rights records. However she added that this concern is purely on the surface and in reality the UK is happy to continue to do business with Gulf monarchies.
Later on she was asked what she made of the speech of David Cameron in UAE in November 2012 in which he said ‘there are no no-go areas in our relationships’. According to Professor Hollis, this was simply political spin and Gulf monarchies know that this is not the truth. Once again the example of the BAE corruption investigation that was shelved after threats from the Saudis, was cited as a sign of the power the Gulf has over the UK.
Indeed Mr. Doyle of the Council for Advancement of Arab British Understanding, echoed this view. He said diplomats and ambassadors would not share the view that there are ‘no no-go areas’ and he doesn’t believe it to be true.
However he was keen to criticize this policy saying that people will only take seriously the UK’s commitment to human rights and democracy if it is applied to Saudi Arabia, calling it the ultimate “litmus test” for UK value-based policy. He admitted that there have been small protestations from the UK over certain issues but UK’s “credibility will not be high” if they continue to keep the same level of relationship.
In terms of the possibility of change Professor Hollis had a rather more pessimistic view than Mr. Doyle. She argued that dictatorships cannot be removed by reform and that dictatorships themselves will not reform gradually, therefore the policy from the UK of quietly pushing for change will simply not work. At the same time the Gulf monarchies realize that UK needs them as much, “if not more” than they need the UK. These issues combined suggest there is very little UK can do to bring about change.
Mulling how to keep UK’s interests, whilst creating what she described as a more “decent” society, she said that at least one thing that could be done is to help police forces realize that torture is not necessary. However, she did not offer any more practical steps beyond this.
Mr. Doyle was slightly more hopeful, although he too recognized the important relationship between the Gulf and the UK. However he added that it was hard
for the UK to lose Saudi security intelligence, although the UK should not be dependent on it and should consider finding other sources.
He argued for ‘constructive approach’ from the UK towards change in the Gulf. He said that “evolution not revolution” was necessary, in consideration that the Gulf States cannot isolate themselves from international norms. Mr. Doyle thought that the UK could help with the setting up of institutions and crucially Gulf Rulers needed to learn how to deal with criticism. He said that the rise of social media means criticism will be more widespread and these countries cannot simply lock anyone up who is critical online.
Following on Sir Alan Munro, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1989-1993) and former Under-Secretary for the Middle East and Africa gave evidence, in which he talked up the recent reforms in Saudi Arabia. He said that the pace of change in Saudi must be consistent with the pace permitted by the religious establishment and that the Al Saud family should be seen as “the vanguard of reform”.
Sir Alan argued that under King Abdullah Saudi Arabia has carefully and understandingly managed dissent from the Shi’ite minority based in the Eastern Province, as well as broken down some of the suspicion with which Sunni’s regard Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia.
He also mentioned that the appointment of younger members of the Royal Family to oversee the key areas of Medina and Qatif shows that power is beginning to pass down and there is a plan in place for the future of the country.
Once again the many and complex problems of UK policy in a region with high natural resources was made clear with all panelists arguing that the UK could do little to go against its interests.
But interestingly once again human rights abuses were not denied, further pushing the idea that UK’s lack of pressing Bahrain is not because they believe Bahrain is a modern democratic country, but because the UK has little choice if it doesn’t want to lose out.