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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1672-iv
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY AND THE ‘ARAB SPRING’: THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2012
ALISTAIR BURT MP and DR CHRISTIAN TURNER
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 142 - 168
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course
Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 20 March 2012
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Mr John Baron
Mr Frank Roy
Sir John Stanley
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East and North Africa, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and Dr Christian Turner, Director of Middle East and North Africa Directorate (MENAD), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, gave evidence.
Chair: I welcome members of the public to this evidence session of the Committee’s inquiry into "British foreign policy and the ‘Arab Spring’: the transition to democracy". I am delighted to welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa, Mr Alistair Burt, and the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Directorate, Dr Christian Turner. Minister, as you and I have just discussed, unfortunately a vote is probable at 5.13 pm and there will possibly be more than one, which will drive a coach and horses through the evidence session. You have kindly agreed that if there is still a lot outstanding, you will come back on a date to be arranged.
Alistair Burt: Either that or we can just carry on. I am entirely at the Committee’s disposal.
Q142 Chair: Thank you very much. Thank you for coming. We have had an opportunity to hear from a lot of witnesses. We all went to Cairo, then we split up, with half going to Tripoli and half going to Tunisia. As a general question, what do you think the prospects are for establishing democracy in these three countries?
Alistair Burt: I don’t think they’re bad. The reason for that is that we have seen momentous change in these countries over the past 12 to 15 months. People have won their freedom by their own actions, through great determination and at some cost of loss of life in all three countries, varying in scale, as we know. My sense is that there is great determination to see the principles on which people sought to have control over their own destiny maintained.
The two examples to date are Tunisia and Egypt. In both cases, after significant events in their country and within a relatively short space of time, they put together sufficient of a constitutional approach to be able to hold elections, which international observers, including ourselves, felt were free and fair. There was no argument about those elected in the majority parties in each case, and now they are working through the next stages, which are different in each place. Tunisia is more advanced than Egypt. Egypt still has a transitional government and the issues relating to the military and the like. With Libya, again, we are very conscious of what the people have been through and therefore the determination to ensure that what they fought for actually came about.
There are no certainties. Many of us have been around for some time. I have been a Member for Parliament on and off for about 25 years, as you have, Chairman. When we started, there was apartheid in South Africa, and the iron curtain was in place. We would never have envisaged the world looking as it did at the end of the ’90s, let alone as it does now. So there are no certainties, but there is a sense that there is great determination to make the most of the opportunities that they have. Although everyone must remain wary of the pressures on these particular states, our sense would be that they are working well towards the objectives that they and their people have set themselves.
Q143 Chair: My question is whether you can see any threats to that transition to democracy. When we were in Tripoli, we saw young kids walking around carrying AK47s. In Cairo, people spoke quite openly about their concerns as to whether the Army would really stand back. Have I just highlighted a couple of your concerns, and are there concerns about other things that might block the path to democracy?
Alistair Burt: Sure there are threats-absolutely. We would be naive not to think of them and where they may come from. Let’s start away from politics and with the economy. Remember: the underlying pressures in these countries were not necessarily political at first. As everyone knows, in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi was not protesting about the politics. He was protesting about his ability to find a living for himself and the restrictive regulations that made that impossible. That was against a background of a growing young population, which is common across North Africa and other areas in the Arab world; problems of employment; and a sclerotic economy to go with sclerotic politics. These issues have not gone away. One thing that the political revolutions have not solved is the underlying economic issues.
In Egypt, the position is very serious. There has been a year of indecision, because of the transitional government being unable to take the decisions that the economy needs for restructuring. Everything is waiting until the end of the election process in June.Libya, of course, has been through a savage conflict. Capacity issues are great there, although the oil will come back on stream and be a bulwark for the country. Tunisia, as I indicated earlier, is further down the road. The economy is less of an immediate concern there. So you have the economic threat.
Then, of course, there is the political threat. People wonder whether these new democracies can hold when the going gets rough. You could say that, a year on from the events, there is still a degree of, if not euphoria-we have come down from where people were-pride at what has been achieved. But politics is rough stuff. What is going to happen when the going gets tough? Of course, there are parties that come from a background where there are still questions to be asked about the relationship with democracy and the like. Will those who have very strict views on culture and social mores be determined to enforce them? Will that impinge on human rights? Will it lurch into democratic processes?
So, are there threats, Chairman? Yes, absolutely, but we have to make a judgement as we go along-one that is well informed by excellent posts abroad, as you will have seen. We have our own evidence, and there is regular ministerial contact and, may I say, regular parliamentarian contact. In each of the countries that I have been to-you will have found the same-parliamentarians, including new parliamentarians, want to engage with us because they see what we do in our Parliament, the way we keep a check on the Executive and the work that we do, and they want to be informed about that. We have a great deal to offer in terms of strengthening their early democracies and working with them.
Q144 Rory Stewart: Minister, to follow up your last submission, about Parliament, we met members of the Hizb el-Nour party in Egypt, who were obviously from the Salafi faction. They were very keen to visit Britain. They had been outside Egypt only once before, when they spent six years in Saudi Arabia. We have a good opportunity to show them a bit more of the world and to bring them over to see a more moderate point of view. What will the Foreign Office do to invite members of Hizb el-Nour to Britain?
Alistair Burt: First and foremost, any parliamentary delegations that want to come over would be warmly welcome. I met representatives of that party and the FJP when I was in Egypt last week, as well. We have the sort of engagement that involves Wilton Park and opportunities for parliamentarians to get together. Principally, parliamentary invitations come from parliamentarians. Delegations that come to the UK on any other basis will pass through the Foreign Office.
It is helpful to make clear that we have no issues with people who come here from different parties, whatever their labels may be. The United Kingdom must look at what people say and do, as the most important things. My contact last week with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in elected positions gave me a sense of what they were looking for in government. They had a moderate approach on a number of the issues that were raised, but, then, we would expect them to at this stage. But their sense of determination to be engaged was very clear. So, we do not have any particular plans at the moment to offer invitations to people to come over-it tends to be the other way-but it is certainly engagement that we would welcome.
Q145 Rory Stewart: In terms of predicting the Arab Spring, one of the challenges the Foreign Office faced was that, compared with our historical position 20 or 30 years ago, our political sections in countries such as Egypt are quite small. In fact, your entire presence in Cairo at the moment is about comparable to what it would have been in Jakarta in 1997, despite Egypt’s extraordinary importance as a regional player. A lot of this has been driven by personnel and human resources procedures, and particularly by the Jay reforms. The core competency framework and the desire to allow people to manage their own careers has meant that it is difficult to fill speaker slots. Is the Foreign Office taking any of those lessons on board? Is it re-examining the fundamentals of the HR and personnel procedures?
Alistair Burt: I am going to ask Christian to deal with the bulk of that, Mr Stewart, if I may. From a political direction point of view, the Foreign Secretary looked very carefully at the structure in the Foreign Office when he took up his position and has made some changes towards that. We are as constrained as anyone else in Government in terms of costs and making sure we provide value for money. There is nothing particularly new about that, but we have also been looking at a changing world and seeing where we need emphasis. Some decisions have necessarily to be long term-certainly in relation to people’s careers-and that means it is not easy to shift resources quickly. Equally, if we are looking at the way in which the world develops, you can see countries and regions where you might want to put more emphasis. Certainly, we intended to do that with Middle East and North Africa in any case.
As I know the Committee will be aware, there was a growing sense over the years-although no one predicted the timing of the Arab Spring or whatever it might be called-that the underlying pressures were there and we knew that our engagement with the Arab world was likely to change. Already the Foreign Office had put things in place and, when we came into office in 2010, the start of the Arab Partnership and the like built upon that and developed that. In order to make that work, there have been necessary personnel changes to accompany it. I think that Christian is best placed, Mr Chairman, to detail some of those if that is all right.
Dr Turner: Briefly, the Committee knows well the changes that the Foreign Office is going through. The bulk of that at the minute is related to trying to move, if you like, from the pyramid shape to the diamond shape and put more resource at the front line with the diplomats who are out getting the sand on their toes and doing the influencing, rather than with the people in the back office sending reports. It is very much the thrust of the so-called diplomatic excellence programme.
The MENAD Cadre Initiative that we initiated before the Arab Spring has now been running for over 18 months, as detailed in the written evidence. That has specifically tried to reclassify speaker slots across the region in posts, so about 20 jobs have been reclassified as speaker slots as part of the uplift in language skills. Once they are all trained and in place, that is about a 40% increase in Arabic speaker capacity in our network compared with 2010. So as Director, in terms of the staff I have at my disposal to be out there doing the influencing and getting out of the corridors and ministries of foreign affairs and talking to people on the ground, it is a real improvement.
Q146 Rory Stewart: Just to follow up on that, Dr Turner, one of the problems is that you can establish a speaker slot and then not fill it with a speaker. In Turkey, we discovered that we had 25 extensive Turkish speakers in the diplomatic network and only one in Turkey, despite there being a number of speaker slots. The only way in which we are going to be able to address that is by looking fundamentally at your personnel procedures. You would have to try to move from the system that you currently have, whereby people can simply build and manage their own careers, towards your being able to direct them towards certain slots. I suggest that perhaps you might also need to look at paying people more for extensive language skills. In Cairo, for example, three members of the embassy claim to be able to speak extensive Arabic, but none of them have taken the exams. That means it is almost impossible to hold them to account. What sort of steps are you taking practically in terms of personnel procedures to make this happen?
Dr Turner: These are all good points we are working on. As you know, people get allowances for their language skills. So if they are not up to the level, they should not be claiming those allowances. That acts as an incentive. In terms of filling those slots, there is obviously a tail from announcing those slots to recruiting. We have accelerated the numbers on language training to try to get the pipeline moving, so that the people starting out are going through quicker. At the same time, we are considering and may need to look at select recruitment-if the freeze on recruitment procedures allows us to do so-for people with specific language skills. Of course, we are talking about Farsi and other languages as well as Arabic.
More broadly, a very important part of my job as Director is to do the kind of proactive succession planning that you describe. So I think I would say that if the pendulum had swung to a completely laissez-faire approach, which I am not sure I would entirely recognise, there is now quite a strong onus on geographic Directors to provide that succession planning at all levels-Head of Mission, Deputy Head of Mission and chancery teams. I need to make sure that I can fill those slots. An important part of my role is to provide a wide enough pool to do that. There are therefore quite a lot of active tools that we use to make sure that I can encourage people to come in.
I have to say that in a way it is proving easier in the MENAD patch because so many people see such a rich career and such a rich array of possibilities. There are 19-plus countries they can work in and build a career around, compared with, if I may say, the Sinologists, who ultimately want a job in Beijing; so we are seeing a response to that offer.
Alistair Burt: Perhaps I might make it clear that this work of prioritising language skills predates the Arab Spring; this was something the Foreign Secretary was committed to doing when he came into office. This work to improve what we had seen as declining language skills-give them fresh priority, get more people learning the appropriate languages, and give those language courses longer time, so that people would indeed become fluent-was an innovation which the Foreign Secretary brought in when he came into office. So it is not a response to the Arab Spring. It is something which I believe has helped us be prepared for what is not an event but a process that is going to be very long lasting.
Q147 Mr Baron: Minister, there is a concern that British foreign policy in this region needs to, in effect, raise its game; that there have been inconsistencies displayed, and perhaps a wholesale review is required. In a way, the Prime Minister intimated this in his address to the Kuwait Parliament of February 2011, when he discussed the balance to be struck between values and interests, and admitted that perhaps we had got that balance wrong in the past. What almost immediately undermined that address, very good address though it was, was the fact that at the time he was leading a trade delegation, which was not just dealing with radar and state security, but arms traders who were selling weapons that can be turned against populations.
Another contradiction, if you like, or inconsistency, was our intervention, perhaps, in Libya, for some, in that you had witnesses suggesting that this again showed inconsistency, in the sense that we were intervening in Libya but turning a blind eye to the persecution by autocratic regimes in Bahrain and Yemen that was happening at exactly the same time. How would you counter those criticisms from people perhaps less charitable than myself?
Alistair Burt: Let me give you a general outline dealing with policy in the past, and bring it up to date-and deal with the specifics that you mentioned, if I may.
The United Kingdom maintains, and has maintained, relationships with states whose values may not be ours. This has been in the United Kingdom’s strategic interest. For instance, over the years Egypt has been a key partner in the Middle East peace process in Sudan and Iran, and is host to a key religious authority in al-Azhar; but our engagement has also included opportunities over the years to raise issues concerned with transparency, accountability and human rights. So our engagement neither implies total acceptance of the system of government of another state, nor complete rejection, except in the most extreme circumstances. In all, we use our engagement, we believe, to further our strategic and regional interests, and our values, but not at any price.
That is a general sense of how we deal with the fact that not all governments are like ours, and not all governments are necessarily going to be like ours-and it is not our sovereign right to make that choice; but in our interest, and in the interest of what we stand for, both as a nation and with the partnerships that we have, it is important for us to engage, and it is on that basis.
Let me deal with the issues that you mentioned. Yes, in his speech to the National Assembly in Kuwait the Prime Minister did indeed set out our approach to the Arab Spring, based clearly on upholding universal values, rights and freedoms, with respect for different cultures, histories and traditions of countries in the region, and recognised that there are occasions when we have not necessarily always got that right, though hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is difficult sometimes to make judgements-and it is difficult to make judgements with competing interests. We accept that.
You went on to mention things about which I would take rather more exception, if I may. You spoke of him going with those involved in arms trade. Yes, we do make no secret of the fact that the entitlement of people to defend themselves in a volatile region, and other places, is extremely important. This country sells arms to other people. It is legal; it is known, and it is covered by some of the most severe rules that, we think, exist anywhere in the free world, absolutely scrutinised to the hilt by Parliament-the Chairman of the appropriate Committee is with us. On your extra remark that some of these items could be used by someone to oppress their own people, the answer is no, because our rules do not allow it, and we do not sell things to people that breach criterion 2 of the arms export controls covering that. We would resist that charge absolutely.
The Libyan intervention was not the United Kingdom’s sole doing. The Committee will well know the circumstances of the intervention in Libya: a desire, prompted by the Arab League and taken to the United Nations, and a unanimous sense in the United Nations that after Colonel Qadhafi had declared what he was going to do to the people of Benghazi, there had to be a clear international response about which there was no doubt or contradiction-something that has not pertained, for instance, in Syria. That made it clear that the intervention in Libya was international, with an international force designed to protect civilians. A mandate from the United Nations was carried out to the letter by this country, through our involvement in the coalition.
In relation to Bahrain and Yemen, the context of what has happened in terms of dealing with issues in those countries has varied. One of the things we have all learned-I am sure the Committee is in exactly the same position as the Government-is that each of these countries is unique. Although you can pick out symptoms in each of the countries, where similar things have been going on, the response of each country has been different, because each country is unique. In some places, reforms were already under way to some degree; in others, they were not.
Bahrain and Yemen are an interesting contrast; they are very different. In Bahrain, a reform process put in place some years ago by the ruling family had stalled to a degree. There was very sharp internal conflict between Sunni, Shi’a and elements on all sides about moving that on. That resulted in violence, as we know, and then in the most extraordinary independent commission, which reported on it in public, in a manner previously unknown, I think, in the region. We are supporting efforts there so that the population can come to terms with its own issues of reform. We can see a process there that we are engaged in. We think that is the right response there.
Similarly in Yemen, our ambassadors, over a period of time, and working with others, have helped engineer an extraordinary answer to the country’s many difficult political and other problems, to produce a situation where although there was bloodshed, there was much less than anyone had anticipated. There has not been a civil war, and there has been an almost peaceful transition and an election for a new President, leaving Yemen, for the first time in its history, with a living ex-President. We have played a significant part in that through our ambassador and through our work on the ground.
Each of these countries is different. How do I explain inconsistency? Exactly that way: each place is different. The values may be the same, but the way in which we work must depend on the circumstances of the place. Almost without exception, no two places have given rise to exactly the same set of answers to help deal with the problems.
Q148 Mr Baron: Can I move us on, if I may? What conclusions do you draw, if any, from the fact that this country has quite literally spent billions of pounds and lost hundreds of lives in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but that it is in North Africa and the Middle East where democracy is flourishing?
Alistair Burt: Possibly, to come back to something mentioned by the Chairman, the time scales of all these things are incredibly uncertain, and I do not know if the time has yet passed in Iraq to make an assessment of the extent to which they will move towards democracy over a period of time. They have had elections, as we know. They are now in a difficult situation, but there is a parliament, and there is a functioning democracy-it is not in the easiest circumstances, but it is carrying on.
In Afghanistan, again, no one has made the case that we are seeking-that there will be-a Swiss-style democracy there in a short period of time, but an immense amount of effort has been spent on political reconciliation, and the opportunity to do that was the result of the extraordinary work of our forces, as they pursued what was our first reason for engagement-protecting our security and the security of others in the region. Through that, they provided the opportunity for a political process to work through.
So I would answer by saying that our forces and others have been engaged, and money from the United Kingdom has been engaged, in giving those places the opportunity to develop democracies, and it is much too early in virtually all cases to say what the final outcome will be. Without the work that has been done and the sacrifice that has been made, I am not certain whether those countries would be on the pathway they are, but there is much still to be done.
Q149 Ann Clwyd: Minister, may I follow up on some of the points that you made? Whether we like it or not, a lot of the witnesses to this Committee criticised the Prime Minister’s tour of the MENA countries, because of the people he took with him. One of the witnesses said that the perception that he was on a trade delegation rather than on a mission to congratulate the new revolutionary republics played very badly on the perception of Britain’s interests in the region. That was the view of many of the witnesses who came before the Committee. I think that it was just the wrong signal.
Alistair Burt: I fully understand the point that you make, and of course you must accurately reflect what the witnesses who have been before you have said. I maintain that our commitment to a general prosperity agenda is very clear, and although the arms trade is difficult, we have to be very straightforward about it. We have not banned the arms trade. We recognise its value in providing equipment to countries that often feel under pressure from others and wish to defend themselves. We have the tightest rules we can, to ensure that the United Kingdom does not engage in selling things to those who would use them to further regional conflicts or to oppress their own people.
Of course this is a difficult trade. There are many different opinions. There are those who dislike the whole thing and those who would have us sell things to only very safe people-
Ann Clwyd: May I interrupt you there?
Alistair Burt: It is not a thing that we have ruled ourselves out of and it does provide good in many places.
Q150 Ann Clwyd: The Foreign Secretary told us that these were compatible aims and that pursuing commercial interests could in fact give the UK leverage in securing improvements in human rights.
Alistair Burt: Yes.
Q151 Ann Clwyd: Amnesty and Human Rights Watch were sceptical about such claims. What evidence is there, so far, that pursuing commercial interests has assisted the development of human rights in those MENA countries?
Alistair Burt: If you take, for instance, the engagement of the United Kingdom in selling things-either training or riot control gear-to those who are put under pressure in the streets, we have clear evidence that where people have been poorly trained in the past you get a much higher degree of violence, risk of death and the like. It is not so much commercial leverage as pure practical common sense and good training, and if we get involved and engaged-often the sale of crowd control equipment is coupled with good training and use-we can reduce, in situations, the risk of injury and casualty.
None of it is very nice to our eyes or ears or anything else, but if you are in a situation in which without the support of the United Kingdom people might have used equipment indiscriminately, and there might have been more death and injury because they were poorly trained in dealing with the situations they were confronted with, we are doing positive good by being engaged. We are perhaps supplying things that people would find uncomfortable, but provided that they are within the rules and that we have given support and encouragement to people who are doing the right things, we are helping, in that particular context, to ensure that people’s human rights are improved.
Q152 Ann Clwyd: But how are we doing the right things in Bahrain, for instance, if, according to this week’s Jane’s Defence Weekly, some of the equipment that we provided to the Saudis was used in suppressing the Shi’a protests in Bahrain? That cannot be right.
Alistair Burt: First, I have not seen any direct evidence either that Saudis were involved in dealing with those protests when the Bahraini government brought them in, or that any UK equipment was involved. The Bahrainis invoked a Gulf protection pact and the Saudis came in. Our understanding is that they essentially protected installations and that the Bahraini authorities dealt with the problems that they felt they had on the streets.
On the wider context of why we are involved in Bahrain, the situation there is difficult and its government have made mistakes. However, not only have they owned up to those mistakes, but they have, through the independent commission, made that clear to the world, in what I would describe-we are all experienced here-as an extraordinary process that has led them on a path with a series of recommendations to make changes. Not everyone, for understandable reasons, necessarily agrees with that or wants it to be the case, but we do.
Q153 Ann Clwyd: I have seen the recommendations, looked at the report, and spoken to one of the people who worked on the commission, and the recommendations are being implemented extremely slowly. We have a great deal of leverage in Bahrain-why don’t we use it?
Alistair Burt: We will use it in just the manner that I am sure you would wish us to. We have seen the recommendations, too, because they are all on the website, as, indeed, is the progress of implementation. Again, that is extraordinary, considering the context. Of course we want them to do more. We are in regular contact with them. There are independent advisers out there from the United Kingdom-not through the UK Government, but independently.
They look to us to help and encourage them to meet their objectives, and they are doing that very publicly. The fact that it is clear to you that concerns remain and that there is still more to be done indicates a degree of openness that is not evident in all other societies. That does not mean that they are getting where they or we would like them to be as quickly as possible, but it is an extraordinarily open process. We will be doing what you, I hope, would want us to do, which is using our influence to urge them to do more and to meet the recommendations and their own objectives. That is the only way that peace will come to Bahrain and the only way that a political process will follow from the stability that is offered through the commission’s work.
Dr Turner: I want to address the initial question about the potential tension between commercial interests, prosperity and our political objectives. I stress that much of what we are doing is not about arms; it is a much broader trade agenda. The Minister made a point earlier about the importance of the economy to transition in Egypt, for example, and of stimulating the private sector to get that transition under way. The UK accounted for more than 70% of Egypt’s foreign direct investment in 2010, so companies such as Vodafone, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Unilever are the types of British companies that we need to encourage to get in there and be part of rebuilding the Egyptian economy if that transition is to work. The Arab Partnership programme that we have set up has a deliberate political and economic component, so we are putting in place the building blocks to try to encourage such investment.
Q154 Ann Clwyd: Isn’t there a lack of consistency, though, when we welcome the Arab Spring yet are very close to illiberal regimes, such as Saudi Arabia? That seems inconsistent.
Alistair Burt: I have tried as best I can to deal with the point about inconsistency, which will always come up in foreign policy. For many of the years that I have been in the House, I have been well removed from such direct involvement in foreign affairs, but have had an interest in all sorts of countries where the United Kingdom has an interest. To return to my earlier point, I think it is impossible to set a standard of consistency that is capable of being met on each and every occasion. What you have to do is have your basic values and principles and work with them.
There will be times-it is clear that this country deals now with regimes well outside the Middle East and Gulf area that we would not necessarily champion for their human rights values, China being one. But nobody is advocating that we withdraw from our engagement with China, or anything like that. We work with them. We take the opportunity. We have colleagues, including yourselves, who, when they visit such governments, engage them on human rights issues and the like. Although there may be elements of inconsistency-people may ask why we do one thing with one country and condemn another-it depends on the individual circumstances.
As I indicated, there is usually a great deal of difference between each individual state and how they are coping with pressures upon them. We condemn violence very straightforwardly, wherever it may be, even-handedly between those in government and those who may use violence to protest against it. We urge accountability, freedom of assembly, freedom of the media and transparency as the basic, staple building blocks of any government, and we will continue to do that. It is circumstances and individual countries’ difference that provokes, on occasions, different responses each time, but you can detect a thread through what British Government foreign policy does, government in, government out, which I think works for the best in so many different places.
Q155 Mr Ainsworth: Minister, can I ask you about promised assistance in the crisis that is the democratic struggle in these countries? Deauville highlighted $38 billion, and I do not know how many million euros were committed through the European Neighbourhood Policy. How much of that money actually found its way to those countries, or the projects in those countries? If, as the Committee has been told, it is a relatively small proportion of the pledges that were made, can you give us some explanation of the problems and barriers, and why these commitments are not being fulfilled?
Alistair Burt: Okay. Let me do so both about the G8-Deauville stream of funding and our own Arab Partnership, because that is a good illustration of the issues. The £110 million in the Arab Partnership is split, with £40 million from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and £70 million from the Department for International Development. Some £5 million has been spent in this financial year. Because it is the first year, you have got to get programmes on track. We budgeted for £5 million this year and we will spend £5 million, on a series of partnership projects right across the area we are talking about.
Q156 Mr Ainsworth: You have pledged £40 million, but you only planned to spend £5 million in the first year.
Alistair Burt: That’s correct.
Q157 Mr Ainsworth: So we are going to take eight years to spend the £40 million, are we?
Alistair Burt: No, no. It does not build up-it is not £5 million every year. It goes up as projects come on stream, because you have got to plan the things in the first place. I will ask Christian to deal more with the G8 and Deauville money, but it is exactly the same. For example, in Egypt and Tunisia, an effort is being made to work with these countries on where they want the money spent. The last thing we want to do is to say, "Here is a pot of $38 billion; we must spend it this year." We have all been in places where people have done things like that. If your object is to get x amount of money out by the end of the financial year, anybody can do that, but you are not necessarily spending it in the right places. In each of these countries, it is taking time for them to come forward with the projects on which they want the money spent.
So I have no issue in terms of lack of commitment, either through our own Arab Partnership money, or through the G8-Deauville process. Engagement is going on in each and every place. It is different country to country. In Tunisia, it is more advanced. It has a clearer idea of what projects it wants. In Egypt, it has been much more difficult. The engagement of the transitional government with international institutions has been much more difficult. The military were rather resistant to being engaged with IMF, as you must have encountered when you were there as well. Interestingly, however, FJP, the Muslim Brotherhood party which is now the majority party in Parliament, does not have such a concern, and is actively engaged in looking at projects and working through this money. The reason for the hold-up of the transfer of funds is purely that you have got to get the right projects in place. Christian may have more details of what has been spent to date.
Q158 Mr Ainsworth: Look, we all understand fully that things have got to be properly planned and that there is no point in simply throwing money. There have to be projects that work off the back of the money pledged, but that is not what we have had in evidence presented to us. We have had complaints that promises have simply not been fulfilled and have not amounted to anything. They came from organisations in-country, but were backed up by Lord Malloch-Brown in his evidence to the Committee. He said that the amounts that the international community promised in the early days had, frankly, not got there. You would have us believe that this is just programming. Is that really what you think, or do you believe there is a problem? I am trying to tease out your opinion.
Alistair Burt: I don’t believe, from the information made available to me, that there is a problem in terms of the commitment to release funds. It is perfectly possible there is more than one opinion as to whether or not a particular project is the right one. Understandably, for those seeking funds, it is like a business going to the bank for a loan. You will think what you are proposing is absolutely bang on the button, but the people releasing the money may have other questions. My understanding is that the discussions are in that sort of area, but they are definitely not conflicted by the commitment to deliver.
Having been part of international conferences where these have been discussed, the sense in the European Union, for example, through the Deauville process, is a recognition that unless the economies of these countries are supported, the impact on the European Union will be very severe. It is therefore in all our interests. It is not in our interest to promise and not deliver, but it is very much in our interest to get it right.
Dr Turner: I would just add on the numbers, Mr Ainsworth, that you mentioned a G8 number. The figures I have for the EU are €1 billion in extra assistance in addition to the €5.7 billion already budgeted for 2011 to 2013. For the World Bank, the lending portfolio in the region as a whole is over $2 billion.
The Minister has touched on some of the reasons why that has not all been handed over already. There are issues around capacity with some of these governments. That is certainly true, as you know, of Libya, for example. The willingness to receive that has been the big debate in Egypt. It is excellent that the IMF loan discussions are now up and running.
Also, of course, with the European money, there is a live debate about conditionality and the conditions set. The process being set out through Bernardino León and the taskforces with Jordan and Tunisia are taking through that discussion. I am confident that the plans are in place for that money to be spent in the right way. I have only one other caveat. In many ways, when we were designing the Arab Partnership, which is of course a drop in the ocean compared with the size of the problem, it was not actually about the money. The projects that we are funding are incredibly important, and they are building blocks of democracy, as the Prime Minister said, but we are trying to address issues of capacity, governance and participation rather than simply regarding the money as the cure for the problems.
Alistair Burt: But we do have to take it very seriously; you are absolutely right. If there are concerns on the ground about things not getting through, we have got to be absolutely rigorous in ensuring it is not a blockage in the system. Again, it is all too easy to be told about that. The problems are all at somebody else’s end. We have got to be rightly alert to that to make sure that there are not artificial blockages to money getting through, and that concerns on the ground are being dealt with and met. You can be assured that they will be.
Q159 Sir John Stanley: Minister, in response to Ann Clwyd’s question, you came out with a Foreign Office euphemism, describing the arms being sold into the region as "crowd control equipment". You will be aware that the Committees on Arms Export Controls have extracted from the Government details of the arms that can be used for internal repression which the previous and present Governments sold under export licences to countries in the region. You will be aware that those arms included armoured personnel carriers, machine guns, automatic weapons, sniper rifles and any amount of ammunition.
Do you not consider, on reflection, that it is frankly insulting to those who put their lives at risk, who demonstrated peacefully and who tried to stand up for human rights and overthrow dictatorships to describe the equipment that I have detailed as "crowd control equipment"? Would it not be far better for the Foreign Office and the British Government to drop this disgraceful euphemism?
Alistair Burt: There are two things, Sir John. First, I did not describe machine guns or sniper rifles as "crowd control equipment"; you have just done that. Secondly, your Committee is responsible for supervising what is sold and making sure that everything that is sold is sold under the appropriate licence. Border control equipment includes sniper rifles. Some of the countries that we are dealing with-Libya, for instance-I had a good look at. For a long time, Libya faced issues, and still continues to face issues, on its borders in terms of infiltration. And we have indeed sold some sniper rifles in order to deal with that, but they have all come under the same criteria of not being used for regional conflicts or for internal repression. Of course there are differences between matériel sold, which you know very well and so do I. Some matériel is available for "crowd control equipment" and some does not fit that description at all.
Q160 Andrew Rosindell: Minister, in view of the strategic importance of the Arab Spring states-being in the backyard of Europe-do you feel the European Union is doing enough to support those countries in their development?
Alistair Burt: Sorry, Andrew?
Q161 Andrew Rosindell: Do you believe the European Union is actually doing enough to support those countries in their development?
Alistair Burt: Yes. One of the issues here is to make sure that everybody is not trying to do the same thing. Sometimes you visit ministers who have had a queue of people coming to see them to talk about what they can do to provide support. The whole aim of working through our own bilateral partnership programme and working through the EU is to make sure that we have some co-ordination, in terms of what is done to support capacity-building and the like. But my understanding is that there is strategic work going on to try to ensure that that is being done.
Just as an illustration, I was with one of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood last week. As part of our lengthy discussions, during which he was giving me a very good set of explanations of what the Muslim Brotherhood is doing, I asked a lot of questions. I said at the end, "Look, I have asked you a lot of questions, but what can we best do for you-for Egypt-at present?" "Well," he said, "we are looking very carefully at what European Union countries do best. We are looking back over 30 years and seeing what you have done well, and what you have done well we might be interested in." So they were going to Germany, to Italy and to Spain. These are not people who are saying, "Give us everything you’ve got, we’re poor people who want all your help." They are very discriminating and they are looking for the right things that will help them.
I have not had any sense that people-either collectively as the EU, or as individual nations-do not want to provide support. As I mentioned earlier, the point is that there is a clear sense that the EU benefits from the successful development of those countries that are in transition; it benefits economically, commercially, politically and strategically. So my sense is that the EU, through its work via the G8 and the Deauville Partnership, is indeed engaged in supporting those countries.
Q162 Andrew Rosindell: When it comes to assistance, and the imposition of conditionality on that assistance, what do you say to those who are critical of that, bearing in mind that no such conditions were placed on dictators in some of those countries before but they are being imposed today?
Alistair Burt: Well, you might argue in the first place that lessons have been learned and, secondly, our experience is that unless there are some structural reforms in some of the countries that we are talking about, applying funds without that support will just mean that the funds could well drain away and not do the job they are designed to do. Again, let us take Egypt as an example. This is a country whose economy has been skewed for decades by what happened under the previous regime. A combination of the corruption of individuals and the amount of money taken out of the economy on the side by the military has left that economy in a desperate state. Merely putting money into that situation will not improve it. So structural reforms, which the Egyptians are already looking at very hard, are absolutely necessary to ensure that their public services deliver what they need to deliver, and that the infrastructure improves in a measured way.
That capacity-building and that advice is there, but conditionality has to be there too. It goes back to Mr Baron’s point about how people were treated in the past and to the Prime Minister’s point that it has not always been consistent. But learning lessons about conditionality and financial support is very important.
Q163 Andrew Rosindell: Apart from the EU, do you not feel that the British Government should be doing a lot more to encourage the wealthy Gulf states to put forward something like a Marshall plan for that region? It is their region and the European Union-the countries of the EU-are not rolling in money at the moment to spend on things such as this. Do you not feel that it is time for the Gulf states to play their part, more than they are doing?
Alistair Burt: Well, Mr Rosindell, it is sort of all our region, really. I mean, the north African countries are Europe’s back door, so they are as much our neighbours as they would be anybody else’s in that region. Gulf countries have played a significant part and continue to do so. Remember, in relation to Libya there was active Gulf involvement in the coalition campaign. And they are ready to put in financial support. The Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly in Yemen, was significant. The Friends of Yemen group, which will provide financial and economic support for Yemen as it completes its transition, has a strong Gulf component. It was the GCC who were very active in leading-assisting-that process towards a better democracy there, and they are committed to financial support, and the like.
Gulf countries will be involved. They take their responsibilities seriously and I think they recognise, again, that we all benefit from doing this. But I think it is better to work co-operatively rather than say it is their turn to chip in. Again, there is a recognition that we all benefit if we are able to support.
Dr Turner: Minister, may I just add that the Deauville partnership was specifically designed to try and bring in those other partners in the region in support of the three tracks-the economic track, the governance track and the trade and commercial track-to have those in the region supporting the transitions as well as us in Europe and the west?
Alistair Burt: I am reminded, if I may, prompted by a very good team behind me, not to neglect the work that the European Union is doing through its deep and comprehensive free-trade area agreement. It is not simply a question of the European Union transferring cash or funds to countries that are in transition; it is about opening up their markets so that these countries can have a better opportunity to trade directly with the European Union, because, again, that is more likely to help restructure their economies and be more long lasting than simply financial injections of cash. We have been leaders in the European Union to try and encourage a stronger European Neighbourhood Partnership set of activities to encourage just this.
Q164 Chair: Minister, can we turn now to the particular countries, starting with Egypt? While we were there we had a chance to meet the Egyptian Prime Minister and we met the army. But how would you compare Britain’s relationship with the existing government, as it stands at the moment, with how it was with the Mubarak regime? With the Mubarak regime, it was a long-standing, fairly solid relationship. Do we have the same sort of relationship with the new regime?
Alistair Burt: First and foremost, these are still early days. We do not yet have what will be the definitive government in Egypt. We are yet to see it. The process with the transitional government has been perfectly cordial and straightforward. Our ambassadors have continued to have exceptional access and have been able to work effectively. Our representations in relation to, say, regional security, through the peace agreement with Egypt, have been well received and we have been well engaged.
I have no sense to indicate that there is a difficulty with our relationship because of previous relationships. Indeed, it was noticed how quickly the Prime Minister came and visited Egypt after the revolution. Support was recognised and it is clear, going round and speaking to those in Egypt-those in business and civil society, as well as those in the government-how effectively and properly received we are.
I do not sense anything that puts up any barrier towards our relationship, but understandably countries like to work with us on a straightforward basis, in terms of what is the offer we are making to them, in terms of friendship and support and what each side can benefit from through our engagement. Through our engagement at the UN, for example, in a number of other areas where we have regional interests, Egypt has been a supporter of resolutions that we have brought forward in a number of difficult regional conflicts and issues over the past 12 months-the same with Tunisia. Tunisia, of course, took a leading part in the Friends of Syria project-we might come on to Syria in a second. We have not noticed anything in relation to that country’s reaction to us that we would feel was adverse, and contacts with those likely to form major parts of the new government would appear to be on reasonable track as well.
Q165 Mr Roy: Minister, you just said that the Prime Minister was effectively and properly received by the politicians and everyone else when he visited Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood had an outstanding election. It got 50% of seats in the assembly and 58% of the seats in the upper house, but the Prime Minister did not meet it. Why did he not? Did he underestimate the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Alistair Burt: No. I think that we have been on a recalculation of relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood over a period of time, and it has been cautious and step by step. For a long time, the United Kingdom had no relations with the Muslim Brotherhood at all, certainly none at ministerial level and very limited ones at official level. Now that has changed, because absolutely we recognise that there has been an election, which we regard as a fair election. The principles on which the Muslim Brotherhood and its party, the Freedom and Justice party, have been able to win their seats have been a manifesto and a programme that do not cause the United Kingdom any particular concern, so our engagement is changing.
Last week, I was the first Minister after the completion of those elections to meet the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Our Ambassador has already met with it, and it is a gradual step-up of engagement. I have no doubt that, in the future, prime ministerial engagement will be possible if the elections confirm the present trend and the Muslim Brotherhood and its political parties maintain their positions in relation to moderate policies, human rights protection and the like. I think that it is just an accident of time.
Q166 Mr Roy: I am sorry, but my question was: did you underestimate its popularity, because you never actually met it? Yes or no?
Alistair Burt: No, no. Remember, even if the Prime Minister was not meeting the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood activity is well known to our officials and to our embassy in Egypt. I do not think that there was any misunderstanding of the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think that most of us accept that it was not the Muslim Brotherhood vote in the Egyptian elections that was anything of a surprise, but the Salafist end of the 23% in the popular election. We knew and understood the Muslim Brotherhood well while it was operating.
Q167 Mr Roy: So, why did the Prime Minister not meet it then if he knew and understood?
Alistair Burt: I think it was just an issue of time. The Prime Minister does not need to meet everyone on foreign trips.
Q168 Mr Roy: The potential winners of an election, Minister.
Alistair Burt: Well, if the Prime Minister spent his time meeting potential winners of elections all around the world, he would do nothing else. Christian probably has a better answer than I have.
Dr Turner: He visited on 21 February, to put the date in context.
Alistair Burt: He visited on 21 February last year, long before the election process and the like. [Interruption.]
Chair: Minister, this is the anticipated vote. If there is one vote, we will return here at 5.30 pm, but if there are two we will return at 5.40 pm.
Mr Baron: Can the Minister come back at 5.40 pm?
Alistair Burt: I would love another session. If it is convenient to you I would love to come back, if that is all right.
Chair: If there is one vote, there is a quarter of an hour that we could usefully use.
Alistair Burt: That is fine. If there are more votes, I will not return and we will come back at another time.
Chair: Thank you.