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Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 917
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
UK’S RELATIONS WITH SAUDI ARABIA AND BAHRAIN
TUESDAY 29 JANUARY 2013
ROSEMARY HOLLIS and CHRIS DOYLE
SIR ALAN MUNRO
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 65 - 114
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
1. 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.
2. 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 29 January 2013
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Mr John Baron
Sir Menzies Campbell
Sir John Stanley
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rosemary Hollis, Professor of Middle East Policy Studies, City University, London, and Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (Caabu), gave evidence.
Chair: May I welcome members of the public to this second evidence session of the Committee’s inquiry into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? We are going to start with two experts on the UK and the Gulf who can provide the Committee with the wider regional and historical context of the UK’s relations with the Gulf as a whole, as well as British interests across the region. They will be followed by a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to allow the Committee to focus on the UK’s long and evolving relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Our first two witnesses are Professor Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University, London, and Chris Doyle, the Director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. A warm welcome to both of you. Professor Hollis, we will do our best to get you away in order for you to return to the important task of lecturing your students.
Rosemary Hollis: Thank you.
Q65 Chair: May I start by asking how the UK has positioned itself with regard to the Gulf countries since its withdrawal from there in 1971? Has it maintained its role as an important player in the Gulf?
Rosemary Hollis: Actually, the subject of my research over many years, including my PhD, was about how Britain adapted to decline, as played out in the Arab Gulf states. One thing I found was that you really could not talk about the national interest. There are lots of sectoral interests. What is in the interests of big oil or finance or the British armed forces, or indeed the British defence industry, is different from what may be in the interests of the politicians or the diplomats. Consequently, they are not all pulling in the same direction at the same time.
I would also say that it is important to understand the complexity of the ties that bind Britain to the Gulf Governments, the Gulf regimes. That is partly the product of history. Easa al-Gurg, who was UAE ambassador to the UK, wrote his memoirs. He had worked as a lad for the British Bank of the Middle East in Dubai and knew the British, and mediated between his Government and the British over many years. He said that when the British left in 1971, they went out the door and came back in through the window. He said, "We have more Brits in the area post the empire than we had during the empire." You have hundreds of thousands in the UAE. You have a few thousand in Bahrain. I know that today’s subject is particularly British-Bahraini relations and British-Saudi relations, and the two are linked. In the case of Bahrain, when the British pulled out in ’71, they left behind a senior security officer, Ian Henderson, who had a reputation for being particularly nasty in the handling of detainees. Political dissent was not something that he encouraged the Bahrainis to tolerate.
Of course, the British were not the colonial power when it came to Saudi Arabia. They came to various deals with the Saudis, as the Saudis came to power in the centre of the peninsula, about protecting the small Arab Gulf states and Jordan and where the line should be drawn between the Saudi kingdom and its immediate neighbours. The Saudis were very much in the American camp from the start. The Americans were instrumental in the development of Saudi oil, whereas the British were the ones who controlled the development of the Arab Gulf states’ oil, Bahrain’s having gone by now.
The Gulf sheikdoms, Bahrain included, were encouraged to sign treaties of friendship with the British during the course of the 19th century, by which, progressively, Britain took control of all their foreign relations. They were not allowed to sign any oil contracts without British permission. The oil companies were beholden to the British Government for permission to do business in those states. As of 1971, that technically ended, but for the oil companies and the banks, this was an oil boom time. By 1973, the price of oil, now nationalised by all these countries, had rocketed, and they had a lot of money to spend. I know from interviewing them back in the 1980s that British banks made it their mission to go and ensure that the Gulf states’ petrodollars would be invested in the British or western banking system, and-the Soviets were not really an alternative-not go to develop a separate, possibly Islamic, banking system.
So in the 1970s, the priority was absorbing the capital. After that, selling consumer goods, manufactured goods and, increasingly, arms was the name of the game, in order to maintain a trade balance that was essentially in the British favour. However, small British business men did not really figure in this relationship; it was the big guys who monopolised it. I could say even more about nature of the relationships between the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, and Saudi Arabia as a result of all that, but perhaps I will keep it for later.
Q66 Chair: We will get into that detail in subsequent questions. Mr Doyle, what does the UK bring to the table out there as a strategic partner?
Chris Doyle: The UK has immense importance to the Gulf. Rosemary Hollis has outlined the importance of the historical links, but we still have a reputation in much of the Gulf as a friend and a party that they believe still knows the Gulf very well through that historical relationship. That is perhaps in contrast to the Americans, who are still largely viewed as not knowing the region very well, and who might have a reputation for a slightly cowboy sort of image.
There is an expectation that Britain should understand the Gulf. That is not always met; there have been times where there have been strong feelings that we have gone against their advice and not really worked with them. But we can also bring all sorts of services-a lot of our business is done in the services industry, through banking. We are now increasingly seeing exchange in education, health and other issues.
For all the Gulf states, the Americans are there to provide security. For them, particularly the smaller ones, which are acutely aware of the issue after 1990-91, it will not be Britain or France who rides to their rescue, it will be the Americans. But they do see Britain, when it has access to-hopefully sometimes influence on-the United States, as playing that useful role. They also see Britain as useful in the context of the European Union if it is playing a leading part within it.
Q67 Chair: Thank you very much. This is a question to both of you: how does the Gulf perceive us and what do they think of Britain?
Rosemary Hollis: I think in conversation lots of nice, charming, polite things are said.
Q68 Chair: But?
Rosemary Hollis: But I think all the Gulf rulers are pretty hard-nosed. They have worked out that Britain needs them as much as they need Britain, if not more so. The sales to the Gulf in terms of aerospace and all the follow-on contracts that go with that in terms of building airfields, training support teams, maintenance and so on, have kept the British independent defence industry alive. BAE Systems would have ground to a halt waiting for the Typhoon to come online had the Saudis not been buying the Tornadoes. Conscious of this and the fact that they insist in the Gulf that all defence deals be done Government to Government-so Margaret Thatcher started the al-Yamamah contract with King Fahd in 1985-and thereafter this is effectively a Government-to-Government deal with the guarantee of the Government. The Ministry of Defence has, in a way, more responsibility for massaging the relationship than the Foreign Office in the case of the Gulf states because of the importance of both the defence sales and the follow-up training exercises and co-operation.
Now when these Gulf Governments are upset with the British, as in when the British or the MOD police and then the Serious Fraud Office saw fit to investigate whether all the defence deals had been entirely free of backhanders, the Saudis let it be known the relationship would suffer- similarly conversations between the Qataris and the British over a defence deal when their history was about to be investigated were suddenly called off. The message comes out, "We don’t actually have to buy your Typhoons. We can always buy from somebody else." And the British know that. The Saudis do a little bit of the same arm twisting over intelligence gathering. When they look at the British they say, "You are preaching to us this idea that we would be better off being more democratic. Well, the logic doesn’t compute. Those countries that you were telling to reform and which took some tentative steps in that direction-Tunisia, Egypt-look at what has happened to their rulers, and you did nothing to save them. So please spare us your preaching about democracy and human rights."
Chris Doyle: In terms of how the Gulf sees Britain, it depends who you are asking. At a ruling level, Rosemary Hollis has outlined it very well. They also see a reputation for British fairness. Increasingly, particularly in the Emirates, they are seeing the British Government and they are resistant to the way in which we see the Muslim Brotherhood and its increasing political success in the region. There is a lot of nervousness in the Emirates about that. But if you ask young Saudis, young Emiratis, young Qataris, how they view Britain, it is going to be a very different view from that of an older generation, who remember when we were very strong and all powerful in the Gulf. They are now far more familiar with many other countries. Many of them still like to come here but are going to other universities, not British ones as in the past. That is partially a result of visa issues as well, which many complain about.
So, yes, we have a fairly positive reputation. People like coming here, but that is at risk among some who are increasingly politically active if Britain is seen to be an obstacle or supporting existing regimes which they may wish to see reformed. I think it is very difficult for us sitting in London, and for Foreign Office officials, actually to tap into the huge, large young population in all these countries, which is increasingly connected and increasingly on social media, with new access to information and inspired by what has gone on in other countries as to exactly what they want for their futures and how they see us. I think it is very fluid and very changing. Add on top of that increasing signs of radicalisation and extremism in the region, which has its impact if they feel frustrated and angered at the slow progress of change, plus a very worrying sectarian narrative that is going on, exacerbated by events in Iraq and Syria, and it means that, underneath the relationship, there are some great uncertainties about where it is heading.
A lot of Foreign Office officials, in my experience, have always wondered what happens when, for example, the existing Saudi leadership, in its 80s, and the existing Omani leadership, move on. What will the next generations of rulers from these families do? How will they change the relationships? We are quite dependent on those historical links. I think the Foreign Office is aware of this. How effective they have been in establishing links down to that younger generation-the Crown Princes and the next generation-is another matter. We will see.
Q69 Andrew Rosindell: Leading on from that question, how does the British monarchy-the British royal family-impact on how the Gulf monarchies see the UK? The historical links and friendships that have been there so long-how is that impacting on today’s relations and is it a significant factor in terms of our future relationship?
Chris Doyle: It is of huge benefit for Britain. Most of the rulers of the Gulf states view our royal family very positively. There have been many visits, and I have heard many of them comment very favourably, particularly about Her Majesty the Queen. They like the fact that it is a relationship between countries ruled by royal families.
Against that somewhat, however, in some of the Gulf states there is a feeling that, on occasions, less senior members of the royal family have gone out to the region almost as substitutes for high-level ministerial visits. I have heard that before. Increasingly, they are aware of that, and they will see it, in a sense, as being fobbed off. I would say that, in the past couple of years under the Gulf initiative, there have been more high-level visits from Ministers. That does matter, building that relationship. They want to see top-level royals and top-level Ministers coming to see them, nurturing that relationship. It is a time when they feel they need reassurance. After what happened in Egypt, the feeling in many Gulf states is, "You and the United States abandoned Mubarak very swiftly. We do not want that to happen to us." The only exception in the Gulf is Kuwait, where perhaps we passed the test in 1990-91 when we were there for them. I think that relationship with the royals is helpful, but we cannot count on it being the same way with the next generation.
Rosemary Hollis: I would say it is an asset, but there are consequences in that, if you have a relationship between two royal families, it is all very satisfactory up to a point but if you remember that the British royal family is not allowed to be political, they cannot exactly have a quiet word with their Gulf counterparts and advocate constitutional monarchy. That falls to the Ministers and the diplomats. I do not think that the British monarchy is exactly an advertisement for how the rulers in the Gulf would wish to be, in so far as they can go and promote trade, and they can go and request donations to their charities, but they cannot say that they are in charge any more.
Q70 Andrew Rosindell: As time moves on and as the Gulf countries themselves have to embrace more democratic methods, do you feel that the example of how the British monarchy has developed and evolved is something that would help those countries look at ways of evolving their own democratic traditions?
Rosemary Hollis: No. I think this is all far too far down the line. If you remember, we got to where we are by killing a king-beheading him-and having dictatorship by Parliament for several years, before it was decided to bring a new king in and to do a deal with him as to what his powers would be exactly. It has been a constant struggle ever since. I think that that is the tradition in Kuwait. Before oil, the senior figures in Kuwait did deals with their rulers over how far they could go and how power would be shared. The whole potential for that relationship is broken when you have a rentier system, with oil money coming in at the top, as opposed to from taxpayers at the bottom.
Chris Doyle: I share Rosemary’s views. I do not think that change is really going to be brought about by highlighting the example in Britain. It is a very different area of the world and a different time.
Q71 Sir Menzies Campbell: I was going to ask you some questions about defence sales, but you have very substantially answered those already from a commercial point of view. I wonder, however, if we could look at them through the prism of security and ask whether you think that the existence of these sales, of equipment with which our own armed services are familiar and which they use, makes any additionality to Britain’s own security. I am thinking about the fact that interoperability is much easier and that there would be common doctrines on the approach to be taken in certain military circumstances. To sum that up, do you see any substantial exchange in security information and understanding as a result of the arms sales, or do they stand discretely to one side?
Rosemary Hollis: You point to a very interesting nexus of issues here. During the 1990s, I participated a number of times in meetings organised by US Central Command in Tampa, Florida. There would be a few Brits from the MOD, a few French and a few favoured Arabs. What was notable was the American irritation with the British, that they should presume to convey their military doctrines along with their military sales. At the time-someone like Rory Stewart might know about now-the British doctrine was not a subset of the American one.
Sir Menzies Campbell: Anything but.
Rosemary Hollis: Now, I do think that what the British very effectively did in acknowledgement of the overweening American monopoly of the market was get a niche within that-with the acceptance of the Americans. It was sometimes easier for the British to sell the kind of weaponry that the Saudis wanted than it was for the Americans because of the pressure that would be brought to bear in Congress against such sales.
Q72 Sir Menzies Campbell: There is a very interesting illustration of that, isn’t there? The fact that the Israelis wanted the F15E, and at the same time there was an effort to sell aircraft to-I beg your pardon, it was the other way around; the Saudi Arabians wanted the F15E and in the end they were given a slightly modified version, which was less capable, not by very much, but notably less capable than the one that the Americans were willing to supply to Israel. So does that political commitment get in the way of the Americans, at the same time not doing the same in relation to the relationship between the Brits and the Saudi Arabians?
Rosemary Hollis: The British connection to Saudi Arabia is not unrelated to the British connection to the US, and the US connection to Saudi Arabia. They are knitted in together. While there is competition across the board for sales, there is an accommodation within that broad relationship on some specifics. That has suited the Americans-"Better the British than anyone else, if it is not going to be us." It has suited the Saudis and other Gulfis to at least feel that they are not putting all their eggs in one basket and that they have a source of leverage, but they could never look to the British to protect them in the same way. They know they have to look to the Americans.
The niche that the British carved out for themselves was in building personal relationships with the Saudis who would be working with the defence equipment; bringing them on traineeships to the UK; and establishing personal relationships that had to stand in adversity. I was intrigued by this during the course of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when there was an outbreak of terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom. A lot of normal British operations there were scaled back, but it was inconceivable that you would scale back on the defence co-operation that is wired into the defence sales.
Q73 Mike Gapes: You talked about defence co-operation. Can I take you on to intelligence and counter-terrorism co-operation? How important is the co-operation with the UK for the Gulf states?
Rosemary Hollis: I believe you are going to hear from Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles?
Chair: Not on the record.
Rosemary Hollis: Oh. Well, my understanding is that it was on the record that he warned-
Chair: He is very welcome to speak on the record if he wants to.
Sir Menzies Campbell: If we can persuade him.
Chair: If you have any influence with him to persuade him to speak on the record, we would be grateful.
Rosemary Hollis: I dare say it is one of those things where you might learn a little more if he doesn’t.
Chair: Yes, but we can’t publish it.
Rosemary Hollis: I see. What he did say on the record was that it would be damaging to British interests to lose the intelligence co-operation of the Saudis and that that was on the cards during the Serious Fraud Office investigation, which was subsequently called off in the name of protecting British security interests. All I know from that kind of episode is that those who deal in intelligence feel that they cannot do without that Saudi co-operation without exposing the British in some way.
I would assume that, again, the Americans are in that loop, too. It seems to me that the British prize very highly the intelligence that they get, thanks to the Americans. They would therefore not want to be excluded from something that the Saudis would remain in with the Americans. Maybe in the old days, it was all to do with would-be communists in Yemen, but latterly I think it is more about Islamist radicals who are anti-western and anti the al-Saud ruling family.
Chris Doyle: I share the view that Rosemary has stated. It is very difficult, not being within the intelligence circles, to define this. Saudi Arabia has an involvement in many of the key areas where we need intelligence, particularly in Yemen, for example. We need their help and assistance. There was the bomb attempt through East Midlands airport. It was purportedly because of Saudi intelligence that that terrorist operation was stopped.
Can we survive without it? I think it would be difficult at the moment, but even with that co-operation we can never take it for granted. There are so many threats coming from other avenues as well. We cannot depend solely on that. We could do a lot more to work up other sources of intelligence and not just be dependent on Saudi.
Q74 Mike Gapes: Professor Hollis, you said in an earlier answer that there had been arm twisting of the British Government by Saudi Arabia, because of the way in which things were being pursued with the SFO. How real is this threat to cut off intelligence co-operation, given that Saudi Arabia’s Government presumably benefits from it as well? Isn’t there a danger that we are exaggerating the threat of their withdrawing co-operation, rather that recognising that it is also in their interests to have that co-operation?
Rosemary Hollis: I take your point, but I don’t think, in this case, one can separate different strands of the relationship, and test it. They are too intricately related, and have been built up over time. The Saudis don’t just threaten to withdraw intelligence co-operation. The defence deals would be at stake, too. I don’t envy British politicians who have got to explain to the British public that they blew it when it came to a relationship that has so many facets that benefit the British, in a way that they don’t really want to own up to.
Q75 Mike Gapes: You also touched on the American relationship. Do the Saudis play the British and Americans off against each other in these areas?
Rosemary Hollis: Well, if there is room for it-if they spy an opportunity. This business of telling the British that they know us better-"You know us so well. You’ve been here a long time." You could argue, "And look what a mess you made." Instead of which, they flatter the British that they know what they are doing in the Middle East.
Q76 Sir John Stanley: Right up to the start of the Arab Spring, the British Government gave arms export licence approvals to all the Arab Spring countries. Once the Arab Spring broke out, the British Government put their policy not on to brake, but on to reverse gear, and made a totally unprecedented number of revocations of existing arms export licences. A significant number of those revocations were for approved licences to Bahrain. In striking contrast, when it came to Saudi Arabia-notwithstanding the fact that partly British-made armoured cars rolled across the causeway from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain, and helped to protect Bahraini infrastructure at a time when there were significant, broadly peaceful, demonstrations taking place in Bahrain-the British Government did not revoke one single arms export licence to Saudi Arabia. What is your interpretation of the reasons for the striking contrasts in the revocations between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
Rosemary Hollis: I don’t think I have a straightforward response, in the sense that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important and the one with Bahrain is not as important, so you can afford to mess with it a bit. I note, from the most recent iterations of what British interests, and therefore British policy priorities, are, that you have a combination of security, trade and values-projection of values. The advocacy of what the British like to believe are their values at home-the advocacy that they be exported abroad-is the poor relation of the other two. Therefore, you get demonstrations of how the British want to stand for democracy and human rights. You get speeches, such as we had from the Foreign Secretary, explaining near the beginning of the Arab Spring that of course we have to differentiate from place to place because the issues at stake, and the challenge to the rulers, varies from place to place.
Now, the Bahrainis could not survive without the Saudis, so it makes absolutely no difference whether the British withdraw these licences or not. The British have said, in the case of Bahrain-not unlike what they have said, historically, in many contexts- that it is easier to apply pressure quietly behind the scenes. But it would not be in Britain’s interests for the monarchy in Bahrain to fall and for the whole thing to come down. I think, in retrospect, the British do not want to be seen-in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this-to be aiding and abetting oppression of civilian population. But it is about not being seen to be doing these things as opposed to expecting to change the nature of the polity in these places fundamentally.
Chris Doyle: I largely agree with that. We have had a different relationship with Bahrain in terms of the levels of criticism, even before the Arab Spring. I simply do not believe that we have that level of critical dialogue with the Saudis. Indeed, if you look at the region and how we will be judged, people will take these protestations of support for democracy and human rights seriously if we are seen to do it with Saudi Arabia. That, for many people, is the litmus test.
They see, for example, a Sri Lankan maid being executed in Saudi Arabia; they see other egregious abuses of human rights; they see pro forma protestations, perhaps, but essentially the relationship goes on as usual. While that is the case, I do not think that our credibility will be very high across the rest of the region; countries in transition where we are particularly serious about these sorts of changes.
The Prime Minister said, when visiting the Gulf in November, that there were no no-go areas. I have spoken to diplomats and former diplomats, and I do not think that they would necessarily share the belief that, when it really comes down to, say, a British Prime Minister meeting with one of these major rulers, there are no no-go areas; I simply do not believe that that is true.
Rosemary is right: we can restrict arms exports to Bahrain; that is in response to pressures. We are unlikely to do it to Saudi Arabia because, simply, they will hit back; the pushback will be very tough on the entire relationship and I do not think that any Prime Minister is going to risk that. The problem will come as more and more people become more aware of what Britain’s position on these issues is; they are watching and looking to see how we handle it and, increasingly, they may not be so impressed. Therefore we run the risk of large segments of these populations not appreciating Britain’s positions on these issues.
Q77 Mr Ainsworth: The upheavals of the Arab Spring have been more acute in other parts of the Arab world than in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. There are many theories thrown out as to why that is; some people say that the monarchies have been a little more flexible than some of the presidential and republican systems in other parts of the Arab world, while others would contend that it is simply a matter of resources and that they have been able to buy off the pressures. Where do your opinions lie on that spectrum? What do you think is the reason why we have had major problems in Syria and Egypt, but not to the same degree in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia?
Rosemary Hollis: I would say Egypt is an economic nightmare: 80 million-plus people; insufficient resources coming in; the structure of the economy sclerotic. I do not know how you would turn that economy around in the best of times. The IMF comes up with these formulae, as it has in other places, but it usually involves an already sizeably poor section of the population suffering even more for no visible turnaround in the end.
Yes, there is corruption everywhere, and this is key, but when there is more money around, as there is in the oil-producing states, the pain is not so great and the problems are not so insoluble in economic terms. As, for example, the Jordanians watch what is happening in Syria, it gives them pause as to whether they want to bring the whole house down. I dare say that there are those in Saudi who can see that having a vote might not be the most-
Mr Ainsworth: Important thing.
Rosemary Hollis: Yes.
Chris Doyle: I think there are a number of differences as well in terms of North Africa, with the role of the army that was played in Egypt and Tunisia, the state of civil society and the very important role that trade unions played. If you contrast that with the Gulf states, there is civil society, but it is certainly not as developed. The military is not as independent-minded as perhaps it is or was in Egypt and Tunisia. Certainly in Egypt and Tunisia, you saw some of the troubles arising particularly through food riots and industrial disputes. Some of the signs were there. What has happened in North Africa has triggered a sense of confidence and belief in the Gulf that, somewhere down the line, they can bring about some change, but it will take some time to generate the sorts of organisations. Clearly, the regimes will be doing their best to ensure that that does not happen.
However, they have huge issues to face in the Gulf. There are huge levels of youth, high unemployment. They are not getting jobs. They have large migrant work forces. Plus, there is a very delicate regional neighbourhood, with potential conflict with Iran and still huge issues going on in Iraq. It looks stable on a day-to-day basis when you go there, but if you actually dig down a little bit deeper, I am not so sure that it is anymore.
Q78 Mr Ainsworth: That brings me on to the second question. What are the prospects for peaceful reform, improvement of human rights and social development? You, Rosemary Hollis, said to us that it was not in our interests that the monarchy should fall in Bahrain. You said that it was not in Britain’s interests. How do you foresee the future? What role should we seek to play in the developments that will take place over the next couple of years?
Rosemary Hollis: So you don’t want me to reinforce the idea that it might not be in our best interests to see these regimes fall?
Mr Ainsworth: Well, you said that.
Rosemary Hollis: That being said, what do I advocate we do?
Mr Ainsworth: Yes.
Rosemary Hollis: I actually conducted some research, commissioned by the European Union, to find out how its efforts to try to get that kind of reform going in Egypt-I was doing the research back in 2006. I interviewed many Egyptians, and they said that everything in Egypt is forbidden except what is permitted and that you therefore cannot exist in Egypt without breaking the law, but a blind eye is turned until you do something that upsets the regime and then they’ve got you and you know they’ve got you. In those circumstances, you simply explore how you might promote small changes such as introducing more decency into the system and, at the same time, more efficiency. The Egyptians, brainstorming this with me and a colleague, came up with one thing that could be done, which was teaching police interrogation that does not involve torture. It is not actually necessary to torture people to uncover who did what to whom. In this case, I was told that the Egyptian police think you just beat someone up until you get a confession.
Q79 Mr Ainsworth: I was thinking more about Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than Egypt.
Rosemary Hollis: Well, then you come to the political prisoner issue. I know from some other research that I have done that British people, including British intelligence officers, attempted to tell members of the Mubarak regime, with whom they had intelligence co-operation, that they did not like the way that they dealt with their political dissidents. They were told to mind their own business and that the British did not have a terribly good track record themselves in managing extremists. I anticipate that that kind of thing would be said in the Gulf too. They might say that the British are hypocritical when they talk about how best to handle extremism, or incompetent, or not minding their own business. They will say, "We do not tell you how to run your country, so why are you telling us how to run ours?" That is the kind of conversation that will happen. I am advocating demonstrating some value in doing what you are proposing. However Nobody claims that it is within Islam to exercise cruelty. It is not in the tenets of Islam to detain without trial. Arbitrary arrest is not there either. Within the system, there is a lot of room for discussion about what makes for a healthier society.
Chris Doyle: I think we need to go in with a constructive approach. I do not think that there is any other point, and they will not listen to us unless that is the case. It should be some form of evolution, not revolution, that is necessary. The point is that it should be portrayed as being very much in their interests. If they want to, they can try to lock down their countries and pretend that they still live in the 19th century, isolated from the rest of the world, but that is simply not the case. There are areas in which others can constructively help in setting up the sorts of institutions that will allow that reform to take effect, or else they will perhaps face serious threats further down the line.
There is another issue here: there is a crisis in opposition across the region, because of the lack of political experience and participation. People are getting opportunities to voice their concerns, but they have not had much experience of building consensus, working together and forming coalitions. The most organised groups tend to be the Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but the people who form large segments of the population, including in Bahrain, are liberal with a small ‘l’ and do not have any organised mechanism for how to put across their views or what they want for Bahrain. They get trapped between a regime whose recent behaviour they are not that fond of and an opposition that they sometimes see as too extreme. Can we help to have more effective communications?
Another issue is that rulers and others in the region-it goes against the culture-will increasingly have to put up with a lot more criticism. That is a result of social media and opening up. We have seen people arrested for what they put out on Twitter. The reality is that that will be there, and if they lock up each and every person who criticises a ruler, they will be locking up a lot of people, which will not play well overseas. Almost by definition, these people who may be using Twitter-they do it enough here-to criticise individuals are probably quite linked up with the outside world. In some ways that issue needs to be changed.
Q80 Chair: Professor Hollis has to go in a second, and I know that Rory Stewart wants to put a question to her. It is eight minutes past 3 at the moment, so do you have another five minutes?
Rosemary Hollis: Yes.
Q81 Rory Stewart: Given that you are running out of the door, Professor Hollis, and Chris is staying, can you give us your response to that? You seem to suggest that the idea of a very gradual process of reform and British diplomats gently whispering in ears is not a realistic description of how change has happened recently in the Middle East, at least in your version. It has tended to be more extreme and catastrophic-more revolutionary. There is this model, with this lovely gentle thing where you do seminars, workshops and civil society engagement, and somehow that transforms the state. I wanted your final view on that before you left.
Rosemary Hollis: I see the logic that a society that does treat its citizens with respect and dignity, and does involve them in decision making that affects them-the very things that the revolutionaries were calling for in the countries which had the uprisings-is a recipe for stability. However, the lesson of the recent past, and actually I think the lesson of-
Mr Ainsworth: Most revolutions-
Rosemary Hollis: Yes, most revolutions, is that first, you do not remove a dictatorship by gradual reform; secondly, dictators do not generally happily release one power after another; and thirdly, when they look at their region they know that all the guys who felt oppressed cannot wait for revenge. So more democracy means the end of the particular individuals to whom the British are attempting to advocate this gradual change. It is not a message that is going to be received. It is just not in the nature of the beast. There is nothing wrong with the logic long term. Long term it would serve British interests if they were nicer, more participatory, less abusive societies, but in the near term it is simply not engaging with reality.
Q82 Rory Stewart: The Prime Minister made a speech in Abu Dhabi in November. He said, "My country very strongly believes that giving people both a job and a voice is vital for creating stable, prosperous societies, and we have a history of supporting human rights around the world… I do think that standing up for human rights and standing up for the right of people to have a job and a voice around the world is important, and I think this is a discussion that our countries can have. Nothing is off-limits in the relationship that we have. When you are close friends, close partners, it is quite like a family; you have to be able to discuss the difficult things as well as the easy things. And that is the sort of relationship that we have."
What is your view on that speech? How do you think it will be received in the Gulf states?
Rosemary Hollis: Who was it who gave that speech?
Q83 Rory Stewart: The British Prime Minister, David Cameron. How did they take that kind of speech?
Rosemary Hollis: I am reminded of another speech that Tony Blair made in the Gulf, about how "we understand each other so well because our histories are combined, and we got here together and we share values." What? It is basically spinning a narrative.
Q84 Rory Stewart: How would it be received in the Gulf? What would someone listening to it make of it?
Rosemary Hollis: They understand that that is what you do.
Rory Stewart: Thank you very much.
Chair: Mr Doyle has still to answer, but Professor Hollis, if you wish to leave, thank you very much indeed for coming in today.
Q85Rory Stewart: Mr Doyle, what are your views on any of those questions? Either on what you think of Britain’s response to the Arab Spring and the potential for reform, or comebacks or disagreements with Rosemary.
Chris Doyle: As I said earlier, the relationship is simply not like that. I do not believe that there is a "nothing is off limits" conversation. Simply, as Rosemary said, it is spin, particularly with Saudi Arabia. I think that is understood in the entire region. I think there are times when that is an issue, when we are not able to speak more candidly to the Saudis.
It is also somewhat difficult of course with a leadership in Saudi Arabia which is octogenarian. Their health is not always good, so the people really making the decisions have a limited time span to deal with some of these issues. And increasingly, I have to say, they are probably disconnected from some of the events that are going on. I think that is an issue.
In terms of the Arab Spring and issues around it, this is still very much a process whose ultimate destination we do not know. Much will depend on huge amounts of variables. It will depend to some extent on our ability to resolve some of the outstanding conflicts that are having an influence on it. Syria, Iran, also what is going on in Iraq, and the failure to get anywhere on the issue of Israel-Palestine; that has an impact. Will there be any sort of response in terms of trying to improve the way that these countries deal with their own populations? I am not sure, but I genuinely think that is where the threat to them will come from unless they are careful. I am thinking here not in terms of next year; I am trying to think, in a sense, like they do-five, 10 or 15 years down the line. You do notice this with the Gulf: these are countries that have Governments that are in power for a long time and in position for a long time, so they have the ability to think and plan for 15 or 20 years. Qatar has a 20 or 30-year plan in operation.
Where will the Gulf be in 10 to 15 years? Given the changes in the region, it is difficult to say whether we will have the same ruling families in power or the same systems of government; that would be a 50:50 bet.
Q86 Rory Stewart: One of the increasing tendencies has been to defer to Gulf states in terms of guiding our general response to foreign policy in the region: we might defer to them about Darfur, or take their advice on what to do in Egypt, or consult them on how we should respond to Syria. To what extent do you think the UK overestimates the Gulf states’ interest and, in fact, power in solving those kinds of regional issues?
Chris Doyle: I think Gulf states are helpful on certain issues. They are being very helpful on the issue of Yemen. With the GCC transition in Yemen, there was obviously a Gulf initiative for that, and for all the faults of that transition I am not sure it would have come about without the involvement of the Gulf.
On the issue of Syria, despite the rhetoric, there are some quite significant differences between our position and that of many of the Gulf states. Essentially, for some time, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others have wanted a far more forceful response to what is going on in Syria than we have; the British Government still seeks a political solution to events in Syria, yet we are trying to work together. There is not actually a common view on that.
On the issue of Iran, that is of course another area of co-operation. The Gulf states are in a very tricky position, because Iran will always be their neighbour; it is the big brother across the waters, and any conflict in Iran will hit them massively. Already the sanctions are hitting the Emirates, in particular, very hard; that will matter. It is important that we have discussions about these relations and these other regional conflicts, but that we also have input from other areas and do not overly rely on what they are saying.
Chair: Thank you very much. Apologies to colleagues who have caught my eye, but I have to draw this session to an end. Thank you very much, Mr Doyle. Your evidence is very much appreciated; it is very helpful to get the context that you have provided this afternoon.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Sir Alan Munro, Honorary Vice-President of the Saudi-British Society and board member of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce, former Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East and Africa, and British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia (1989 to 1993), gave evidence.
Q87 Chair: As colleagues know, there is an important vote at two minutes past 4, so we aim to end this session at 4 o’clock. I welcome our next witness Sir Alan Munro, who is the honorary vice-president of the Saudi-British Society and board member of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce, former Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, and British ambassador in Saudi Arabia. Is there anything you would particularly like to say in opening remarks?
Sir Alan Munro: Yes, if I might. I have, for better or worse, been involved quite closely with Saudi Arabia for 35 years, with one brief intermission in a socialist and military Algeria. I have known the kingdom in peace and war. Out of that comes a conviction that our relationship with Saudi Arabia remains and has long been of the first order.
There was an interval that many may not recall of 12 years of no diplomatic relations at all, between 1953 and 1965 over the Bahraini episode in the Empty Quarter, the boundary dispute and the initial search for oil and so on, where Britain undertook to support its protected regimes in the form of Abu Dhabi and Oman and aroused the intense irritation of the al-Saud. There was also a certain glitch in the mid-1970s in our relationship. For all that, it remains for this country a relationship of the first order in diplomatic, political, economic and cultural terms, and at the public level, with all the interchange that I am glad to say goes on.
The present leadership under King Abdullah has been engaged, certainly for the past 10 years, in an unprecedented, steady but ever-cautious programme of change and modernisation. There used to be an old joke about Saudi Arabia about 30 or 40 years ago being dragged reluctantly into the 14th century. It is now taking its own lead in putting more than a toe into the 21st century. That remains of major significance for this country and the Saudis, as they recognise, in that this very close and rather personal relationship and the history behind it, enables us in judicious fashion to play a real, if not necessarily to be publicised, part in the context of helping forward, encouraging and reinforcing various aspects of this important period of change and reform.
Q88 Andrew Rosindell: Sir Alan, how do you feel the UK is perceived in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi royal family and by the people of Saudi Arabia?
Sir Alan Munro: There are two categories. You must remember that Saudi Arabia is increasingly becoming, in society terms, a somewhat polarised country. This to me is a sign of change. It is not generally accepted or recognised, least of all by parts of our media, that the regime remains in the vanguard of reform, albeit very cautious reform. As a former Chair of this Committee once said to me, "Saudi Arabia is not a monarchy, it is a diarchy." It has a clerical establishment which is powerful and represents the opinion of-goodness knows-50% or more of its population, male and female, and which has to be taken into account in any attempt to put across-to sell, if you like-the process of change on which the regime is launched.
The regime has many members, including some of the younger ones now coming through the ranks, who enjoy close contact with this country and who have, in many cases, received various stages of education here, from which they claim to have benefited. So I believe that in many respects we are regarded not only as a long-established and historical friend, which goes back to the first world war, but also by the younger generation as a source of partnership and as a society whose standards are regarded as respectable and in which they place a certain amount of trust and seek to emulate.
At the senior level of al-Saud governance and the senior ministers involved, we are held in respect, and there is undoubtedly a wish to see us as major and ongoing partners. At the more public level there is a mixture of what I call ignorance and attraction. The attraction comes increasingly through the social media, which are going to play a greater and greater part in the momentum of change coming from below as well top down in Saudi Arabia today.
Q89 Andrew Rosindell: Following on from your comment about Britain being a historical friend and that they look to us for so many things, does it strike you as strange that Britain has not encouraged either Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf States to join the Commonwealth? Do you think that would be a positive way of bringing the Gulf States into a framework where countries have developed into democracies?
Sir Alan Munro: The only Arab state that we might at one time have thought would qualify and, indeed, was interested in becoming a member of the Commonwealth was Aden-and we know where that one got us. Britain’s historic relationship, not so much with Saudi Arabia but with the smaller Gulf States in the days of the Protectorates, was never as intense as that which prevailed in former colonial territories or in the dominions. Egypt is another case in point where viceroyalty was only superficial. I do not believe that it has ever been seen by successive British Governments as appropriate to try and incorporate the states of the Arab community within the British system of standards of justice, language, exchange and so forth.
On the other hand, as previous speakers were saying, we have an historic image which is, by and large, a positive one. I have sometimes been surprised-this came up again in what I regard as the ill-fated Iraq adventure in 2003-that the opinion of Saudis who wish us well, and some Algerians who had less in common with us, was: "Well, this has been a wrong thing to do. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not going to get anywhere, but thank goodness you are there", because-here we go again-"you understand us." "Yes," I say, "and look at the mess we made." Look at Iraq, and here we are back again in Iraq. That was one of the reasons why many of us advised not going through to Baghdad, if I may say so, in 1991.
Q90 Chair: I think that we had better concentrate on Saudi Arabia.
Sir Alan Munro: They take the view that we do have a stake in their societies, and they wish to see us exert that familiarity with their own objectives and systems of governance.
Q91 Mark Hendrick: Sir Alan, could you perhaps compare and contrast the UK’s current relationship with Saudi Arabia to when you were an ambassador there in the late ’80s and early ’90s during the first Gulf war?
Sir Alan Munro: We are talking 20 years of interval, when I have been returning in one capacity or another. The pace of change in the social picture, in the extent of freedom of speech and journalistic independence and in the spread of education, particularly within the female community-there are now more female students at undergraduate level in Saudi Arabian universities than there are male-illustrate the degree of change that has been taking place. It has been at the political level, too, ever since Kind Fahd established the national council in 1993. The whole picture now is one of greater confidence and self-confidence and more outward looking than it was in 1993, although it was already perceptible.
Q92 Mark Hendrick: Is the relationship stronger or weaker than it was then? Do the Saudis see more dependence on us, or do we see more dependence of them, given our political, economic and trade terms?
Sir Alan Munro: There is an interdependence here in the various fields that I have indicated. The Saudis undoubtedly continue, as their whole political scene evolves, to look to us to put across standards in civil justice and parliamentary behaviour; I believe that the President of the Majlis al-Shura is about to pay a visit to this city. These are the areas in which they look to us increasingly, as they open up their chrysalis, to play a part.
I must say that it also, increasingly, comes through in the area of higher education. At the time I left in 1993, they said that there were some 200 Saudi students-military and civilian-in this country in higher education. The number now, I gather from the Saudi embassy, is around 1,600.
Q93 Mark Hendrick: I was chatting with one of the previous witnesses who said that when students come from Saudi Arabia to this country, on the one hand can see our culture and democracy, but they also see adverse aspects of our culture, such as drunkenness on the streets, fights and crime. Do you think that British culture and the British people are a good advert for democracy and the British way of life?
Sir Alan Munro: By and large, yes. But there have been instances where, in particular the more conservative among Saudi youth-they do exist-have been shocked at what they find here. They probably go back with a negative opinion. There are elements of that, but for the great majority, it is a stimulating experience, as I understand that from continuing to talk to them through the Saudi-British Society and others. We have a Saudi youth element within the Saudi-British society and they are a very positive group indeed.
Q94 Mr Baron: Sir Alan, how important are defence sales and the defence relationship between our two countries to the bilateral relationship? For example, if we stopped, or severely restricted, sales, would that have a meaningful impact? What factors are at play?
Sir Alan Munro: It would have a major impact on our broader relationship, it would have a major impact on our own defence manufacturing sector and it would have a major impact on the military competence of certain elements of the Saudi armed forces, notably their air force. Remember that it is also the training-engineering training, pilot training and so on-that comes, and has done ever since the late 1960s. This goes way previous to al-Yamamah, may I say. It is a treasured element in the minds of the Saudi military establishment. We are very important to them, and they are very important to us.
Q95 Mr Baron: In your view, it is the biggest bit of the relationship, although there are other bits as well.
Sir Alan Munro: No, I do not think it is the biggest bit, and I think it is becoming a lesser and lesser element in our relationship, but it is important. This was touched on earlier, and goes back perhaps partly to my time in the Ministry of Defence, when I looked after defence co-operation with Saudi Arabia. At strategic level, the Saudis like to see us and treat us, with the French-certainly so far as their naval forces are concerned, but not necessarily elsewhere-as a kind of second row player to the Americans. They know, and they have had experience, of occasions when they have been about to go overboard in some American deal and, as somebody mentioned, Congress has tripped them up or threatened to trip them up, in which case they have turned to us. That is indeed how the Lightning deal in the 1960s came to be, and that is how, let it be said, the Tornado deal came to be. There was another one, which luckily did not come to, which had to do with Nimrod.
Q96 Mike Gapes: May I ask you about the internal politics in Saudi Arabia? The level of public protest, civil society and political movements is very different in Saudi Arabia from that in some of its neighbouring Gulf states, and certainly in other parts of the Arab world. How do you explain that?
Sir Alan Munro: Saudi Arabia is not, as yet, a politically conscious society, partly because it has always been-although it is less so now-a cocooned society, cocooned from hardship and living within, as other oil-producing Gulf states have, a mega welfare state. With the growth of social media and the spread of education there has come a greater querulousness or questioning of the norms of Saudi society, particularly among younger elements. That is buttressed on the other side by a hard-line conservative element-the ultra pious, as it were-some would say the more fanatical side. That being said, the regime itself and its present leadership, notably King Abdullah, are popular. The change that people press for is change within the system, not outwith it.
Q97 Mike Gapes: Does that apply also to the regional issues and the Shi’a populated areas?
Sir Alan Munro: The Shi’a minority in the eastern province has been until recent years a quiescent element, and the nearest thing to a national labour force that Saudi Arabia ever had. This is a society with a deep and somewhat bigoted religious culture, although not a violent one. The Shi’a are regarded with suspicion by the Sunni establishment and by Sunni teaching. The King has taken considerable steps to break that barrier down in recent years, and has had some success domestically in bringing more and more Shi’a into more senior and responsible roles. The new list for the Majlis al-Shura has Shi’a members, including one Shi’a woman, for example. The governor of the eastern province, who actually just resigned the other day after many years, Mohammed bin Fahd, son of King Fahd, has done a great deal, as I have seen at first hand, in his-gracious-25 years as governor of the eastern province to break the glass ceiling for the Shi’a. As for the Shi’a element, there is still a dissatisfaction-in a sense, that goes with the way change is happening-but in my view, it is being very carefully and understandingly managed by the Saudi authorities.
Q98 Mike Gapes: You referred to the closed and conservative nature of the leadership. What is going to happen with the transition to the next generation? As I understand it, all the potential successors, one by one, are no longer there. There now has to be, in effect, a shift to a new generation. Is that going to go smoothly and how is it going to be done?
Sir Alan Munro: This is the sort of speculation that keeps us in business. Senior Saudis with whom I have had recent contact admit that the drop of a generation is not going to be a straightforward affair. This is a family that is not a divided one-there are one or two mavericks on the side-and they know that, if you like, they hang together or they hang together. They are an intelligent community. They see themselves as, and are accepted as, continuing to rule, and they will be putting a lot of thought into deciding which branch of the present range of the Abdul Aziz sons should eventually inherit the succession. But I have noticed, and Saudis have pointed out to me in the last couple of weeks, the decision only two weeks ago by the King to appoint two of the younger generation-two bright young sparks, one the son of Nayef; one the son of Salman, the current Crown Prince-to be governors of two of the key provinces. The eastern province has gone to Saud bin Nayef and the Medina province-the alternative holy city province-has gone to Faisal bin Salman, newspaper owner and a recent graduate with a doctorate from St Anthony’s College Oxford in Gulf politics. That is a step towards identifying and bringing forward the idea of the younger generation, plus there is the very important fact that Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who was deputy Minister of Interior, was appointed to that key position, succeeding his father as Minister of Interior some eight or nine months ago.
Q99 Ann Clwyd: Sir Alan, some people have argued that the FCO should be pressing more assertively for international human rights standards, such as, obviously, the rights of women, and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Do you agree with that, and what do you think of the speed of political reform? What should we expect within a certain time scale?
Sir Alan Munro: Two things. Political reform, as being orchestrated under an ailing-long may he reign, as I see it-King Abdullah, has moved to a pitch that has never been seen before. But at every stage, given this deeply entrenched religious conservatism in that society, they have got to move at the pace that will carry the clerical establishment and the conservative constituency with it. That is a constant preoccupation. It is why the King, and indeed King Fahd before him, flew kites, and then nothing would happen. But in their system, this kite flying is very important. It starts to introduce some of those who would be resistant to change, or would like to go in another direction, to starting to think more seriously about the way the leadership wants to take things. Within those constraints, we are now seeing the regime, frankly, pushing at the doors of change with a force that I have not seen before. That is a welcome thing, but there are constraints.
If we look at the whole range of it all, where might change most readily come? The area of women’s rights has rightly now been put by the King right near the top of the agenda. That can only be seen as a positive step. Again, personalities come into it. One of the personalities involved here-this is where you have to trace the family a bit, because it is a family country-is one of King Abdullah’s daughters, Princess Adelah, who is a leading reformer on women’s rights. She plays a large part now in developments and is responsible for women’s education. Her husband, from another branch of the al-Saud, is the Minister for higher education.
There is one of the daughters of King Faisal-a very reforming King, whom you may remember was eventually assassinated by a younger cousin who was steamed up, frankly, about the introduction of television. I will digress for a moment. I remember the late Crown Prince Sultan once talking to me about some of these episodes, and King Faisal’s move for change against a much more intensely conservative society. He said, "I was waiting to go in to see King Faisal on one occasion, and the Mufti"-the head of the clerical establishment-"was in there and I could hear all sorts of raised voices. Then he came out looking storm-faced. I went in to see the King, and said, ‘Pretty rough session, wasn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid it was all about the iniquities of television, and so on.’ And I said, ‘Yes, and it also gives you square eyes.’’’ So you can see where their hearts beat, really.
Q100 Ann Clwyd: Do you think that western pressure is having any effect on the speed of change? How strong is western pressure?
Sir Alan Munro: Take the women’s case. Only last week, one of the women, whom I know well-her father used to be ambassador here for years-and who has now been elected, or chosen, to the Majlis al-Shura, took the line that I have heard other Saudi women take in conferences and public statements in this country and elsewhere. She said, "Look, we need your support, but don’t rush us and don’t make too much noise about it. You see, there is always the backlash factor. We are getting there. We are getting there in our own way. We want to know of your support, but don’t proclaim it too loudly or you may make our own role more complicated. We do have allies, but we have to move at the pace this society of ours can take. It is happening. Thank you for your support." I would go along with that.
Q101 Ann Clwyd: When you were ambassador, how often did you meet with human rights organisations, for example?
Sir Alan Munro: In Saudi Arabia, there weren’t formally established human rights organisations at that point. There are now. But numerous Saudis, male and female, including the younger lawyers-perhaps particularly in that area-undertook their own campaigns in this area, and nowadays publish openly in the newspapers. That is something that 20 years ago they would not have been able to do. I have here an article from one of the main English-language papers by the notable editor, Khaled al-Maeena, from just four or five days ago. His leader is headed, "There is no going back in Saudi Arabia." That is one of the main national papers-in Arabic and English-in Saudi Arabia. That couldn’t have been the case 20 years ago.
Chair: Sir Alan, perhaps we could have a copy of that afterwards.
Q102 Sir Menzies Campbell: During your extensive engagement-if I can use that word-with Saudi Arabia, in your judgment how complementary have the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom been? Kuwait is a very obvious illustration, of course. Outside that kind of cataclysmic event, in normal exchange, how complementary have the policies been?
Sir Alan Munro: Considerably. Indeed, you and I last met on the occasion of that war, or its aftermath. That was an occasion when we both found a commonality of interest, and the earlier bonds we had, including the military bonds, brought them effectively together in an unprecedented way.
Today, let us look around the region. Saudis have, in the past, and certainly with increasing strength, played a role that tends towards the encouragement of moderation. They use this influence. I had first-hand experience of it in 1993 over the Bosnia affair when the Saudis saw that certain led-by-Iran elements within the Islamic community were producing some troubles. And, of course, there were elements who had been in Afghanistan at the time and had come back and were forming their own rather tiresome brigade in Bosnia and so on. The Saudis called a conference of an organisation that is underrated but is increasingly important, and we ought to note it. It lives in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis created it. It is called the OIC-the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. That is a recognised and very respectable international body, a sort of non-aligned movement of Islam, if you like. The Saudis are its hosts and the Saudis have on various occasions called it together in order to mediate and moderate Islamic fervour in international affairs. They did it-I remember because I was under-secretary at the time-over the Rushdie affair here. They did it at the time of Bosnia, and they have brought it together on recent occasions as well.
So it is in these areas where the Saudis can play a moderating role that we have a common interest that is worth cultivating. On top of that there are specific instances where the present Saudi approach and activity run very closely to our own-Yemen, which was quoted earlier, is a case in point here. There are other elements. The Saudis played a supportive part, shall we say, in the overthrow of Gaddafi, a man for whom they had no reason to have sympathy at all. They continue to play, as I see it, a useful engagement with us over Syria and the approach to the opposition there, rather more useful perhaps than the Qataris. In counter-terror areas, their role is important for us and the liaison we have, the co-operation is very important, and of course they took a lead in setting up this international counter-terrorism organisation, which is based in Bahrain, but is a Saudi brainchild.
Q103 Sir Menzies Campbell: We are faced with the tyranny of the Division bell, Sir Alan, but might I ask you this question? Saudi is clearly the largest, most influential member of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Does it take it seriously and do you think the GCC has fulfilled any of the hopes that attached to it, particularly in the period after the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait?
Sir Alan Munro: In the defence field, for all the brave words, it has been an uneven record, partly because there are rivalries here and so on. I think that perhaps the Peninsula Shield Force, which was sent in to Bahrain to uphold the regime, as it were, as part of the GCC’s raison d’être, as it were, is not one of the more successful areas, but, against that, in the social field, in the areas of industrial standardisation, particularly in a long-vexed and now negotiated free trade agreement with the European Community area, the GCC plays a significant and growing part. It now looks towards establishing more of a federal system. That, I believe, is a long way off. It is a lip-service exercise at the moment. But it is an important bonding affair. Remember, it was brought into being when they saw themselves in the 1970s and early ’80s, following the Iranian revolution, faced with a threat from Iran. That they still perceive.
Q104 Sir Menzies Campbell: In a sentence, do I take it from what you say that Saudi Arabia takes it seriously, although by virtue of its size and its own other relationships, it is not exclusively focused on these things?
Sir Alan Munro: I once heard King Fahd say on this very subject, "Well, you know, we are the biggest. We can’t tell the others what to do."
Q105 Sir Menzies Campbell: I wonder whether you agree with the expression I heard, which is that the GCC was to try to achieve military capability. It was expected that the Omanis would run it and the Saudis would pay for it.
Sir Alan Munro: Yes, that was in that very disjointed era after the first Gulf war, when even the Egyptians said "Please can we protect you," and they all ran a mile.
Q106 Rory Stewart: Do you think the Foreign Office today has put the right emphasis on language skills and area expertise? Are we as well served as we might be in terms of having the skills necessary to do our job well in the Gulf?
Sir Alan Munro: Mr Stewart, you put that question, I note, to my former colleague, Roger Tomkys. I read his evidence and I said, "Hear, hear." I speak as a former head of personnel of the Foreign Office.
Q107 Rory Stewart: I think we have another couple of minutes, so could you just expand a little bit on that? "Hear, hear," is very useful, but one of our jobs is obviously to monitor the Foreign Office’s personnel procedures. Do you have particular advice or views on what could be changed or what might have gone wrong?
Sir Alan Munro: I’m sorry. I may be unreformed here, but I believe that a composite outfit of the scale and significance of the Foreign Office benefits from a measure of centralised, albeit consultative, career management. That has effectively been abolished.
On the language point, a few months ago somebody said that there isn’t a single ambassador in the Gulf who speaks Arabic.
Q108 Rory Stewart: Finally, can you remember roughly how large was your UK-based staff in Riyadh when you were there?
Sir Alan Munro: Including the elements coming from all the other Departments? May I have a little time to count them? UK-based? I must have had about 20 and then there was the two in al-Khobar in the east, who were mostly looking after the very important trade element there and the oil side, which of course is another element in our relationship where we have coherent interest. There were another five in Jeddah.
Q109 Rory Stewart: So the FCO said that, including local staff, they reckon they now have about 110 staff, but that is including-
Sir Alan Munro: If you are referring to local staff, yes.
Q110 Rory Stewart: Is your sense that the political section is smaller or larger than it was when you were there?
Sir Alan Munro: I think it is slightly smaller, and that may be the case on a broader front now, too, in some of our most significant embassies.
Q111 Chair: Sir Alan, this has been very helpful. I thank you very much indeed. Getting your words of wisdom is very much appreciated.
Sir Alan Munro: You did not come up with it, but I want to say something about the important of our shared interest in Islam.
Q112 Chair: You have one minute.
Sir Alan Munro: The King of Saudi Arabia once said, "We are the Vatican of Islam." This country is regarded by the Saudi leadership, in its role as the religious leaders of Islam and the protectors of the two Holy Mosques, as the major western Islamic partner. We have the largest contingent by far that goes to the Hajj, and we are seen, again, as a very important partner in broader Islamic affairs.
Q113 Chair: Did you say that we were the largest contingent?
Sir Alan Munro: The largest western contingent. The largest "Christian" contingent.
Q114 Mike Gapes: There was that excellent exhibition and display at the British Museum last year.
Sir Alan Munro: Wasn’t there, yes? And the book and so on.
Chair: Sir Alan, thank you. If you have any further thoughts, please do not hesitate to let us know.