Middle East and North Africa — Motion to Take Note

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Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour)
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, bid a sad farewell to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who was a very good Minister, and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Risby, who is an expert in this area. He spoke wise words about the need for diplomacy. These will be welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, who has been saying this, Cassandra-like, for a long time. The noble Lord, Lord Risby, has also given us the opportunity of looking generally at the region, rather than debating particular areas, as we have done in the past.

I reflect first on the speed of change in the region. The so-called Arab spring began less than five years ago with the self-immolation, in December 2010, of Mohamed Bouazizi. Five years ago, all the Arab dictators seemed securely in place. In January 2011, President Ben Ali stepped down after 24 years. Also in 2011, President Mubarak ceased to lead Egypt after 30 years. In the same year, Gaddafi was killed after 42 years in power. In February 2012, President Saleh ceded power in the Yemen after 22 years. The Lebanon remains divided confessionally. Only the monarchies in Morocco and Jordan are relatively safe and unscathed, as are the Gulf states. Five years ago, ISIL did not exist, at least in that name. Dictators have been replaced by a pharaoh and by anarchy. The region now faces further potential destabilisation because of the fall in oil prices. This is good news for western consumers but it is bad news for regimes which rely on high prices to buy off popular discontent.

As for the Arab spring, perhaps “Bliss was it in that dawn” five years ago, but no longer. Why has it failed? It is significant, perhaps, that three of the most stable countries in the region—Turkey, Israel and Iran—are not even Arab. It is no longer credible for regimes to divert discontent by claiming that their troubles are part of a US-Zionist conspiracy. Fundamental to an understanding of the reasons for that failure is a reading and a re-reading of the UNDP’s human development reports of 10 years ago. These showed basic failures in the human infrastructure and in the role of women and inadequate and irrelevant education in the Maghreb and in the Arab world. These have been underpinned by a booming population, youth unrest and Islamic distractions. Who wants to invest given such difficulties?

Pervasive instability begs the question whether it is now time to look again—albeit in the hurricane season—at some of the continuing difficulties and re-examine some of our assumptions. Time permits only to look speedily at three examples. On Turkey, the UK has been one of the strongest supporters of Turkey’s membership of the European Union. Progress has been slow and there has sometimes been the unspoken fear that Turkey is too big, too poor and too Islamic—and not really European. For the United Kingdom, the balance has been the other way: Turkey has been a relative model of democracy in the region, has a booming economy and is a valuable and trusted ally in NATO. Now, perhaps because of the lack of progress, we need to re-examine that traditional policy and look at alternatives.

Domestically in Turkey, there has been a lurch towards more illiberal policies in areas such as the media and the judiciary. Majoritarianism appears to have triumphed over pluralism, which was formerly the policy. Abroad, Turkey has been less than helpful in combating ISIL and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Does the European Union wish to move its borders to that volatile region? Given the current sensitivities on immigration, can we seriously look at the free movement of labour from that vast country? Should we not stop and look at some of the alternatives—including the one that Chancellor Merkel put forward years ago of a privileged relationship which might ultimately mature into something more solid? At the moment there is glacial movement in the European Union.

A second re-examination should surely be on Israel and Palestine. Yes, of course Israel is right in saying that it is difficult to find a negotiating partner which can deliver. It is also true that Israel has always ultimately had to rely on itself for its own protection. However, the blunt reality is this: in spite of the Bar-Ilan speech of Premier Netanyahu, there have been no serious moves by the Israeli Government to a two-state solution. Indeed, through the settlement policy, all the moves have been to prevent such a realisation. Perhaps the reality is, alas, that no conceivable Israeli Government would divide Jerusalem and no conceivable Palestinian Government would abandon the right of return. Israel, alas, is increasingly isolated at the UN General Assembly, and shortly Palestine may be a new member of the International Criminal Court. So do we still continue to repeat the mantra of a two-state solution? Is it true that the European Union has threatened Israel with sanctions unless the latest moves on settlements are withdrawn? Where does the UK stand on the latest threat?

Finally—and in one minute—I give at least some good news on the region. The good news, of course, is Tunisia. It is all comparative, but Tunisia had a remarkable election last weekend with a change of leadership from the Islamist party, which had made several compromises on Sharia law and women. The constitution was agreed in January, relying in part on advice from the Venice Commission. The secular party won the election. However, in spite of this political change, which is a model for the rest of the Maghreb and the Arab world, there are vast economic problems. How do we respond? I end with this question: how do we build on this remarkable political achievement by ensuring that it is underpinned by economic success? I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about how we might respond to the good news which is Tunisia.

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Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Conservative)
My Lords, may I first refer to the Register of Lords’ Interests? I have been a director of a number of companies in the Middle East on both sides of the Gulf and I have also been for many years the chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce—a post that I took over from the noble Lord, Lord Temple-Morris, whom I see in his place today.

It is a humbling experience to follow the very moving speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. This has been a remarkable debate and there was a remarkable speech from my noble friend Lady Warsi. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Risby on initiating such a remarkable debate and on introducing it with a brilliant tour d’horizon of all the different problems of the region. I very much agree with him that it is extremely difficult to be optimistic about the region.

We seem to have been fighting a never-ending war in the Middle East. The West has indeed been fighting the consequences of our own disastrous policies. In some respects, we have been addressing risks that we ourselves created. After flirting with the Arab spring, we are now back into our old traditional comfort zone of uncritical support of Sunni autocracies. Only now are we waking up belatedly to the fact that many of the citizens—I do not say “Governments”—of our allies have been funding those they are helping us to fight. I pay tribute to the campaign by the Sunday Telegraph highlighting the movement of funds to terrorist groups in the Middle East.

In that paper last Sunday, David Cohen, the US official in charge of financial intelligence, described Qatar and Kuwait as,

“permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing”.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, also wrote recently that Riyadh, Doha and Kuwait City have all enabled religious foundations to channel funds to radical Sunni elements. He referred to lax anti-money-laundering regulations and regimes. Could the Minister comment on this point? What exactly are the Government doing to raise concerns with the relevant Governments?

Some of the citizens of our allies share with ISIS Wahhabi doctrines that the Shias are idolatrous apostates. A recent opinion poll in the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, which I believe is Saudi owned, indicated that 92% of Saudis replied in the affirmative to the question of whether ISIS conformed to their values of Islam and Islamic law. I was rather surprised by that and put it to a Saudi friend of mine. He said that he believed it but thought it referred not to the violence and beheadings but actually to the governance and type of polity that ISIS were introducing. Even so, that was a very revealing and alarming poll result.

Many people have bought into the fantasy that Sunni Muslims—1.3 billion out of 1.6 billion—are somehow a victimised minority. I want to talk about the Shia enfant terrible, Iran, and the nuclear talks. I know that some noble Lords and Baronesses are worried that there will be a successful outcome to those talks. I acknowledge fully the shortcomings and past misdeeds of Iran, its bad human rights record, the unacceptable threats against Israel and the support for rocket attacks through Hamas and Hezbollah. None the less, a nuclear deal is firmly in the interests of both Israel and the wider Middle East.

I did not hear the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, earlier, but for those noble Lords and Baronesses worried about a deal, I have some good news: I do not think there will be a deal at all. Mr Netanyahu and AIPAC have certainly done their best to make this very difficult. The real mistake has been for the negotiations to concentrate so single-mindedly on just the number of centrifuges, rather than on a regime of transparency and openness. It was always going to be extremely difficult to get agreement on the physical destruction of facilities that already exist.

If I am right and the deal fails, what happens then? Are we going to bomb Iran? That would spread a huge conflagration throughout the Middle East. Are we going to have more sanctions? That is what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to be indicating. What will Iran do? Will it go back to the previous level of producing more highly enriched uranium and will it stop converting enriched uranium into fuel rods?

If the talks fail, the important point is that on both sides we do not go back to the position we were in before. Even if the talks fail, something will have been gained in terms of understanding each other’s viewpoints and talking about different issues within the region. President Rouhani made some very wise remarks on this issue when he said, referring to the possibility of failure in the talks, “I want to repeat: we will not return to the past and our situation will definitely change. This is what the world wants”.

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister met President Rouhani—the first meeting with an Iranian president for well over 35 years. I gather that it was a good meeting, but I rather regretted the very aggressive comments that the Prime Minister made after President Rouhani’s studiously moderate speech condemning terrorism at the UNGA. The Prime Minister made quite an aggressive speech, the result of which was to undermine President Rouhani’s position in Iran and to lead to renewed calls in the Majles that the British embassy should definitely not be reopened. I know that the date of the reopening has been put off yet again—indeed, there is no date.

The interests of the West and those of Iran overlap in many areas but, of course, this has happened before. It happened at the time of President Khatami, when he helped with the invasion of Afghanistan by America and offered full diplomatic relations and the reining in of Hamas and Hezbollah. For his trouble, he was labelled part of the “axis of evil”. We must be careful that we do not do the same thing to President Rouhani today. Too often, the West seems to think that Iran is part of the problem and that it does not need to be part of the solution. This is wrong. Iran has been part of the problem, but it definitely also needs to be part of the solution.

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Lord Wright of Richmond (Crossbench)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby for opening this debate and I agree with everything that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said about recognising the state of Palestine. It is 15 years since the European Union agreed the Palestinian right to self-determination. When the Minister comes to wind up this debate, I hope that she will be able to give us some encouragement to believe that Her Majesty’s Government might now be prepared to follow up that important vote in the other place with formal recognition.

In my brief remarks, I propose nevertheless to concentrate on our attempt to confront the threat of the so-called Islamic State—ISIS, ISIL, or Da’ish as it is now called in an Arabic acronym—in both Iraq and Syria. Let us remember that this is something which not only threatens us in the West but also, ironically, presents a serious threat to those states in the Arabian peninsula from which much of its funding appears to have originated.

Many others, better qualified than I, tell me that air attacks on ISIS-controlled areas are having, or are likely to have, very little significant effect. One wonders whether any western military action can expect to defeat a movement which is now reported to have 60% support among young Jordanians and 90% support among Saudis, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said. I hope the Minister can tell the House whether the Syrian national coalition, described recently in a letter to me from one of her ministerial colleagues as,

“the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people”,

are playing any effective part in confronting this threat.

I believe that there are strong arguments, both security and consular, why we should now be talking to the Government in Damascus, even though, or rather because, they have been involved in appalling breaches of human rights. Yesterday’s report in the press of a 17 year-old Briton, who died as a jihadist in Syria, carried a Foreign Office comment that it was difficult to get confirmation,

“since Britain has no diplomats in Syria”.

Surely, we should be talking to not only the Government in Damascus but also their principal supporters in Moscow and Tehran, who are reported to be trying to co-ordinate their operations in Syria and Iraq. Surely, our diplomats should be talking to all three Governments about how to confront a threat which has occupied not only a significant portion of Syria’s sovereign territory but which also poses a threat, perhaps even more imminent, to Russia’s southern borders and to Iran than it does to us.

I understand the reasons why Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine makes us reluctant to be seen to enter into a dialogue with Russian diplomats on other subjects of interest to both of us. I also understand why our American allies have been reluctant to be seen to be talking to the Iranian Government about subjects other than their nuclear development. As I suggested to the Minister at Question Time today in the context of Iran, surely the threat of ISIS to all of us is serious enough to require a reassessment of our diplomacy and of where our interests lie. I hope that the Minister, when she comes to reply, will be able to give the House some reassurance on these points.

Baroness Berridge (Conservative)
My Lords, previous speeches have illustrated that this is a region of mixed news. There is good news about the second peaceful elections in Tunisia, where the Islamist party has accepted that it has lost the election. There is also good news about Egypt. Although it has a state of emergency in the Sinai and daily terrorist attacks, it is moving towards democracy again—not perfectly, as the imprisonment of journalists illustrates, but, as the Anglican Bishop Mouneer stated,

“For the first time Egyptians feel that they own their country. Every shortcoming is brought into the light by the people. Indeed the wall of fear of the government has been demolished”.

Of course, there is bad news again in Iraq. Winter is descending and the humanitarian needs are acute. While militarily arming the Kurds is the only option at the moment, it is not without risk, as Turkey with its PKK issue fears. The Iraqi army needs air strikes and the Kurds need modern weaponry, but a ground offensive to remove IS will take many months.

Is not now the time, ironically, to obtain reassurances from the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish regional government to secure a political settlement for the Iraqi minority communities in the east of the Nineveh plain? The Assyrian Christians, Turkmen and Shabak Muslims and the Yezidis are not Arab and are not Kurdish and have been a particular target for IS. There was an initial call by some in the West for a mass exodus, but this would just give IS what it wants. In fact, the leaders I have met want a safe haven so they can remain in the region. This would not be yet more unwelcome international interference, as Article 125 in Iraq’s constitution states:

“This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”.

In fact, earlier this year, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that the Iraq Council of Ministers had approved a proposal for a new province in the Nineveh plain bordering the Kurdish areas, which has—or had—the largest population of Assyrians in Iraq. This represented a state attempt to curb the exodus of Christians from Iraq and would have given them some political and economic autonomy. I would be grateful to know what representations have been made on this by Her Majesty’s Government to the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish regional government. Otherwise, there is a risk that, once IS is removed from the region, UK weapons could get into the hands of the Kurds and might be used to prevent these people returning to the Nineveh plain—an area rich in natural resources which the Kurds allegedly wish to annex.

IS is in extreme denial of Article 18 rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states, “You cannot choose your religion, you must choose ours or you die”. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group looking at Article 18. Recent developments in the region are acute reminders of how deeply religious it is and how deeply religious beliefs interact with issues of governance, conflict and security.

I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. We should heed the world renowned sociologist, Peter Berger, who was one of the leading sociologists at the forefront of advocating the secularisation thesis in the 1960s. In 1999, he recanted his earlier claims and said:

“The world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken”.

Only yesterday, the Egyptian Foreign Minister told MPs and Peers that what they need to defeat is a religious narrative given to young people—young people who at a pivotal point in their lives are forming their ideas via Twitter and Facebook. And this region is young. Nearly 37% of Iraqis are under the age of 14 and 50% of Egyptians are under the age of 24. Therefore, I very much applaud the welcome focus by Her Majesty’s Government on understanding the place of religion and religious actors in countering violent extremism. The Foreign Office has increased its responses to human rights abuses emerging from denial of freedom of religion or belief by state and non-state actors.

However, there is still a substantial gap in UK responses to issues of ethno-religious conflict not only in the Middle East but across Africa and south Asia. I sense that western Europe has woken up abruptly to religion as an intrinsic aspect of developments in the world. Have the UK Government evaluated whether their structures have the relevant expertise in analysing the dynamic relationship between religion, conflict, democracy, peace and stability so that we are equipped to offer timely policy proposals and guidance to policymakers? The Foreign Office has taken the challenge on board to engage with religion and human rights issues and offers religious literacy training to its staff. Has this model spread across our Government?

The UK’s primary agency in addressing conflicts, peace and state building, DfID, seems to be lagging behind. DfID has substantial resources and a pool of highly educated staff, and there is synergy between the Ministry of Defence, DfID and the FCO in the conflict stabilisation unit. Does this unit have the expertise, training and programming focus on how the UK should understand and respond to increasingly religious-related challenges in today’s world? Developing such a response will not add any substantial burden to either staffing or budget but would be a good step in the right direction by providing relevant training to staff and inviting external experts as advisers.

This is not an optional extra for UK engagement with the world but a grounded response to a world that is deeply religious—more than 80% of the world’s population has a religious affiliation and identity—and where religious actors, organisations, languages and ideas play a major role in preventing conflicts but also creating new ones. This speech may remind your Lordships of debates at university student unions entitled, “Does religion cause war?”, but at our peril we do not ask, or equip ourselves to answer, the converse question, “How do wars affect religions and religious people?”.

Lord Turnberg (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, very much appreciate the balanced and impressive way in which the noble Lord, Lord Risby, introduced this debate. Just as he said, the Arab spring came as a complete surprise, and the terrible winter that has followed seems to have caught most people unawares, too.

It is not impossible to imagine that we will see the establishment of an extreme fundamentalist Islamic state across a large swathe of the Middle East within a few years; and if you think that this will be dangerous for the West and a severe threat to many countries in the Middle East, then just imagine what it must mean for that 15 or 20 mile-wide narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast known as Israel.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a burning issue that desperately needs resolving but it is hard to credit the idea of some that this is the cause of all the rest of the problems in the Middle East. But it is undoubtedly the case that the rise of ISIS, the unstable situation in Egypt, and a nuclear Iran all have a marked influence on Israel and the Palestinians as they search for peace. There should be no doubt that Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbours; its future is entirely dependent on it. However, it is negotiation between the two parties that is the key there.

Even though the overall shape of what a two-state solution might look like has been clear for some time, nothing is so simple and there are many sticking points. Israeli Government settlement policies are clearly problematic and win them few friends around the world. However, it is clear that the settlement issue is not the only problem or even the main one, as we saw a couple of years ago when there was a freeze on settlements for 10 months in the vain hope that this would bring Mr Abbas back to the table and when, instead, he raised new pre-conditions. The right of return and the status of Jerusalem remain open for discussion and the inability of Mr. Abbas to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is problematic.

From Israel’s point of view it is always the three problems: security, security and security, which now is even more significant as the fundamentalist threat of ISIS looms large just a few miles away. Israelis are all too aware that withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon was immediately followed by the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, each posing considerable threats with their rockets and missiles, backed up by repeated threats to remove Israel from the face of the earth. Imagine, then, what would happen after a peace deal if Hamas gains power in the West Bank, as is entirely possible. What, too, if the long, currently peaceful, border with Jordan is changed into a severely dangerous one in which an ISIS-driven fundamentalism sweeps across Jordan? Either case would leave extremely antagonistic forces within a mile of Israel’s Parliament and its international airport.

Furthermore, Israel does not view with any equanimity the unstable position in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood overflowing into the Sinai desert along another long, exposed border with Israel. When some say, therefore, that Israel should not be so concerned with security, they clearly cannot have heard the voices of Hamas and others spewing out a rhetoric of death and destruction to Jews in general and Israel in particular. If some suggest that Israel should rely on an international peacekeeping force to act as a buffer, they have not noticed what happened when the UN forces in the Golan were captured recently and had to flee, or the ineffectiveness of the UN in southern Lebanon in preventing the build-up of huge numbers of long-range missiles in the villages there. Nor do international bodies now seem to be capable of preventing the avowed aims of Hamas to rearm and rebuild its tunnels into Israel.

Of course, Israel has its own problems, with many within Israel voicing strong opposition to government policies. But the point here is that it is a democratic, multicultural society, where almost a quarter of its population is Arab and, somewhat surprisingly, there is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood among its Arab-elected Members of Parliament. Opposing views are frequently and vehemently expressed without fear of being shot, as happened recently in Gaza when a dozen citizens were dragged out of a mosque and shot in the head for daring to voice opposition to Hamas. The terrible, tragic loss of civilian life in the recent conflict in Gaza was greeted with distress by many in Israel, but when accusations of “proportionality” are levelled, they wonder why similar accusations are not being levelled against the West when, in our efforts to bomb ISIS, we are killing large numbers of women and children in Syria and Iraq. Where is the proportionality there—or, indeed, in Kosovo a few years ago?

Israeli society is far from uniform and has very mixed views about its conflict with the Palestinians. However, the vast majority believe that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, and that can happen only through negotiation with Israel. After all, each party is most concerned with what their neighbour will look like; where their borders will be; whether they will choose conflict or peace; or what position they will adopt about Jerusalem. Only negotiation with Israel will do it. It is negotiation that we should be pressing on both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, not encouraging a vain search for a status from a world that is in no position to grant it.

We in the UK should be seeking allies in the Middle East that Britain sorely needs. What conversations are our Government having with the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Saudi Arabians about their reactions to the jihadi threats? Qatar seems to be playing a particularly cynical and dangerous role in all this mix and mayhem. What reassurances did the Prime Minister receive in his recent conversations with the Emir of Qatar about the funding of terrorist groups in ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah?

I hope that the Minister will expand on these questions and on the Government’s position on the Palestine and Israel negotiations.

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