My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for initiating this debate. Although the Motion refers to the Middle East, my contribution will include developments in North Africa. I have visited some of the countries in those areas and have personal knowledge of the situation in these countries.
Noble Lords will recognise that the Middle East and North Africa are commonly referred to as MENA. Therefore, I cannot discuss the former without making reference to the latter. It is vital that Her Majesty’s Government should continue to highlight and condemn instances of violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their beliefs, wherever, and whenever, they occur. To that end, I fully support the work of the Arab Partnership.
The Arab spring heralded a new era for many citizens who were living under oppressive regimes. However, it has led to unfortunate consequences that have permeated neighbouring countries; namely, Mali. Tuareg rebels now control two-thirds of Mali, due to the provision of weapons following Colonel Gaddafi’s downfall. Algeria has just celebrated 50 years of independence, which has seen increased foreign investment to the nation in recent years. Libya’s first democratic election has been won by the former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who led Libya’s National Transitional Council last year. The composition of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia occurred with little controversy. I hope that the elections in Tunisia scheduled for next year follow that trend.
Although both the elections in Libya and Egypt were reported to have been relatively peaceful, like most noble Lords, I am concerned with the perceived power struggle between President Morsi and the Special Council of the Armed Forces. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to resolve that tension?
There are many positive developments to highlight in this debate about solidarity among nations in the region. I would now like to discuss the positive points, as the situation is good in certain areas. Bahrain appears to be successfully positioning itself as the Gulf’s shipping centre, following the opening of the Khalifa port and the Bahrain logistics zone. Oman is a founding member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force, which was established in 2004. Since Oman’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2000, a substantial improvement in its investment environment and regulatory framework has occurred. The 2006 free trade agreement with America resulted in the adoption of International Labour Organisation regulations, further encouraging international investment in Oman. I may add that Oman is important to us strategically and it is our friend.
Reports in the Saudi media last month claimed that Saudi Arabia had rehabilitated an old Iraqi oil line, which could serve as an alternative route to the Strait of Hormuz, should tension increase with Iran. Bahrain and Qatar have engaged in joint economic initiatives such as the proposed friendship bridge project, which would link the two countries. Both nations are also thought to be in discussion about construction of a subsea pipeline to supply natural gas from Qatar to Bahrain. In February 2010, the Emir of Qatar issued a decree which allowed the Minister of Business and Trade to waive the 49% foreign ownership cap in the tourism, natural resources, health, education and consulting sectors. I support this policy as it reflects a desire to attract further foreign investment.
The vast majority of nations in the Middle East are enjoying peace and prosperity. However, Iran and Syria unfortunately do not follow this trend. Iran is in clear defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions that call for the suspension of its uranium enrichment programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed concerns about the potential military implications of Iran’s nuclear programme. As such, I welcome the EU’s sanctions against Iran as a means of urging the regime to review its stance. We need to deal with the situation by the application of stringent sanctions and by negotiations. I do not favour any form of military action. What are my noble friend the Minister’s views on military intervention?
I am pleased that Russia has softened its position towards Syria by calling for a three-month extension of the UN monitoring mission, which is scheduled to end on 20 July. Yesterday the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, defected to join the revolution against al-Assad’s regime. His is the second high-profile defection since the uprising began 16 months ago. The Republican Guard’s Brigadier-General Manaf defected last week. These two defections suggest that support for President Assad’s regime is diminishing. I welcome Russia’s decision to suspend defence co-operation with Syria. Russia has blocked two United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria to date.
Last week, Hillary Clinton urged Russia and China to join Britain, America and France to put pressure on Assad’s regime. In May this year, 108 people were killed in the Houla massacre, 49 of whom were children.
More killings occurred yesterday. Kofi Annan’s Geneva initiative does not demand the removal of Assad. It is therefore unpalatable to the Syrian opposition. Reports suggest that more than 17,000 persons have lost their lives since the uprising began 16 months ago. The US Secretary of State has also called for “real and immediate consequences” for non-compliance with Annan’s peace plan.
Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, has expressed his intention to join any effort to end the bloodshed in Syria. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are providing arms and funds to the Free Syrian Army. Qatar played an important role in providing military and financial support during and after the Arab spring to countries in the Middle East and north African region. Qatar was a founding member of the Gulf Co-operation Council in 1981 and hosts a large American military base. Qatar also has the highest GDP per capita in the world, which is growing at a faster rate than that of any other nation. Qatar successfully acted as a mediator between Yemen’s Government and the Houthi rebels. We should be making more efforts towards further engagement with Qatar in all areas.
Last week I spoke about us undertaking more trade with overseas countries. With regard to the Middle East, there are favourable situations in certain countries and we must make use of these opportunities and do more business in the region. The Middle East is blessed with great mineral wealth and a vibrant culture. However, challenges lie ahead for peace in the region. It is up to Britain, alongside our international allies, to demonstrate leadership in efforts to help the region and achieve lasting peace.