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Former senior UK MPs discuss Saudi crises in MEMO conference

Guests included Lord Paddy Ashdown, Jack Straw and Clare Short

Senior British politicians, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, took part in a conference tackling the current situation in Saudi Arabia hosted by the Middle East Monitor yesterday.

Straw, who was foreign secretary for five years under Tony Blair’s government, gave a speech on the current crises in the Kingdom and fielded questions on some of his controversial decisions, including the invasion of Iraq and the designation of Palestinian political movement Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Straw intimated that the Labour government’s decision under Blair to politically marginalise Hamas was a mistake and his opposition against the Palestinian resistance group’s designation as a terror organisation, he suggested, may have been the reason for his dismissal in 2006 from his role as foreign secretary on the request of US President George W Bush.

The Labour MP had been invited to give the keynote address at the MEMO event, where a number of senior British MP’s including Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, academics, political analysts and human rights activists had gathered to shed light on Saudi’s drive to reform; its strategic importance in the Middle East and Muslim world; examine the fault-lines, contradictions and tensions in Saudi society; analyse the impact of the Arab Spring and assess The Kingdom’s foreign adventures and their consequences.

In the opening speech, Director of MEMO, Dr Daud Abdullah, described Saudi Arabia’s move towards greater assertiveness and its role in spearheading the counterrevolution against the democratic tide that swept the region in 2011.

The conference got underway with a keynote address delivered by Paddy Ashdown. The veteran MP and former Royal Marines officer, who also served in an international mediation effort in the Balkans, gave a cautionary speech warning against the hasty rush towards war. He said the region was undergoing a “watershed moment” and advised the West against “stoking up confrontations”.

Ashdown  said that “it [is] very clear that war crimes have been committed in the conflict in Yemen” and took a swipe at Number Ten saying”Britain’s silence on these matters is thunderous and shaming.

Read: Saudi Arabia ‘a threat’ to Lebanon says former UK FM Jack Straw

During the first panel discussion, Saudi Professor, Madawi Al-Rasheed, who is a visiting lecturer at the London School of Economics, traced her country’s transformation “from a multiple fiefdom to an absolute monarchy” under Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Panelists in the first session described Saudi Arabia as a country “weighed down by contradictions” and unraveled the complex religious, political, tribal and economic composition of the Kingdom.

A lively Q&A followed in which a member of the audience, who described himself as being “pro-Saudi regime” accused the organisers of bias in failing to invite somebody to provide an alternative point of view. MEMO clarified that a number of pro-Saudi regime figures, including officials in the embassy and elsewhere, were invited but they had failed to respond or attend the conference.

The second panel, chaired by former Labour Minster for International Development Clare Short discussed the human rights abuse in the Kingdom and shed light onto the reforms of Bin Salman.

Thirty-two-year-old Bin Salman’s overhaul of the country’s economy and his recent “crackdown on corruption”, was authorised  “for his own personal enrichment”, explained Bill Law who has reported extensively from the Arabian Gulf.

Award-winning journalist and author Hugh Miles exposed the Saudi government’s secret programme to kidnap Saudi defectors and dissidents living in Europe said the purge was an attempt by Bin Salman to consolidate power.

“They particularly wanted to get rid of Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah because he was a potential threat to the regime. He was the head of the national guard,” Miles explained.

Questioning the intentions of the purge, he quoted German Chancellor Angela Merkel who once said: “No one defends the Saudis without being bribed.”

Saudi national Yahya Assiri gave a revealing presentation on Saudi Arabia’s use of anti-terror laws, to suppress dissidents and all political opposition. Assiri, who heads a human rights organisation which monitors Saudi’s attacks on freely of speech and expression, applied for political asylum in the UK in 2014.

Saudi’s Vision 2030, a project designed to overhaul the country’s economy and wean itself off oil was the main topic of discussion in the third and final session. Two economists listed the challenges facing the Kingdom and the perilous road ahead in its path towards economic reform.

Read: UK ex-foreign secretary Straw hints he was sacked after urging Hamas dialogue

In the final session, Straw gave the second keynote address. The former foreign secretary was skeptical about Bin Salman’s reform agenda. Describing the country as being “intellectually impoverished” and weighed by contradictions and poverty, he went on to mention the Kingdom’s military spending, which was one of the highest in the world.

“It has five times the defence spending of the Iranians even though it has 1/5 of the population. The Saudi economy is the least diversified in the GCC and it is the fifth worst authoritarian government in the world,” he said.

Straw, however, said he would not back an all out ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “I wouldn’t back a complete ban of arms sales on Saudi, I’d do it on a case-by-case basis and I’d back the government in looking for a resolution to the conflict,” he said.

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