Visit report Saudi Arabia 2012
Saudi Arabia briefing visit 2-3rd December 2012
Report by the Director General
On 16th July 2012 the U K Defence Forum briefing debate called “Saudi Arabia : Unawakened?” which was addressed by a fierce critic of Saudi Arabia, Professor Madawi al_Rasheed of King’s College London (http://www.madawialrasheed.org/) and Sir William Patey, a retired Ambassador. An interesting debate transpired between female MPs who had visited Saudi Arabia and the Professor, who hasn’t been there for nearly 20 years, about what’s really happening and the country’s intentions.
Subsequently the U K Defence Forum was asked if it would assemble a small multi-Party group of MPs and Peers to make a short visit to Riyadh, the capital, at the invitation of the Majalis ash Shura, and paid for by the Saudi Arabia Government. Although U K Defence Forum events are held under the Chatham House rule, in the light of the declarations in the Parliamentary Registers of Interests by participants, this short report has been prepared for publication.
Before leaving a briefing was provided by the UK Ministry of Defence along with senior officials from the Foreign Office and the Business Ministry on the current state of relations.
The party traveled to Saudi Arabia overnight on Saturday 1st December, landing early on the morning of Sunday 2nd December. Our first meeting that morning was at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs who are responsible for arranging local elections. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that women will not just be given the vote but will also be able to stand as candidates for the first time.
We were taken to the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies which is rescuing and restoring written materials which are important to broader Islamic culture so that they could be made more widely available to scholars. We had an extended discussion about continuity and change with its chairman Prince Turki, the youngest son of the late King Faisal and a former Ambassador to the UK. Our Embassy in Riyadh hosted a private dinner that evening for members of the Majilis ash Shura – the (all appointed single chamber) Saudi Arabia Parliament, who had invited us.
Next day, Monday 3rd December, we were invited to visit the Majilis. In the course of that we met with many members of the Saudi-UK Friendship Group - the equivalent of the Saudi All Party Parliamentary Group in Parliament. It was notable that this group were extensively educated, many having spent time at UK and US universities. Like all our meetings, this was conducted entirely in English without interpreters. The Majilis ash Shura is dismissed by critics as toothless. Our observation would put it on a par with the House of Lords in terms of roles, but with a much higher rate of attendance and participation. Unless one is actually there one cannot see how debates are conducted and how the King’s (Government’s) decrees are based on their advice.
We spent some time talking about education of men and women. We were told that a higher percentage of girls than boys are now undergoing education in the country. Around 40% of those going abroad to study are women, and although education is still segregated billions of dollars have been spent to create university places for them In Saudi Arabia too. Opportunities for British educational institutions and perhaps even the NHS were highlighted in discussion. Attached is a speech previously given by the Ambassador to the UK which includes a substantial passage on educational ambitions.
Can we believe what Saudi Arabia says about the need to change as quickly as its society will allow? We were told that the Majilis was coming towards the end of its term and that 20% of its members in future would be women. (Afterword : In February 2013 the King issued an order which makes it so, and the new women have been sworn in. This evolving Parliament now has a greater proportion of women members than the House of Commons.)
Next we met with the Saudi Foreign Minister to discuss regional issues. A report on the Saudi Arabia attitude to Syria was written and published on the U K Defence Forum blog while we were still in-country It’s at http://www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk/administrator/index.php?option=com_content§ionid=-1&task=edit&cid=4008
Such outspokenness might be interpreted as Prince Saud trying to pass an important message informally to the British Government.
We met the Finance Minister and had dinner with the Saudi Arabia General Investment Agency where inter alia we spoke about Saudi Arabia’s development plans for new Economic Cities and potential roles for UK companies. Defence was only mentioned in passing – there was a clear wish to decrease Saudi Arabia’s dependence on such purchases and oil sales for economic growth.
Amongst this programme of meetings we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia which gave us a rapid overview of the history of Saudi Arabia from the Stone Age to the emergence of the modern unified Kingdom just over 80 years ago (including the story of the Prophet Mohammed)
The next morning Tuesday 4th December we were up early to head for the airport so that, allowing for time differences, MPs were able to be back in the House of Commons by mid afternoon to take part in early evening votes.
Photographs were taken and are posted on Facebook (look up U K Defence Forum)
We went to Saudi Arabia to see and to listen as much as to speak on a wide variety of topics which would lead to greater mutual understanding. We were received and treated with respect and responded with courtesy. Because Parliamentarians were unable to give more time to the trip we couldn’t do everything we wished to, and unfortunately our slot with the Defence Minister was ceded to our own Secretary of State for Defence in the national interest when he made a short notice visit to the country.