Saudi Arabia’s attitude to human rights cannot be changed overnight, the government’s minister for the Middle East has claimed, arguing that any progress would need to “move at a pace that is acceptable to [the country’s] society”.
Tobias Ellwood, who is parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, said the Saudi government was well aware of the British government’s disapproval of human rights abuses by the country.
The minister had already come under fire from opposition parties for initially describing the announcement of Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people, including the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as “disappointing”. The British Foreign Office later issued a tougher message calling for restraint on all sides.
The executions sparked protests in Shia-dominated Iran, where the Saudi embassy was stormed. This led to the Saudis breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran, followed by Bahrain and Sudan.
Called to make a statement to MPs on the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Ellwood said: “Founded just under 100 years ago, Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country and we recognise change cannot happen overnight. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and as such needs to move at a pace that is acceptable to its society.”
The shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, said the minister was right to refer to the importance of the two countries’ cooperation on counter-terrorism and tackling the threat from Isis. “But in a region that is already in ferment, with the brutal civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the threat from Daesh [Isis], the minister must surely recognise that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other people has caused a major diplomatic and political crisis,” said Benn.
“On this side of the House we believe that the Saudi government was profoundly wrong to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric, and three young Shia men whose alleged offences appear to have involved taking part in political protests and demonstrations against the current government.
“The House will have noticed that neither the prime minister’s comment nor the minister’s statement today mentioned Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by name and I say… that is a matter of great regret.”
Benn repeated Labour calls for the government to publish the memorandum of understanding signed by the UK justice secretary, Michael Gove, and the Saudi minister of justice on 10 September 2014.
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