Liz Truss hasn’t named a single occasion where she has challenged a Gulf state over human rights abuses – despite promising to hold its leaders to account.
Questioned by MPs – as the UK seeks to strike a controversial trade deal with a six-nation bloc including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – the Foreign Secretary was unable to substantiate a claim according to which it raises concerns.
Ms Truss told the Foreign Affairs Committee she is expected to provide details later on the “precise moment” the Gulf leaders were challenged over the human rights abuses.
“Can’t you remember a single human rights issue you raised with a leader of a Gulf state?” asked Chris Bryant, a Labor member of the committee, suggesting the government thinks it’s “good to do business” as long as one country hasn’t invaded another.
But Ms Truss defended opening talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), arguing that the need for “alternative energy sources” to counter Russia must be the priority.
“We are not dealing in a perfect world. We live in a world where we have to make tough decisions,” she told the committee.
Mr Bryant pointed out that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, was held responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and that the country recently executed 81 people in a single day.
But Ms Truss described Saudi Arabia as “an important partner for the UK”, adding: “I think it is right that we build this closer trading relationship with the Gulf states”.
She added: “Is every country we work with exactly in line with UK policy on everything? No they are not. But they are important allies of the UK.
Ms Truss also confirmed that the main focus of UK foreign aid spending has shifted from poverty alleviation to “geopolitics” and tackling the growing threat from China.
Its new strategy focuses on “promoting freedom and democracy around the world” to “challenging China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” the foreign secretary said.
Ms Truss also denied French claims that the UK was interested in joining a loose new group of “European political community”, pursued by Emmanuel Macron.
The French president claimed Boris Johnson was enthusiastic during their weekend meeting, but she told the committee ‘That’s not true. We did not give our consent. »
The UK instead strikes bilateral deals with EU countries and sees the G7 as Britain’s key post-Brexit economic alliance, she said.