Liz Truss failed to single out one occasion when she challenged a Gulf country over human rights abuses — despite promising to hold its leaders accountable.
MPs challenged – as the UK seeks to strike a controversial trade deal with a bloc of six countries including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – the foreign secretary has been unable to support the claim that she raises concerns.
Ms Truss told the Foreign Affairs Committee that she would have to provide details at a later date of the “exact timing” when Gulf leaders were challenged over human rights abuses.
“Can’t you remember a single human rights issue you raised with the leader of the Gulf states?” asked Chris Bryant, a Labor member of the committee, noting that the government thinks it’s “good to do business” provided one country doesn’t invade another country.
But Ms Truss defended opening talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council, saying the need for “alternative energy sources” to counter Russia should be the priority.
“We are not dealing in a perfect world. We are dealing in a world where we need to make difficult decisions,” she told the committee.
Bryant indicated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was held responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and that the country had recently executed 81 people in one day.
But Ms Truss described Saudi Arabia as an “important partner for the UK”, adding: “I think it is right that we build that close trading relationship with the Gulf states.”
She added: “Is every country we work with fully in line with UK policy in everything? no they are not. But they are important allies of the United Kingdom.”
Ms Truss also emphasized that the primary objective of the UK’s foreign aid had shifted from poverty alleviation to “geopolitics” and the challenge of the growing threat to China.
The secretary of state said her new strategy focuses on “promoting freedom and democracy around the world” in order to “challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”
Truss also denied French allegations that the UK is interested in joining the loose new “European Political Community” grouping, which Emmanuel Macron has been pursuing.
The French president claimed that Boris Johnson was enthusiastic at their meeting at the weekend, but told the committee “It’s not true. We didn’t agree.”
Instead, the UK has bilateral agreements with EU countries and views the G7 as Britain’s main economic alliance after Brexit, she said.
Ms Truss said the government was still considering confiscating the assets of Russia’s sanctioned oligarchs – an idea first floated in February – with the proceeds going to victims of the Ukrainian invasion.
She said she agreed with the “concept” but was still working on how to “get the details right.”