HC Deb 26 October 1955 vol 545 cc198-201
The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in South-East Arabia.

The House may recall that on 28th July, 1954, I reported that agreement had been reached with the Saudi Arabian Government to submit the Buraimi frontier dispute to arbitration. I expressed the hope that this agreement would enable us to resume the traditionally friendly relations between Her Majesty's Government and the Saudi Arabian Government.

I am sorry to have to tell the House that these hopes have been disappointed. The proceedings before the Arbitration Tribunal at Geneva have broken down and the British member of the Tribunal and its Belgian President have resigned. The reasons for these events were explained in detail in a statement issued by the Foreign Office on 4th October. I have just learned that Dr. Dihigo, one of the two remaining members of the Tribunal appointed as a neutral, has also resigned.

For many years, Her Majesty's Government sought to reach an agreement in these matters by negotiating with the Saudi Arabian Government. These efforts led only to steadily increased Saudi claims against the territory of two Arab Rulers, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Muscat. Finally, in August, 1952, in the region of Buraimi, the Saudi official Turki bin Ataishan, after passing through the territory of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, invaded the territory of the Sultan of Muscat and established himself in a village belonging to the Sultan.

Despite this provocative act, Her Majesty's Government continued to seek a solution by peaceful means, and dissuaded those local leaders who wished to meet force by force. For two years Turki remained in Buraimi, seeking to extend Saudi influence in the area. In 1954, Her Majesty's Government advised the two Arab Rulers to submit their case to arbitration. An Arbitration Agreement was drawn up which it was hoped would lead to a settlement and to more friendly relations.

The Saudi Arabian authorities have systematically disregarded the conditions of arbitration which were then agreed upon. The "police" group which they were permitted to keep in the Buraimi Oasis for the sole purpose of maintaining law and order was, in fact, led by political officers who persistently exceeded their functions. Bribery and intimidation on a wide scale have taken place in the disputed areas, with the result that it is no longer possible, I regret to say, to estimate where the loyalties of the inhabitants lay before Turki's armed incursion. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Muscat have scrupulously observed the conditions of arbitration which Her Majesty's Government, in good faith, recommended to them. They have had to stand by and watch their subjects being suborned, and the outcome of the arbitration itself being gravely prejudiced in advance. A fair and impartial arbitration is not possible in such circumstances.

These facts, combined with the conduct of the Saudi Government in relation to the Tribunal itself, have led Her Majesty's Government to conclude that the Saudi Arabian Government are no more willing now to reach an equitable solution by arbitration than they were previously by negotiation. Their actions and conduct amount to a repudiation of the Arbitration Agreement, and have made a continuation of the arbitration impossible.

Her Majesty's Government have, therefore, felt obliged, in the exercise of their duty, to protect the legitimate interests of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Muscat, to advise them that the attempt to reach a just compromise by means of arbitration has failed. The forces of these Rulers, supported by the Trucial Oman levies, have accordingly this morning taken steps to resume their previous control of the Buraimi Oasis, and areas to the west of it.

My latest information is that the Saudi force has been evacuated from the Buraimi Oasis, its only casualties being two men slightly wounded. They are being cared for by our forces.

Her Majesty's Government and the Rulers concerned have no doubt that, as a matter of law, they would be entitled to regard as a fair frontier between the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia the line many in this House know as the 1952 line, claimed in their recent Memorial before the Tribunal. However, while fully reserving their legal rights in that respect Her Majesty's Government have decided with the agreement of the Rulers, in order to act in as reasonable and conciliatory a manner as possible, to declare and uphold a line which is more favourable to Saudi Arabia. In 1935, when the present dispute may be said to have crystallised, a line, which is known as the Riyadh Line, was put forward by Her Majesty's Government. It involved substantial concessions to the Saudi Arabians. This line was further modified in 1937 in favour of Saudi Arabia and it is this modified line that we are now declaring as the frontier. The Saudia Arabian Government are being informed of these decisions.

I regret that this step should have been necessary. But, as negotiations and arbitration have both failed, we have no other means of honouring our obligations and standing by our friends. I hope that in time the Saudi Arabian Government will accept the solution that we have had to declare. Her Majesty's Government are ready at all times to discuss with the Saudi Arabian Government any minor rectifications of the line which may seem convenient in the light of local circumstances.

Mr. Attlee

It would appear that it was quite impossible to have a fair arbitration and I think that that is evidenced by the retirement of the neutral members. In those circumstances, we have no option but to stand firm and to say that we cannot have these things broken by force.

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bellenger

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether there are any British troops in the area and, if so, whether they are likely to be involved in this dispute?

The Prime Minister

I would rather not say anything about our military dispositions at this moment, for obvious reasons. Operations are now being carried out by the Trucial Oman levies which, as the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) probably knows, are Arab troops with some British officers. I would rather not go beyond that. Up to the present I have had no information on any casualties among these levies, but I have not heard any details.