HC Deb 31 May 1968 vol 765 cc2389-413

2.35 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

My purpose, Mr. Speaker, in raising this subject on the Adjournment is to draw attention to the dangerous state of affairs in the Middle East and the apparent incapacity of the Western Powers to adapt their policies, as speedily and effectively as they should, to deal with the situation; and also to the long-term adverse effects which increasing Russian influence in the area could have on British interests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths), if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will deal with a number of aspects which I will not touch upon.

Soviet naval activity is one manifestation of this open and increasing influence. I do not look upon the Soviet naval presence as presenting a major threat to our trading routes. It is the political threat inherent in such a presence, and its causes, which should be examined; not the mere fact that part of the Soviet naval capability happens to be deployed in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean at a particular moment in peacetime, although I would like to have from the Minister more information about this activity than has so far been made available.

By saying that this threat is political, I mean that the Soviets have acquired a new means of influencing events in the Middle East. The cheque book is now backed up by the gunboat, and this development could prove a powerful booster for those elements in each country which are most hostile to Western interests.

When presenting his credentials to the President of South Yemen, the new Soviet Ambassador stated that South Yemen's victory of liberation would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the development of the liberation movements of other peoples in the Arabian Peninsula.

One motive for the Soviet Union's increasing interest in the Gulf could be that Russia has growing oil requirements; and it has been pointed out that by the 1970s it is likely that she will be needing significant quantities of oil from outside her own borders.

Mr. David Barran

, the Chairman of Shell, recently said that by establishing herself in the Middle Eastern oil scene, Russia would not only be strengthening the hand of local national oil companies vis-a-vis the Western private companies, she would also be taking steps to ensure that at least part of her expected future needs from outside Russia will be there to draw upon when she wants them". But the most significant fact is that the Soviet Union has found it increasingly easy to pursue its aim in the Middle East. We should, therefore, look beneath the surface and establish why it is that Soviet influence and military presence are being actively welcomed by some Arab countries, being passively tolerated by others, and not openly criticised even by those who seriously fear them.

The answer, or certainly one of the principal answers is not hard to find for those who wish to do so. It lies in the confusion and bitterness caused in the Arab world by the so far unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict: because of the fact that almost exactly a year after the end of the five day war of June, 1967, Israel is still occupying the whole of the West Bank of Jordan and Jerusalem; that is troops remain on the Suez Canal; that over 300,000 new refugees are still encamped in makeshift tents on the overcrowded east bank of Jordan, and that they have not been allowed to return to their homes; that the United Nations Resolutions of July, 1967, on Jerusalem have been ignored; and that the United Nations Resolution of November, 1967, sponsored by Britain and unanimously passed by the Security Council, remains unimplemented.

It is true that in "real politique" terms Israel's present attitude is perfectly understandable. She won the war, and she is greatly stronger than the Arabs. She therefore expects the normal laurels of a conqueror, but the Israeli situation is not a normal one.

What has happened in Palestine during the last 50 years—the progressive displacement of the indigenous population —is almost unique. Sooner or later, the Israelis have to decide to live amongst the people of the Middle East. To rely upon indefinite American support would not be far-sighted. For Israel increasingly to alienate not only the countries around her, but the countries beyond them, seems foolhardy. It would be an illusion, however, to believe that Israel has not done precisely that, and more Arabs and more Arab States now feel themselves threatened by an expanding Israel.

Anybody who still believes that Arab hostility is confined to the periphery should visit Kuwait. Since the war the Kuwaitis have not merely given large financial aid to Egypt and Jordan additional to the long standing and enlightened aid programme channelled through the Arab Development Fund, they are politically involved and are playing a significant rôle in Arab affairs.

Moreover, they have worked hard to improve relations between this country and other Arab States ever since the June crisis of last year, and I should like to pay tribute to their efforts in this direction What the Israelis need above all is peace, and acceptance by their neighbours. Their conduct since last June has made that acceptance less, not more likely. The Israelis expect the Arabs to pay for defeat. The Arabs expect the Israelis to pay for peace and acceptance.

Behind all that, one incontrovertible fact remains, that British interests, and indeed Western interests, are complementary to Arab interests. It is not a British interest that the Suez Canal should remain indefinitely closed. It is not a British, nor indeed a Western interest that the Arab States should be driven increasingly towards the Communist Powers for help and encouragement, because these alone appear to show them understanding.

Again, for instance, the Soviet Ambassador to the South Yemen, when presenting his credentials, reiterated that the Soviet Union stood firmly by the Arab countries in their just struggle for the withdrawal of Israel from occupied Arab territories.

It is overwhelmingly a British interest, economically and politically, that relations with the Arab States should be improved, and that mutual understanding should grow. Britain to some very considerable extent has appreciated this obvious fact, and has adjusted her policies accordingly. Indeed, relations between Britain and the Arab countries have greatly improved since June, 1967. In the Gulf our policy has been less far-sighted, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds will be able to refer to that. The United States, on the other hand, apparently mesmerised by the power of the Zionist vote, has totally failed to do so, although many of her more able diplomats have pointed out the reality of the situation, and the need to adapt United States policy to it.

The Americans, however, seem prepared to continue pursuing policies contrary to their interests and the interests of the West. Because they are prepared or able to commit this folly, there is certainly no reason why we should do the same. Quite apart from anything else, the American investment in the Middle East is quite marginal to their economy, while our investment, so far from being marginal, is crucial. I should like to hear something from the Minister about the progress of the Jarring Mission, and any alternative policy the Government may have in the event of its failure.

Soviet naval presence is a symptom of a much more serious illness. I wish to be assured that British policy will maintain the right priorities in the Middle East, namely, to put British interests first.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that this debate must end at 3.45 p.m. There are three back bench Members who wish to speak before the Front Bench intervenes. If they make reasonably brief speeches they will all be called.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on raising this subject, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not go into the detail that he did about the Arab-Israeli dispute, but, rather, address myself to the presence of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, because I believe that this has important strategic implications for this country.

This is not the first time that the Russians have taken an interest in the Mediterranean since the end of the war. In fact, one can trace a Russian interest in the area back to Peter the Great. I should like, therefore, to approach the problem in historical terms, and to ask two questions: first, whether the Russian presence in the Middle East is for defensive purposes of the Russian mainland, which has been the historical trend, or—and this is my second question—it represents a new threat to the area, whether it has an aggressive intent.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that the Russians now see the advantages of using their new fleet for diplomatic purposes, that is to say, where there is a naval presence it is easy to interfere, or to apply one's strength at a vital time to reap diplomatic advantage. As the hon. Gentleman said, the presence of the Russian fleet at a time of dispute between Israel and the Arab world can accrue immense diplomatic benefits for Russia.

On the other hand, there are some disturbing signs that the Russians intend to use their fleet for reasons other than diplomatic initiatives, although I think that they will take every opportunity— economic, political and strategic—to use their fleet as an arm of their overall policy.

If one looks at the composition of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, one finds that they are building up an amphibious force, and even resurrecting a marine corps, which presumably could be used overtly for intervening in any area in which they felt it would be useful. We cannot afford to be complacent about the Russian presence in the Middle East, and yet I fear that if we react too hastily we may encourage an immense build-up of naval power in the Mediterranean. In fact, we may encourage a naval arms race.

There is a certain amount of imprecise information and contradiction about the strength of the Russian fleet. In an article in the Spectator, Professor Laurence Martin said: Some of the recent Press accounts of Soviet policy are clearly inspired by naval lobbyists and patently exaggerated; missiles with a range of 10 miles are equated with those of hundreds, and aged cruisers are presented as fierce new contenders for naval supremacy. In an article in the Time magazine of 23rd February it was said: Unlike the United States and Britain, both of which emerged from World War II with large surface fleets, Russia had to start practically from scratch after the war. The result: while 60 Per cent. of the U.S. fleet consists of ships 25 years old or older, the Soviet navy's surface fleet is sleek and modern. The first question is whether it is possible to give a more accurate account of the kind of surface fleet that the Soviets have in the Mediterranean. My view, based on such information as is published, is that the combined Western fleets at the moment are far superior, both in tonnage and in firepower, to the Russian fleet at present active in the area.

Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I regret that, owing to a misunderstanding, I arrived here late. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he thinks about the Soviet fleet's penetration of the Persian Gulf?

Mr. Williams

I said in my opening remarks that I placed great significance in the fact that the Soviet fleet is now active in these areas. On the other hand, there is a tendency by some naval lobbyists to argue that the intensified Russian naval activity represents a new and aggressive Soviet bid for supremacy at sea. The House should be careful before accepting that proposition too easily. This policy represents a new departure.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester) rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot discourage interventions, but I am trying to get four speakers into the next ten or 15 minutes.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. He will know that Fleet Admiral Gorshkov, head of the Soviet Navy, has a declared philosophy that it is essential to rival Western fleets throughout the oceans of the world.

Mr. Williams

I shall be referring to what the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy has said. Nevertheless, this represents a departure in Russian policy and it would be fruitless to ignore that Russia is pursuing an active policy of penetration in the Middle East and will seize every opportunity for the extension of her influence.

About 40 Soviet ships are now regularly deployed in the Mediterranean. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy has made a boast that it will be only a matter of time before the Russian fleet exceeds the power of the United States fleet. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to credit Russia with the skill and power to threaten our existence, and to see the Russian presence in the Mediterranean as a calculated plot to outflank our laboriously constructed defence in Europe.

Russian naval preoccupation at sea is still perhaps defensive in response to the United States seaborne nuclear strike force, and it would be churlish to ignore the influence of the Chinese-Russian dispute upon Russian policy. There is a trend at work which forces the Russians to look potenially more militant than they actually are.

Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency, and I hope that my hon. Friend will assure the House that now that we intend to withdraw from the Far East in 1971 and to reduce our forces in the Persian Gulf, those forces will be redeployed in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, since it is essential that there should be a Western response in this area, but not to the point at which we encourage a naval arms race.

Mr. Speaker

We now have 20 minutes before the Front Benches intervene. There are three hon. Members to call.

2.55 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

I thought that we had an hour, Mr. Speaker, so I shall be even briefer than I had intended. I came here to congratulate my hon. Friend upon raising this subject, which is of first-class importance to all of us in this country. In what is going on in the rest of the world, we tend to forget that this problem has continued for a long time.

I maintain my interest in it, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) has sustained for over 20 years in the House. I shall not go back on the mistakes that we made in the past. We have all made them. We now have to face the situation because, as time goes on, it does not get better. The hon. Member for Horn-church (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) said that he did not think that the Russians were aggressive in the area. I believe that if we leave a vacuum, which we have done in parts of the world, people like the Russians are likely to move in, especially in the oil-producing areas, in view of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) that the Russians look like being net importers of oil in the early 1970s.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

It was not my intention to say that the Russians were not aggressive. I said that I was not sure.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

I take the hon. Member's point.

All this goes back to the fact that we have this continual Arab-Israeli dispute in the Middle East. It has been of some interest to those of us who go to the Western European Assembly to know that Western Europe now looks to this area not because of any interest in Israel, but because it is interested in the continuing flow of oil from that area. Because of that there will be an increasing interest in what is going on there.

What the Government might propose to do about what is happening in the Middle East I do not expect the Undersecretary to tell us in detail now, because this is clearly a moment for confidential diplomacy, through the United Nations and elsewhere, to try to reach a compromise over the various outstanding issues. When I played a rather small part in trying to deal with this problem the Jordan waters seemed the easiest part. Now, following the developments last year, that seems in large part to have been taken care of.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether it is possible to involve the World Bank in this matter. The Bank did a marvellous job in settling the Indus waters dispute between India and Pakistan, and it would be a very constructive effort. The problem of refugees is the greatest human problem, which continues and perhaps grows. A settlement of the Jordan waters dispute could do a certain amount to help in that direction by providing the area with food.

The closing of the canal has a greater effect on countries abroad than here. By building up agreement on one or two points, we may be able to work towards the final settlement to which we all look forward.

Compromise is not an attribute of the Semitic people, in the many areas in which I have worked with them. Sometimes we forget that both sides in this dispute are Semitic people. It is a form that we have got used to. If a solution to this problem is to be produced it will require of certain leaders in the area the courage to compromise, which some have tried to effect in the last 20 years. Time has not made this easier, and I hope that the Under-Secretary can tell us that he hopes, if he cannot specify it in details, that we may see some constructive results before too long.

2.59 p.m.

Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

I welcome the opportunity of making a brief contribution to the debate on this very important subject. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West-bury (Mr. Walters) has had the opportunity to raise it.

Everyone will agree that the fundamental changes in the political pattern in the Middle East during the last year have highlighted the very great importance of British foreign policy being coherent and consistent. I greatly regret that I cannot say that it has been either.

I want to refer briefly to a few ways in which the Soviet Union is exploiting the new and vulnerable situation in the Middle East. The result of the Arab-Israel war was a severe blow to Soviet prestige, but already great strides have been made in restoring the military situation. The Soviet Government has re-equipped the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces to at least three-quarters of their pre-war level. This meant a great many arms.

Russian naval activity has been referred to, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us more about it. I have been checking on a few of the figures which are known, and find that in 1967, before the June war, 45 Soviet men-of-war were sailing in the Mediterranean, and that after the June war more than twice that number, over 100, have been sailing in the Mediterranean. This is a very significant increase. It applies to minelayers, gunboats, survey ships and other craft.

Pravda said recently: Soviet Hags in the Mediterranean Sea are one in the eye for imperialists. The Russians mean what they say.

The First Deputy Head of the Soviet Navy, Mr. Kasatonov, said in July, 1967, that the Soviet Navy, for the first time in its history, has been transformed in the fullest sense into a long-range offensive arm of the armed forces. We should ignore that statement at our peril.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Air Force has made prestige visits to Middle East countries on what is described as a good will basis. It is the very first time that the Soviet Air Force has paid good will visits to any non-Communist countries. Last December, 10 TU16 Soviet jet bombers gave a magnificent air display in Cairo, and went on to Aswan. A squadron of Soviet bombers also recently visited Syria.

Prestige apart, there are now about 3,000 Soviet experts attached to the armed forces in the United Arab Republic, as well as 5,000 Soviet civilian advisers and technical experts in that country. There are also 2,000 military and civilian experts in Algeria, 500 in Syria, and a substantial number in the Yemen. We must take note of this.

Politically, Russia misses no opportunity of sowing seeds of distrust between the Middle East countries—this is the normal Russian technique—and also between the Arab countries and this country. Lenin said: As soon as we are strong enough to defeat capitalism as a whole, we shall immediately take it by the scruff of the neck. This is a good text to any analysis that one is making of Soviet strategy.

During the past year the Soviet Union has substantially increased its broadcasts in Arabic to the Middle East, to a maximum of 58 hours a week, as well as nearly 50 hours in Persian, 28 in Turkish and broadcasts in other Middle East languages. Other Eastern European countries are joining in.

The number of Arab students in Communist bloc countries remains comparatively small compared with the numbers in the Western world—probably between 5,000 and 6,000 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. A large number have returned to their own countries disillusioned, not least by the colour bar, which many people do not know exists in Communist countries, but it certainly does. But a few—that is all Russia needs —go back indoctrinated with Marxist-Leninist principles and well trained in subversion to seek posts of influence in their own countries.

It is significant that the Soviet Union shows an increasing interest in Middle East oil. How far this can be put down to political ends or how far it reflects actual need for Middle East oil is not entirely certain. It will be interesting to know if the Under-Secretary is able to tell us something about it. The Chairman of the Shell Trading & Transport Co. said recently in Boston, Massachusetts, that there is a strong posssibility that by 1970 Russia might need oil in significant quantities from outside her own borders. This is a new situation, and I do not think that we have taken enough account of it.

A number of Soviet technicians are exploring for oil in Middle East countries, and Russia has had some success in oil exploitation in Iraq. This emphasises the great importance of restoring and maintaining our good relations with that country. I am glad that our new Ambassador is now in Baghdad.

To sum up—I apologise for speaking so fast, Mr. Speaker, but it was more or less on your instructions—the Soviet Union is clearly and manifestly working to extend its influence in the Middle East by all possible means—political, economic, military and cultural. I have given a very brief account of it. I could have given a much longer one. The Soviet Union aims to encourage revolutionary or progressive States—whichever one likes to call them—and establish pro-Soviet régimes wherever it can. Its aim as usual is to undermine ordered society as the first step in that direction. Their influence is apparently strongest in the United Arab Republic. It has been less successful in Syria and Algeria although it has had considerable success in those countries.

But there is another side to the coin. I have been visiting Middle East counties regularly since 1937, when I first joined my regiment in Cairo and I was in the Palestine troubles. Each time I visit the Middle East, I am confirmed in my view that Communism is unacceptable to the Arabs, particularly those who adhere to the Moslem religion. I am also confirmed in my view that the ties between the Arab countries and Britain remain strong, badly shaken as they were by Suez and even more so by the broken promises of the last few years.

If Britain ignores her long-term interests in the name of short-term economy, the Arab countries cannot be blamed if they turn elsewhere. I very much agreed with the Foreign Secretary when he said, in 1965: Our interest simply is that that part of the world "— the Middle East— should be at peace. In the Persian Gulf that still means the special relationship existing between Britain and those States."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1966; Vol. 731, c. 1014.] I hope that it still means that, although I cannot help having doubts. But no special relationship is self-perpetuating and Britain must work hard to retain it because it is of paramount importance both to us and to the Arabs.

3.7 p.m.

Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

We have had a most interesting debate and the House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West-bury (Mr. Walters), since the subject is of most vital importance. During many years I have visited the Middle East again and again.

It is no exaggeration to say that a wave of dismay went through the whole area last year when the Government having first sent out one of their Under-Secre-taries of State to say that we intended to stay, a month later sent him out again to say that we were going to go. This caused the greatest confusion throughout the area. Up till the time we said we were going to go, the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown), then Foreign Secretary, had told us again and again of the value of our investments in the Middle East. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) said, they really are incalculable. I do not think that we can say how much they are.

New oil is being discovered all the time and it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the whole economy of Britain is, to a large degree and always will be in the forseeable future, dependent on a cheap supply of oil. In that situation, it was the greatest imaginable folly when the Government, for the saving of about £10 million or at the most £15 million a year, decided to withdraw from the area. If ever there was a case of false economy this would seem to be one. We have created as a result a vacuum in the area —and an area, what is more, which is used to power in an old-fashioned sense.

It is no use talking in modern intellectual language to the Sheikhs and the small Governments of the Persian Gulf. They do not understand Oxford and Cambridge vernacular so pleasantly put forward from the Front Bench. All they see is that here is an area in which there has long been a dominant Power and when that power goes they know in their hearts that there will be another dominant Power to replace it, because the pickings, to put it brutally, are so enormous and the military strength of the area is so ridiculously small. I do not want to go into the disastrous effect this withdrawal had upon Britain or the almost inevitable pushing of the Shah to closer association with the Soviet Union.

It is necessary to stress some of the really disadvantageous results of the Government's policy. What is to happen in the Gulf? We are to withdraw. A vacuum will be created. More oil will be found. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes said, the Soviet Union inevitably will stir up troubles in these areas.

Once troubles are stirred up, what will happen? Slowly, up the whole of the Persian Gulf—or, as they call it on the Arab side, the Arabian Gulf—will come steaming a great fleet of Russian battleships. That will be the power that will matter. As a result, we shall incalculably weaken our power and influence in the areas from which we withdraw, areas which hardly anyone can deny produce oil, upon which our economy is totally dependent.

There are other side effects of our withdrawal. The first is what has happened in the Yemen. Almost anyone who has ever been to the Yemen knows that this is a country which has problems which are not easily answerable. Hardly anyone would deny, either, that it is a country which should be left to itself to sort out its problems as best it can. Yet, because we have withdrawn, the Russians have landed a large amount of arms in the Yemen itself. As a result, the war there will be indefinitely prolonged and a foothold of Communism has been established upon a land base in Arabia. There will inevitably be a recurrence of this type of armament landing in the Southern Yemen.

Going further round the Gulf, Oman is another place so fraught with troubles and dissension that it might have been specially designed for the propaganda of infiltrator. Inevitably, there will be Russian arms and infiltration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Dodds-Parker) said, what is needed in this area is peace. What the Government declared would happen on our withdrawal was peace. Our withdrawal will mean war, increasing war, in an area absolutely vital to us.

Coming to the main point at issue, this is perhaps the richest area in the world for oil reserves, at a time when elsewhere oil is in short supply. Can we afford To continue to carry out the policy laid down by the Government of withdrawal from the area, in the light of the change in Soviet policies as a result of our policy of withdrawal?

I know that we have changed the peace treaty with Kuwait, but is it necessary for the Government still to give the impression that they are determined to get out of all this area at any price? Even a qualified assurance from the Government that they are not prepared to do this, but are prepared to reconsider our position, might change the whole balance of power in the Middle East.

One last point. As long as four months ago the former Foreign Secretary said, speaking of our ships held up by the Egyptian authorities in the Suez Canal: … I am cautiously optimistic that the four British ships will be released in the reasonably near future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th January, 1968; Vol. 757, c. 442.] This has not occurred. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary would say whether there will be large claims on insurance by foreign countries as a result of the detention of these ships. Are the Government still prepared to let the situation continue indefinitely with pathetic approaches, pathetic pretences to which no one pays attention?

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) and you, too, Mr. Speaker, for bringing this matter to its attention. My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge and also great moderation. Because of this, he carries much conviction. He spoke mainly of the opportunities created for Soviet activity by the unresolved situation between the Arabs and Israelis. I shall concentrate mainly on the Gulf.

I start with the evidence of Soviet naval activity which I would like the Minister to confirm when he replies. My understanding is that in the Mediterranean the Soviet fleet now disposes of one and sometimes two missile-carrying cruisers of a kind which the Royal Navy no longer possesses; between eight and nine extremely modern missile-carrying destroyers; up to a dozen submarines, although none, as far as we can discover, of the large missile-firing variety; and four large landing craft, capable of putting ashore the increasingly well-trained force of Soviet marines.

Together these vessels comprise a formidable armada. As yet they are no match for the United States Sixth Fleet, and their activities will no doubt come under closer surveillance now that the Minister of Defence, having first ordered the Royal Navy out of the Mediterranean has now ordered it back in again. The political and military balance in the Eastern Mediterranean nevertheless has unquestionably changed for the worse from our point of view. At any one moment, I am told, there is a Soviet flotilla at anchor at Port Said, at the northern outlet of the Suez, another flotilla is likely to be found in Alexandria, and still a third at Latakia, the principal port of Syria.

These ships do not lack for powerful Soviet air cover. Since the Arab-Israeli war there has been a huge and technically most impressive, Soviet airlift of modern arms to Egypt. Soviet bomber squadrons have paid courtesy visits to Egypt. Soviet aircraft are known to be in Syria; several Soviet aircraft with Egyptian pilots are also to be found further south in Africa. Their presence has been noted in the Sudan, on a former United States airfield north of Khartoum. Egyptian-piloted Migs are reliably reported to have been in action again in Nigeria against the Ibos.

We must face the fact that Soviet power is now a very real, if still a limited force, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean but the whole of the Nile Valley. It could and I feel it will reach much deeper into Africa—indeed it is precisely because I fear that Soviet aircraft with Egyptian or conceivably African pilots might one day be invited to assist terrorist movements in the Zambesi Valley that I was so appalled by the United Nations resolution calling for "material assistance" for the so-called freedom fighters in Rhodesia.

However, this is a Middle East debate, and I turn now to the second leg of Soviet penetration, namely that east of Suez, down the Red Sea into South Arabia, and beyond that into the Gulf. So far the Soviet forces off South Arabia and in the Gulf are militarily insignificant. We know of a Soviet submarine harbour at the Red Sea port of Hadago and a Soviet squadron recently steamed up the Gulf and into Umm Qasr, the main port of Iraq. This is something quite new. Never before have the Russians taken to the warm waters between Iran and Arabia, and, to paraphrase the Economist, they have not gone there for a sun tan. They have gone there, I believe, partly to demonstrate their power to the Arab States and partly to help consolidate their increasing grip on the strategic junction of three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. But mainly they have gone there on a fishing expedition for oil.

My hon. Friends have mentioned the growing prospect that the Soviet Union may soon become an oil-importing country. I would not regard it as a disaster if the Russians were to buy their oil from the Gulf, as we do. A car-driving Russia, dependent for her petrol on peaceful international trade, is a very much safer proposition than the old Stalinist state. But will the Russians be content to buy their oil on a commercial basis? Will they stick to the rules of international commerce, or will they chuck their weight about and seek to grab for the oil whether by subversion or, which is much more likely, by getting involved in the international rivalries and domestic affairs of the various Gulf states?

Should anything like that happen it would be a grave blow to British interests. It is not simply a matter of oil; it is a matter of our balance of payments, therefore of the British economy and consequently, of the standard of living of the British people.

The importance of the Gulf to Britain is hard to over-estimate. Each year we import from the Gulf oil which we pay for in sterling to the tune of £400 million. If we did not get this oil from the British companies in the Gulf, we should have to buy it from elsewhere, much of it across the balance of payments. Then, too, the British Gulf companies export oil to third countries—to Japan, Europe, and the United States. Those sales to hard currency countries help our balance of trade to the tune of nearly £200 million a year.

British capital investment in the Gulf is now valued at £900 million. Most of it is in oil. But increasingly there are British investments in the developing copper fields and the industrialisation of Iran which, in my judgment, is one of the Middle East's most exciting economic frontiers.

Finally there is trade. Our exports to the Gulf last year were worth more than £300 million. The future potential is immense. Kuwait alone has a five-year plan involving an outlay of getting on for £800 million by the early 1970's. Bahrein is industrialising. Abu Dhabi soon will have an income of £75 million a year for 30,000 people. Dubai is also developing. Its port reminds one of a miniature Hong Kong. I was interested, though not particularly encouraged, when I was there to see that the largest new building in Dubai is the 500,000 dollar offices of the First National City Bank of New York. Beyond Dubai there is the prospect further down the Gulf of additional oil strikes in Oman and Muscat.

So much for the positive side of the balance sheet of the Gulf. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate its vital importance to Britain.

What about the other side of the balance sheet? It comprises on Government account little more than £12 to £15 million, set against the enormous British investment. The £12 to £15 million that we are paying at the moment for the British garrisons in the Gulf is about the same as British Rail loses every month and, indeed, is somewhat less than the House agreed in a recent Supplementary Estimate to spend on the new office furnishing and heating services of the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

The decision to pull our troops out of the Gulf ostensibly was taken on financial grounds. But the more we examine this statement, the more we conclude that it simply does not hold water as an explanation. For one thing, the Arab Rulers themselves offered to meet a large part of the cost and were rudely turned down by the Government. For another thing—the House may not be entirely aware of this—the United States, which was strongly opposed to the British plan to get out, was prepared, in concert, perhaps, with Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, to help with the financial aspects.

The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown), did his best to resist this foolish policy. It was not he who let Britain and America down. It was not he who opened the door of the Gulf to the Soviet Union. Neither would I altogether blame the Minister of Defence, in spite of his ill-mannered insult to our Arab allies. In the end, it seems to have been the Left-wing members of the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister most of all, who, on an absolutely crucial defence and foreign policy issue, overruled the Defence and Foreign Ministers and their advisers.

Sir T. Beamish

And the Commonwealth Secretary.

Mr. Griffiths

And the Commonwealth Secretary.

That decision is more and more coming to be seen as an act of high folly which leads in direct line to the Soviet presence in the Gulf. It has started to create, as we on this side have long warned the Government, that vacuum of power and that lurch away from stability which so damages British interest.

I can briefly measure the change since that announcement was made. Last December, when the Minister of State went to the Gulf, the situation was very different to what it is today. Then, in December, there was peace. British relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia were extremely good. The Shah was contemplating a visit to Riyadh and we all hoped that this would lead to an invaluable Saudi-Iranian entente. British trade with both countries was developing fast. We had sold the Saudis an advanced air defence system, and Iran was looking to us for more naval aid. Our links with Kuwait held throughout the tensions of the Arab-Israeli war. Our relations with Iraq were improving. In Bahrein, Abu Dhabi and Dubay there was confidence in our Political Residents and in the Englishman's word as his bond. Above all, at that time there were no Soviet ships to be seen in the area. They were not welcome; they were not needed.

But what has happened since? The first big fact is that Britain has announced its intention to pull out in 30 months' time. When that announcement was made, I warned the hon. Gentleman in this House and in person that the Gulf Rulers' confidence would be shaken, that the credibility of the Government's remaining commitments in the area would be cast into doubt, that many of the old frontier squabbles might be revived and that Iran would reinstate its claim against Bahrein. I concluded that if any of those things happened, the Russians would be the main gainers. That is precisely what has happened.

Today, by contrast with December, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are extremely bad. The Saudis, although still friendly to us, turn to France for the supply of armoured vehicles for their army. The Shah is drawing closer to the Soviet Union. The result is that, where the Gulf was peaceful and secure, it is today insecure and angry.

I conclude by referring the Minister to a remark made in this House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) on 24th January this year, when he said: It is recognised by all who live in the Gulf that should Britain leave prematurely— that is, on anything like the time scale named by the Foreign Secretary—this area will be torn by strife and trouble, and the Soviet Union would be only too ready to stir the pot "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th January, 1968; Vol. 757, c. 423.] That was what my right hon. Friend said to the Government at that time. It was only one of the many perceptive warnings that he and this side of the House have given to the Government about creating a vacuum. It is turning out to be only too sadly true.

3.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers)

I think that in the time available it would probably be in the best interests of the House that I should not seek to answer in detail the partisan and sometimes misleading remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths). I had hoped that we might have stayed rather closer to the subject named on the Order Paper this afternoon, because the subject raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) is a fascinating and important one, which, I think, should be discussed in this House by both sides in a temperate spirit and with a full knowledge of the very serious issues involved. In so far as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds failed to discuss this matter in that way, I regret it. However, I think we have had an interesting debate and all of us are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westbury for raising the issue, and I hope for the most part to stick fairly closely to the question of Soviet naval activity, rather than be drawn, as, perhaps, he sought to draw me, into wider Middle Eastern issues, including the Israeli rôle and policy.

What I certainly can agree with him about is that it is right that the British Government, whatever its complexion may be, should put British interests first. I agree also with what he said, that it was not in British interests that the Suez Canal should remain indefinitely closed, nor that the Arab countries should be, as I think he said, pushed further towards the Communist bloc. I agree with him that there is an overwhelming need to improve relations with Arab countries as far as we can. This has been the consistent policy of the Government both before and since the June war, and I am very glad that this afternoon several hon. Gentlemen paid particular tribute to the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) during his period as Foreign Secretary. We are doing all that we can to help solve an exceedingly difficult situation, and at all times we have in mind where British interests lie.

May I say in this context that during my right hon. Friend's, the Foreign Secretary's, recent talk in Moscow the Soviet Foreign Minister reiterated his Government's wish to see a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute, which has been the principal cause, as we all know, of instability and of threats to the area. We still take the view that the best hope of reaching some solution lies in giving the fullest support to the patient efforts of Dr. Gunnar Jarring, and I am happy to say that Mr. Gromyko confirmed that the Soviet Government share this view and they welcome the success of Dr. Gunnar Jarring in persuading the parties concerned to continue their talks with him in New York.

Let us not forget the United Nations Security Council Resolution of 22nd November last year. This was a substantial step on the road, and, without in any way being complacent, because it is clearly going to take a long time, I think we are committed to a settlement which in the end will, I hope, turn out to be a just and lasting one.

On the subject of the opening of the Suez Canal, of course we are aware— very aware indeed—of the problems. We have attempted over a long period to find a settlement of this issue. We hoped that it might be treated as a technical problem divorced from wider political issues. This is the view which we held and we still hold. Although, as I think the House will know well, operations were begun mainly, as we believe, as a result of our representations to the U.A.R. authorities in January—they came to a halt only after the salvage boats, mainly from Ismailia, were fired on by the Israelis—the plain fact is that the U.A.R. and Israel have different interpretations of the no-sailing in the Canal which was arranged by the Chief of Staff of the U.N. peace-keeping organisation, and this will probably remain a problem for a while.

The noble Lord suggested that we were acquiescing in the situation. We certainly do not acquiesce, but we must be realistic about a difficult political situation. Britain is not the only country to suffer from the continued closure of the Canal. I will say no more at this stage, and I do not wish to be drawn. I understand that on 17th June there will be a short debate on this matter on the Adjournment, and that will be the right moment to pursue it further.

I do not want to be drawn into the broader issue of why we have decided to withdraw from the Persian Gulf by 1971. I can only repeat what has already been said in the House, about which I realise there may be differences of opinion, and time alone will show who is right. We believe that the outstanding problems of the area will be best met by solutions reached locally. I do not suggest that this will be easy and that there will not be moments of anxiety. But the decision on policy was made on a clear understanding of what the position was, and was likely to be, and, although there may be differences of opinion, we have debated them at considerable length.

Viscount Lambton

If that decision were the result of policy, why was it changed within three months?

Mr. Rodgers

The decision was not changed, as I think the noble Lord knows, since he participated in our debates. The intention was clear, but there was a question of timing, and on that a change was announced in so far as we made specific in January what the timetable would be.

It is likely that for some years to come the Russians will have no economic incentive to import or to take up large quantities of Middle East oil, for the obvious reason that the Soviet Union is a major oil-producing country which has a large export surplus. On the other hand, I do not want to suggest that we are complacent. We are well aware of the long-term significance of Soviet interests in this area.

My time is limited, and I will turn to the principal question of Soviet naval activity and try, in passing, to answer one or two questions which have been asked this afternoon. We should look for a moment at Soviet global strategy. Here we should recognise that it is naturally based on the primary objective of preserving the security of the Soviet Union and of maintaining, and where possible improving its status as one of the two super powers. None of the evidence of Soviet activities points to their having any rigid master plan for this purpose, for their strategy has been conditioned by the defensive and continental traditions of their military thought.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Alan Lee Williams), whose knowledge and perception of these issues is fully appreciated in the House, said that, in this matter as in others, there is a clear continuing tradition carrying on from Czarist times. So the Soviet Union have shown some hesitation in demonstrating their power on a world scale. Over the past two decades this has been strongly reinforced by the overriding importance of avoiding a nuclear confrontation with the United States.

Nevertheless, there is evidence of a growing feeling in the Soviet Union—and this is not necessarily confined to military circles—that more should be done to provide the Soviet Union with a military capabality on a global scale. A new stress on the maritime rôle and an increase in flag-showing visits, not merely in the Middle East, incidentally, but in the Indian Ocean, too, are examples of this thinking.

The Middle East is the area in which the Soviet Union can most advantageously experiment with the use of limited military power for political purposes. The long-term Soviet hope is clearly eventually to replace Western influence in the area with their own. As realists, however, they recognise that in the immediate future they must concentrate on trying to weaken the West and to improve their position selectively, using for this purpose political, military and economic instruments. One of their considerations in this must obviously be the value of strengthening their position in a region lying on the Southern flank of the N.A.T.O. area and which is of such vital importance to the West for a whole series of reasons.

The Soviet Union has pursued an active policy in the Middle East over the past 12 years. The decision to do so was a direct result of a change in attitude towards non-Communist, newly-independent countries. In Stalin's times these were regarded as dangerously bourgeois in character. Soviet thinking during the 1950s evolved towards a new concept of increasing Soviet influence by co-operation, particularly with those Governments which they considered progressive in character. It has, however, been clear throughout—and I emphasise this—that Soviet policy has continued to be conditioned by the wish to avoid a direct clash with the United States, a wish which is clearly mutual, and this has sometimes limited the degree and nature of Soviet assistance to the Arabs.

It is against that background that we must consider their naval activity, including the build-up of the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean and the recent visit by Russian naval vessels to the Persian Gulf. On the second of these issues we can take it for granted that the Soviet Union is interested in the possibility of gaining political dividends from the uncertain situation in the Gulf. That is elementary and it can be accepted on both sides of the House.

But the Soviet position is not without its problems, and these are likely to limit her freedom of action. It is a great mistake in this, as in other issues, to assume that it is only the West and, particularly Britain, which is inhibited by changing situations and always put at a disadvantage. The great Powers, including the Soviet Union, have to take cognisance of local situations, which are often flexible and fluid and on which they find it difficult to have an impact, whatever theoretical power they possess.

For example, the Russians are clearly keen to avoid damaging their relations either with the Arab States or with Iran and for that reason would be reluctant, I think, to take action of a kind which might provoke the very reaction which in the long run would be damaging to them.

It would be wrong to see these naval visits, and particularly the recent Soviet naval visit to Iraq, as a precursor of active Soviet intervention. Certainly the visit to Iraq is in keeping with the military, civil and technical assistance which they have been giving. The Russian cruiser and escort ship which were recently there had paid similar visits to Madras and Mogadishu last month and are now visiting Karachi. I am not saying that that is not a situation which we must watch, but we must take each example, each manifestation, by itelf, and make a very cool assessment of what they add up to.

Questions have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and by the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds about the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean. It is known that the Russians are maintaining at present a force which includes a cruiser and eight or more destroyers, some of which are missile-armed, between four and eight submarines, one landing craft—not four, as was said by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds —and a number of depot and auxiliary ships in the East Mediterranean. We should be wrong to underestimate the significance of this force, which gives the Soviet Union a new strategic mobility.

N.A.T.O. has, in fact, taken note of it. Hon. Members know of the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence for Administration on 10th May, as reported in col. 152 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, Written Answers, in which he set out the improvements which, under N.A.T.O. procedure, N.A.T.O. expects to make. I will not detail them now, as they are available for hon. Members to see. In summary, there can be no doubt that the Soviet build-up in the Mediterranean and flag-flying activities in the Persian Gulf both reflect the same desire to make more effective political use of sea power in the area.

We have noted the situation. We shall watch it closely and take our part in the requisite action. But ultimately—and this embraces all that we have discussed in this interesting debate this afternoon —our concern must be that the Middle East will learn to live at peace, because it has an immense economic and social job to do, and it is a great waste that so much time and money should be spent in activities of the kind which were primarily the subject of our discussion.