Lord Ahmad gives keynote speech at British-Arab Economic Summit

Good morning, and to all our guests who are joining us from across the Gulf, from across the Middle East and North Africa, on behalf of the British government, Ahlan wa Sahlan, you are most welcome here.

And as my dear colleague and friend, Baroness Symons did, may I also congratulate you. You do a tremendous amount of work. Liz is often lobbying me on the importance of this organisation, and I assure you that being here today is testament also, to how across government, across parties, indeed as a country, we regard the importance of these kind of meetings in strengthening our relationship.

I also congratulate the Secretary General and actually congratulate the organisers because you not only have one Ahmad on stage, but when you look across the stage I believe we have three today, including the Secretary General of the Arab League. So there’s great organisational capacity and capability put in by the team.

As we join here this morning in the spirit of friendship, in the spirit of collaboration, it would be remiss of me, indeed for any of us, not to begin on reflecting on what is happening right now across Israel and Gaza and indeed sadly in the West Bank as well.

The intensity of what’s happening is reflected on the level of engagement. I myself have just returned from Bahrain where the Manama Dialogue was taking place. In recognising the important role Bahrain play in that respect, the Dialogue itself – and the Secretary General who is here, he and I were actually on the same panel – was dominated by events in the Middle East. Equally, after that I immediately fast footed over to Doha. And there are important talks taking place and I was able to engage directly with the Qatari Foreign Minister and leadership team there. And I, again acknowledge and recognise the crucial role Qatar are playing at this important time.

In bridging that particular gap, we need to move forward. Suffering in Gaza is going on for far too long. No one – unless you are directly impacted – can comprehend the pain and suffering. I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories ten or eleven days ago, and I saw directly the challenges which were being faced by people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It’s really hard to comprehend the innocent Palestinian lives that are being lost. The women. The children.

Liz, you talked about how grateful we are, but also we recognise the strength of the ambassadorial representation to the United Kingdom. We really do get the cream of the crop, if I can put it that way. And looking across I can see three of my great friends, the ambassadors of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait sitting there and I’m sure there’s others here as well.

Thank you for all you are doing, because it is important at this time that our conversations are frank and candid where we have different perspectives. But recognise that ultimately the goal we all want to see is peace in the Middle East.

And let me be very clear – and make it very personal, and I speak as a Muslim, if I may: any act of terror by anyone, anywhere, including those committed by Hamas, are against every sense of our common humanity, against every sense of the faith I follow, indeed, of any faith or belief around the world. But equally, we should now really focus and ensure that what’s happening with the suffering of the people of Gaza is put to an end. And on this, if I may particularly commend my dear friend, Manar Abbas, who plays an incredible role as Ambassador of Jordan for the work that Jordan is doing. I also recognise through the Ambassador of Egypt – and again thank you Sherif for all you do – the role that Egypt is currently playing in providing that glimmer of hope currently through the Rafah crossing.

And I make no excuses or apologies for focusing my initial comments on those particular events, because Your Excellencies, Your Royal Highnesses, friends, if we do not address that central, pivotal issue, we will not see progress and we will be back here again.

In my time currently serving as the Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa, every day, every ounce of my effort, everything that we’re seeking to do is to be focussed on trying to shift that dialogue. Peace is not impossible. It’s the difficult pathway ahead, but you know what? We should never give up hope.

We should pray and work every sinew of our efforts, everything we have in whatever role in business, in NGOs, in diplomacy, in politics, whoever we are, wherever we are, to do our bit to actually try and deliver that vision for a lasting, sustainable peace.

Ladies and gentlemen, Your Excellencies, hard as it is to remove oneself from those particular issues, we also recognise, importantly, that our discussions here today will centre on so many important issues like artificial intelligence. Indeed, the Prime Minister only a few weeks ago hosted an important international conference in that respect. It was the former Foreign Secretary who brought it to the United Nations as an issue. But that’s not where we are alone. From trade to health, from security to finance. We are working together to tackle the challenges we face. One particular one that I focussed on already, but also the numerous challenges of climate, which we all face together, but also importantly with all of you. It is the people that matter of unlocking the immense potential and opportunities that lie ahead.

As I reflected on what I was going to say this morning, just last week, for example, I hosted the UK Algeria Strategic Dialogue alongside my dear friend, Foreign Minister Attaf, where we focussed on opportunities to increase our burgeoning trade relationship. Our trade relationship, and I’m just using this as one example, because it’s fresh in my mind from last week, has grown by 24% since 2022 with Algeria. Currently at £3 billion, but with ambitious plans to do more. Companies such as AstraZeneca, Unilever, GSK, Petrofac are already well established in Algeria and many are expanding their operations. And this is why this series of structured dialogue, looking at all aspects of our relationships, is important. We’ve just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Kuwaiti Investment Office. We’ve had royal visits in. We’ve had strategic dialogues with Kuwait as well. And I’m thankful to you, Bader, for the immense effort you’ve been putting in since your arrival. Many of you will remember his predecessor. But one thing is very important – that the energy of the new Ambassador has been reflective of the strength of our bilateral relationship as well.

But equally, we have had other structural dialogues with Bahrain recently and Tunisia, where we focussed on areas such as climate, education, transport and much more as well. And as I alluded earlier, both myself and the Secretary General were just at the Manama Dialogue, where important conversations took place on all of these particular issues and more. And it was reflective of the strength and indeed the depth of the intent. As we see this morning on how important people regard these important organisations, but also the convening of such meetings.

Just focusing on global health, the UK has a proud record of working with the Arab world and across the MENA region to strengthen systems in developing countries, drive innovations in care, develop new vaccines. On food security, today, our Prime Minister is hosting a global summit just a short distance from here. Indeed, I’ll be speaking at that bit later on alongside our friends from the United Arab Emirates and Somalia. Galvanising action to end hunger.

And a year ago, the United Kingdom launched a partnership with Saudi Arabia, with the King Salman Relief to tackle food insecurity in Somalia. We’re already seeing results with 130,000 vulnerable people being supported directly. And we are signing not just in terms of trade relationships, but development relationships with our partners across the Middle East and North Africa. Because together, the sum of the whole, we can deliver so much more.

Of course, this is also when we look at the issues of COP 28, which have been mentioned. And congratulations to Egypt. They took on the chair from us and this exchange of baton is important. And going on to the UAE, we work with the Arab world directly because we have to accelerate green growth. And we are working with countries across the piece to strengthen areas such as renewable energy and green industry, including we’re now seeing in Amman I believe, electric buses on the road as well.

And finally, just on the UK-GCC trade agreement, again at the Manama Dialogue, I met with the Secretary General, my dear friend Jasem, who is the Secretary General of the GCC, and we are progressing well.

For the economies of the Arab world to become less dependent on carbon and fossil fuels, we must open doors for entrepreneurs – many of you here today – to take advantage of the technologies. Opportunities we can only grasp by removing barriers and facilitating growth and working with our Gulf partners. And that’s why, for example, in very practical terms, we are – and indeed we are piloting right now with Qatar – the new visa free agreements that we’ve reached with several countries across the Gulf. And that’s demonstrable. We shouldn’t just talk about things. We should help to facilitate action that deliver that people-to-people links. And a trade deal in my mind with the GCC, will boost our collaboration across a huge range of sectors, creating many business opportunities and importantly jobs on both sides and attracting new investment.

UK exports to Arab countries in 2022 was £38 billion, an increase of 20%. But there’s so much more that can be achieved.

In conclusion to all of you, I say: I hope your deliberations today are both productive and do deliver. There is much we can do together. Collaboratively, collectively, working together towards common goals. And I’m sure there will be many engaging discussions because after all – and a politician would say this – it’s only through talking, but dialogue matters ultimately when we can deliver on those conversations and discussions. And it’s forums like this that help to make it happen. And together we can. Thank you so much.

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