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Lebanon delegation visit at pivotal time in UK politics

From 2-6 September 2019, in partnership with the Chair of the APPG for Lebanon, Rt Hon John Hayes MP, BGIPU hosted a delegation of three parliamentarians from Lebanon. The delegation was led by Mr Yassine Jaber MP as chair of the British-Lebanese Friendship Croup and Chair of the Lebanese Foreign Affairs Committee. He was joined by Mr Nicholas Nahas MP of the Al Azem Movement and Mr Ibrahim Azar MP, also of the Development and Liberation Bloc. They were accompanied on calls by the Ambassador of Lebanon to the UK, H.E. Rami Mortada. The visit fell at an interesting time as Parliament returned from summer recess and headed into a tumultuous week of debates and Brexit votes ahead of a controversial prorogation.

On Tuesday morning the delegation’s visit began with an in-depth overview of the Westminster System by Lynn Gardner, Principal Clerk of the Overseas Committee joined by Lebanon APPG Chair, Rt Hon John Hayes MP. This provided the delegation with an insight into the current political complexities, thus providing context ahead of the rest of the meetings. From here the delegation moved on to a meeting with Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Mr Doyle was also accompanied by Joseph Willits, CAABU’s Parliamentary and Events Officer, and former Labour MP and CAABU Chair, Andy Love. The meeting inspired open and honest discussion about what the UK could do to help with the refugee crisis in Lebanon amongst other issues such as economic growth. The delegation was then hosted at a working lunch by Rt Hon Lord Dholakia, a member of the BGIPU Executive Committee, APPG Chair Rt Hon Sir John Hayes CBE MP, Baroness Barker, John Grogan MP, Lord Risby, Baroness Hooper, Bob Stewart MP and Martin Vickers MP. The lunch provided a platform for more informal discussion around cultural and political life in both the UK and Lebanon, as well as reflections of Members’ recent visits to Lebanon.

In the afternoon, the delegation met with Foreign Affairs Committee specialist, Nicholas Wade, who discussed the FAC’s functioning and purpose, along with its current agenda. The delegation was then able to sit in the Chamber for Foreign and Commonwealth oral questions, observing the new Foreign Secretary at his first formal questions. The group then headed back to the IPU Room for a Roundtable Discussion chaired by Rt Hon Sir John Hayes CBE MP. The discussion was also attended by Rt Hon Lord Dholakia, Baroness Barker and Baroness Hooper and covered various topics from the position of women in Lebanese society to how the UK and the international community could support the rebuilding of the Lebanese economy, and influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon.

The delegation was also keen to highlight the overwhelming desire for peace from Lebanese people, despite the continuing key role played by the political arm of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. Following on from this, the delegation headed back into the chamber to listen to the Prime Minister’s inaugural speech in the House of Commons. The first day concluded with a working dinner in the Strangers’ Dining Room which was attended by Rt Hon Sir John Hayes CBE MP, Rt Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP and BGIPU Director, Rick Nimmo. During this, the delegation was able to monitor the series of votes surrounding the prorogation of parliament which continued late into the evening. The delegation found this particularly interesting given that Lebanon had come through their own period of political uncertainty in recent years.

Day two began with a tour of the Palace of Westminster led by Fabian Hamilton MP who gave the delegation a fascinating account of the tales and history of the building. This was followed by a meeting with the Speaker, Rt Hon John Bercow MP in Speaker’s House. This was an engaging encounter for the Lebanese who had been following events in the House of Commons closely over the past few months. The Speaker was keen to understand more about the Lebanese political culture, offering comparisons to the UK. The meeting ended with Mr Jaber inviting Mr Speaker to visit the Lebanese parliament on behalf of the Lebanese Speaker.

The delegation then observed Prime Minister’s Questions, drawing a rare Hansard reference to their presence in the galley from Mr Speaker, also witnessing the first appearance at PMQs of new Prime Minister, Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP. The Prime Minister batted back a series of robust questions from all sides of the chamber mainly on Brexit, highlighting to our visitors this British institution of PMQs as a mechanism to hold the Prime Minister directly to account. Rt Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP then hosted a lunch for the delegation in the Chess Room. The delegation was also joined by Rt Hon Sir John Hayes CBE MP, Chris Matheson MP, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Bob Stewart MP and Richard Burden MP. Conversation flowed around the topics of Brexit, in particular Lebanese-UK trade relations and the evolution of politics in Lebanon since the period of the civil war.

The delegation moved the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where they were met by Mr Andrew Hunter (Deputy Head of the Near East Department), Ms Camilla Nickless (Deputy Head of the Iran Department) and Mr George Thompson (Head of Syria Regional/ External Affairs) to discuss regional developments and the FCO’s role in supporting Lebanon deal with the growing number of asylum seekers crossing the border from Syria to Lebanon. The delegation also shared their perspectives on the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics and highlighted their concerns about security issues and risks of conflict in the south and relations with Israel. The day concluded with a dinner hosted by the Lebanese Embassy at the Ambassador’s residence.

For the final day of the programme the delegation took a trip to the city of Cambridge to provide them with a further insight into British culture outside of London. The delegation was met by Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Professor Amira K. Bennison and Dr Andrew Marsham, Reader of Classical Arabic Studies, both from the University of Cambridge. The delegation was eager to hear about what was being taught to students of the Middle Eastern Studies department, especially their emphasis on all students learning Arabic in order to grasp Middle Eastern culture and societal values. The conversation also looked to the possibilities of setting up Erasmus exchanges for students to attend universities in Lebanon for their third year studying abroad.

The delegation moved to the Parlour in Magdalene College for lunch during which further discussions around the comparisons were drawn between Lebanese and other Middle Eastern nation’s art, literature and religion, along with the exchanging of stories of times spent in the Middle East region. The day in Cambridge was rounded off with a tour of King’s College and the Parker Library to give the delegation a better insight into the structure of one of the UK’s top academic institutions.

This inter-parliamentary visit was successful in consolidating the strong relationship already enjoyed between the UK and Lebanon. Throughout the visit key points were brought up about the arrival of large numbers of refugees into Lebanon and concerns around instability in the region, particularly relating to the impact of the conflict in Syria and the recent increase in tension and potential for conflict in the south of the country between Hezbollah and Israel. Aside from this, there was a clear sense that the Lebanese delegation were adopting a forward-looking approach to UK politics, seeking to capitalise on any changes post-Brexit to establish stronger economic ties with the UK. The BGIPU looks forward to further developing our very cordial bilateral relations and paying a return visit to the Parliament of Lebanon in the near future.

BGIPU Secretariat