Baroness Morris of Bolton OBE is a Conservative life peeress and the outgoing Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council. The incoming Chairman, Sir Alan Duncan MP, writes for us tomorrow.
It hardly seems just over five years since I took over the chairmanship of the Conservative Middle East Council from the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP.
They have been a very special five years and I have met many wonderful people, made lasting friendships and visited the most enchanting places. The people and cultures of the Middle East have quite simply captivated me.
It has been a privilege and an honour to lead this important organisation and to work with some outstanding people; I started working with the wonderful team of Adam Takla and Laura Hutchings who, before she left as Director of CMEC to work with HRH The Duke of York, was responsible, together with Crispin Blunt MP, for putting CMEC on a professional footing.
Our current Director, Leo Docherty, who joined us from the Army and the private sector, has been outstanding and we were delighted when he was chosen to fight Caerphilly at the last General Election.
We were also delighted that Tobias Ellwood MP, one of my deputies alongside Adam Holloway MP and Dr Phillip Lee MP, became Minister for the Middle East at the FCO. And last, but never least, who couldn’t love working with our President, the Rt. Hon Sir Nicholas Soames MP.
But the time has come to allow someone else to enjoy the honour and privilege of leading CMEC, and it gives me the greatest pleasure to announce today that my good friend and CMEC’s good friend, the Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan KCMG MP will be taking over the helm as Chairman.
He takes over at a critical time for the Middle East: the last five years have seen a relentless pace of change in the Arab world.
In December 2010, I led a CMEC delegation to Egypt. At that time, who could have envisaged the subsequent turbulence that unfolded in Tahrir Square and across the region?
During our visit, three MPs, two Peers and Leo drove for five hours from Cairo through the Sinai desert to Gaza, a journey that would be impossible today.
The tragic death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, on 4 January 2011, triggered an astonishing train of events in the region.
We have seen uprisings, the overthrow of regimes, the death of dictators and the election of new governments, quickly followed by disillusion with those governments as they failed to meet the expectations of their citizens.
In Syria, what started as a political uprising in March 2011 has turned into a prolonged bloody sectarian war. The divisions and religious hatred that are fuelling the conflict are pitting Syrian against Syrian and we are now witnessing, as a consequence, the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
CMEC was established under Margaret Thatcher in 1980, following the Venice Declaration, when the then nine members of the European Economic Community registered their concern over the continued building of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
They saw this as an obstacle to peace and resolved that the traditional ties and common interests which link Europe to the Middle East obliged them to play a special role in working towards that peace.
As an organisation, CMEC seeks to ensure that UK foreign policy is grounded in a deep understanding of the complexities of the region. We do this by organising roundtable discussions, publishing original analysis, working closely with the Council of Arab Ambassadors, whose friendship and support we value greatly, and, crucially, sending delegations to the region.
By assisting travel to the region, CMEC gives Conservative parliamentarians a unique insight into the reality of what is happening on the ground in countries in the Middle East.
In September 2010, on my first delegation as CMEC Chairman to Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem, we met, in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. At that time, the prospect of lasting peace appeared closer than it does today and we talked about the important work being carried out to build the foundations for a Palestinian State.
Sadly, a Palestinian State is still a dream and Palestine and Israel are beset by a new wave of terrible violence.
It is no secret, especially given our history, where CMEC stands on the question of Palestine. The fundamental truth is that until the Palestinians are freed from the injustice and degradation of occupation, with a viable and truly sovereign state that guarantees the human rights of its population, the conflict will continue.
Our desire for the recognition of Palestine and the formation of a viable Palestinian state is no less informed by our belief that it also represents the best interests of Israel and the best guarantee of Israel’s peaceful and prosperous place in the Middle East.
I have been extraordinarily lucky through my work for CMEC, my charity work, and my position as the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Jordan, Kuwait and the Palestinian Territories to travel extensively throughout the region. These experiences have shown me the incredible entrepreneurial drive and commercial energy that exists.
Indeed, what gives me hope, despite all the chaos, is the human potential across the Arab world. Despite the considerable challenges it is hard not to feel some optimism when you meet the dynamic and creative young population of the Middle East and North Africa, who are hungry to diversify their economies and create the jobs the region so desperately needs.
It has been humbling to see the remarkable resilience, energy and positivity that people demonstrate despite often living in the most difficult conditions.
While I am sad to be stepping down as Chairman of CMEC after five tremendous years, I feel a great satisfaction that I am handing over a CMEC that is in great shape.
The Middle East provides Britain with so many profound friendships and opportunities and I have every confidence that Sir Alan Duncan, as a leading expert on the region, will take CMEC from strength to strength.