Pacifist-Imperialists vs the Saudis

Anti-arms protesters ask the war-mongering British government and our unelected queen to teach the Saudi king about rights and morality.

Nathalie Rothschild

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As the Saudi royal entourage arrived from Riyadh in five jumbo jets, reportedly packed with 100 servants, several wives and plenty of bling, British MPs and human rights campaigners geared up for some protesting.

Yesterday, a procession of black cars, containing the Saudi king and numerous others, made its way along The Mall to Buckingham Palace, where a red carpet and a lavish banquet overseen by Queen Elizabeth II awaited. The cars were greeted by protesters from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). Holding up placards demanding a corruption inquiry into BAE Systems’ arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and for human rights to be put before profits in Saudi Arabia, the protesters had gathered to tell the Saudis that they’re not welcome in Britain. ‘We put our message across strongly’, a CAAT representative told me. ‘The royals definitely saw us.’

There were reportedly around 100 protesters shouting at the royal procession in the Mall. But by the time of the second protest, in Westminster, the political heart of London, there were only 20-odd anti-arms campaigners left. Standing in a small fenced-off area far away from the eyes of parliamentarians, CAAT’s message only seemed to reach a few bemused tourists who, after posing in front of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, turned to take some holiday snaps of the protesters. Three vans packed with police officers, who easily outnumbered the CAAT contingent, were stationed by the cage-like contraption that contained the placard-waving protesters.

CAAT issued a press release that said: ‘It seems that the only people in the UK who still support Abdullah’s visit are BAE Systems and their friends in government. The British public do not want the UK to be subservient to a brutal dictatorship for the sake of the arms trade. It’s time for Gordon Brown to put human rights and the public interest ahead of BAE’s profits.’ (1)


Protesters at Westminster

CAAT, which was set up in 1974, believes that ‘high military spending is unacceptable, and only reinforces a militaristic approach to problems’ (2). Like other anti-arms trading campaigns, CAAT fetishises weapons at the expense of interrogating the political problems and crises that underpin oppression and war around the world. Despite posing as radical (the endorsement of Noam Chomsky on the CAAT website must mean it is a radical organisation, right?), CAAT comes across as a campaign to get Britain to behave with moral responsibility in international affairs and to distinguish between those states that can be trusted with weapons and those that cannot.

CAAT is working towards a ‘pacifist future’, but in the meantime it focuses on preventing exports of arms to certain, apparently inappropriate states: namely those with ‘oppressive regimes’, those that are ‘involved in an armed conflict’ or are in a ‘region of tension’, and those where ‘social welfare is threatened by military spending’ (3). In demanding that Gordon Brown and his government think carefully about which states to arm, CAAT is both boosting the right of the British to decide the fate of other states, and also firming up a divide between trustworthy states who can have guns and bombs and untrustworthy states that should not have such items. CAAT may fancy itself as a harsh critic of the New Labour government, but it is in fact doing the government a favour: that is, helping to consolidate its self-described role as a moral arbiter of what is right and wrong in international affairs.

Of course, arms trading by the West is deeply problematic. London, Washington and other Western capitals have long armed those whom they consider allies (or ‘our bastards’) while seeking to cut off arms deliveries to their foes. Such arming has prolonged and intensified numerous wars in recent decades. Yet in fetishising weapons themselves as somehow being the cause of wars, campaigns against the arms trade fail to challenge the politics of war and the political role of Western powers in exacerbating conflict. It is childish to think that simply starving certain states of weaponry will make all their problems go away and give rise to peace.

Some of the protesters in London were concerned about the way that Britain is effectively conferring legitimacy on the Saudi regime. One elderly woman told me very proudly that she is from Twickenham, where the MP is Vincent Cable, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats who rejected his invitation to the state banquet for the Saudi king. She told me that she objected to the queen throwing a party for the Saudis because Saudi Arabia has a ‘terrible human rights record’. Another CAAT representative said ‘we shouldn’t be rolling out the red carpet for human rights abusers because it sends out a message that they are legitimate’, she said.

No doubt Saudi Arabia is a stiflingly oppressive state with a terrible rights record. But should we accept that it’s up to the queen, our own unelected head of state, to send out a signal about who is a legitimate ruler and who is not? In calling on the queen to pull the red carpet from under the Saudi king’s feet, CAAT representatives are, somewhat ironically, demanding that Britain’s hereditary monarch use her not-inconsiderable powers as a way of undermining a foreign ruler. Is this the best way to support the development of democracy in Saudi Arabia – by getting ‘our’ queen to embarrass ‘their’ king in a kind of feudal battle of the wills?

CAAT protesters are, in effect, Pacifist Imperialists: they want peace, and they want Britain to use its clout on the international stage to enforce it, through selective and restricted arms trading and public denouncements of other regimes. Anyone interested in having an honest debate about Western intervention and political life inside Saudi Arabia would do well to shoot down the anti-arms campaigners’ simplistic moral posturing.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said today’s protests against arms and the arms trade are shot through with childish naivety. Nathalie Rothschild asked if the Gatwick No Border camp was a positive airport protest. James Heartfield examined the tense relationship between America and Saudi Arabia. Various authors highlighted books banned in the UK as a result of a libel action taken by a Saudi billionaire. Vicky Francis reviewed The Kingdom, a Hollywood blockbuster based on Saudi Arabia. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) Saudi dictator facing arms protest on way to Buckingham Palace, CAAT press release, 29 October 2007

(2) See the ‘About Us’ section of the Campaign Against Arms Trade website

(3) See the ‘About Us’ section of the Campaign Against Arms Trade website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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