Saudi sheikhs star in London panto

If an autocratic anachronism like King Abdullah didn’t exist, some human rights crusaders might need to invent him.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

It seems that the London pantomime season has begun early this year, to judge by reactions to the UK state visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

Both sides have done some theatrical booing and hissing at one another for public consumption – the Saudis accusing Britain of not doing enough in the war on terror, while everybody from Conservative leader David Cameron to Amnesty International attacks their human rights record. But away from the political panto, in the off-stage world of realpolitik, the UK and Saudi governments are clinging together for security in the hostile atmosphere of the Middle East today.

Saudi Arabia is a repressive place ruled by an autocratic dynasty, and has been since before it formally came into existence under King Ibn Saud in 1932. The Saudi rulers’ uncompromising methods have never prevented British governments from maintaining a close interest in Arabian affairs from the colonial era to today. Particularly after the Second World War, Saudi Arabia became a major player in the emerging Anglo-American arrangements to police the Middle East, both because of the development of the huge Saudi oil industry and because it was seen as an Arab counterweight to the West’s Israeli gendarme. In response, the Western powers turned a blind eye to whatever might go on inside Saudi Arabia, as they did with many repressive states that acted as their Cold War allies.

Britain and Saudi Arabia are both pillars of the old Middle Eastern order. Now, however, they find their relationship strained under the pressure of change in the region.

The Saudi rulers have always been highly sensitive to any regional instability, given the fragile character of an autocratic state set up by drawing lines in the sand and lacking any real popular legitimacy. They were unhappy with the 2003 invasion of Iraq by their US and UK allies because they feared, with good reason, that it would destabilise their neighbours. Now they are getting even more nervous over talk of a possible American attack on Iran, which they worry will further destabilise things and increase local support for Iran.

The Sunni Muslim sheikhs of Saudi Arabia have lived in fear of the Shiite radicalism of the Iranian regime since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and are furious with their Western allies whose blundering invasion of Iraq has allowed Iran to re-emerge as a regional power. Thus King Abdullah is demanding that his conditions are met before he will sit down at a planned international peace conference with the Israelis, and is lashing out at Britain and America over their failures in the war on terror. But despite those unprecedented public criticisms, in the real world the Saudi sheikhs need the support of the West in an increasingly uncertain region – as reflected in the carefully-staged diplomacy of the state visit to the UK.

For its part, the British government needs to hang on to the Saudis as one of its few remaining meaningful allies in the Middle East. British influence in the region has declined dramatically since the days when it was the leading colonial power. Now the UK is widely seen as the lowly sidekick of an American power whose own capital in the Middle East is at an all-time low. Britain is keen to maintain economic relations with a Saudi regime which not only sits on the world’s largest oil reserves but is also the biggest customer for UK defence sales – one of the few remaining areas of British manufacturing that is still globally competitive. But above and beyond those economic concerns, the UK-Saudi alliance remains perhaps Britain’s most important finger-hold on events in the Middle East.

So the Saudis and the British authorities cling together for warmth and security in a cold geo-political climate. The ‘shared values’ that one New Labour minister spoke of really amount to little more than shared fears of the future in the Middle East. The pictures of two octogenarian monarchs greeting one another this week symbolised rather well the shaky status of their respective states.

That is the realpolitik at the heart of the visit. Then there is the theatrical panto of protests and rows going on around it, acting as a smokescreen on both sides. Many have observed that King Abdullah’s criticisms of Britain’s role in the war on terror seem a little rich. After all, the Saudi regime played a key role in the creation of Osama bin Laden (himself from an aristocratic Saudi family, of course) and al-Qaeda everywhere from Afghanistan through Bosnia to 9/11, and has funded radical Wahhabi Islam in mosques across the globe, including in Britain. Abdullah’s remarks were a blatant attempt to turn the spotlight elsewhere, and have been widely criticised as such.

There has been far less questioning, however, of the other side of the political panto – the anti-Saudi protests that have suddenly sprung up all over the media during the visit to the UK. While Conservative leader David Cameron promises to ‘confront’ the Saudi king over his government’s sponsorship of Islamic radicalism, and the Lib Dems boycott the ceremonies, human rights activists have been protesting against the visit as a symbol of every evil from misogyny and homophobia to international arms sales.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Saudis have become the latest easy targets for some all-purpose moral posturing to make British politicians and crusaders feel good about themselves. Look, for example, at the absurd claims now being made that the Iraq war was actually all the fault of the Saudis, and was launched because President Bush wanted to protect the oil assets of his friends the sheikhs. This is the sort of flipside of the attempts to blame everything on the Israeli lobby. In both cases it is a convenient distraction from getting to grips with the crises in American and British politics that were behind the Bush and Blair-Brown governments’ launch of their Iraqi adventure. In similar vein, blaming the Saudis for the emergence of Islamic terrorism in the West is much simpler than asking what it is about our societies that now makes some European- and American-born youth so open to the wild arguments of Wahhabi-influenced Islamic militants.

A visit from an autocratic, anachronistic little regime like the Saudis is a gift to those in the UK who enjoy touring the globe in search of human rights issues to get self-righteous about. If somebody like King Abdullah didn’t exist, they might well have to invent him. Nobody wants to support the sheikhs, and many of us would be happy to see such regimes buried in the sand of history. But some of the arguments offered by the protesters display a mixture of historical naivety and national conceit.

For instance, anybody might think that Britain has never sold arms to repressive regimes before – ones which, unlike the Saudis, actually use the military hardware. And what is the real message of the anti-arms trade protests? That ‘we’, the civilised trustworthy Brits, should not be selling dangerous weapons to ‘them’, the slippery and sadistic Arabs. The notion that Britain should decide who in the world is fit to arm themselves seems no better than a modern right-on version of the old morals of imperialism.

Many of the theatrical protests over human rights in Saudi Arabia seem equally self-serving. It is certainly a repressive society, especially for the Third World guest workers who make up about a quarter of the population (but tend not to feature that prominently in the international human rights movement’s concerns). But the demands of the Western crusaders are based less on any concerns emanating from within Saudi Arabia than on an agenda created over here which seeks to impose the standards of a trendy-left London council on the rest of the world, whether they like it or not. Those demanding that, instead of being feted, Abdullah should be arrested this week and tried by the authorities for crimes against humanity, capture the rather preening, Britain-knows-best air of radical chauvinism surrounding the protests.

The New Labour government is ambivalent about all this. On one hand it has encouraged notions of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy to give post-imperial, post-Cold War Britain a new moral mission in the world. On the other it has to cope with the realities of great power politics today – thus Tony Blair quashed the fraud investigations into BAE’s big Saudi arms deal to avoid rocking the boat with his Arab allies. The problem the government faces more acutely now is that the ethical posturing can get in the way of the realpolitik – as the disaster of Iraq, a ‘moral’ war arguably fought against Britain’s national interests, illustrates all too well. The tensions surrounding the Saudi visit show the bind in which the British authorities find themselves as they try to cope with a changing world.

Meanwhile, back in the media theatre, the panto protesters in the Mall shouting ‘shame’ at the British queen for meeting the Saudi king seem strangely blind to any idea that it might be shameful for a twenty-first century European state to be headed by a hereditary monarch. How about some more democracy at home?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield examined the tense relationship between America and Saudi Arabia. Munira Mizra tried to get to the root of ‘homegrown terrorism’ and Brendan O’Neill called 7/7 a very British bombing. Various authors highlighted books banned in the UK as a result of a libel action brought by a Saudi billionaire. Vicky Francis reviewed The Kingdom, a Hollywood blockbuster set in Saudi Arabia. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

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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