Britain and the Gulf Elites

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

“Why do we support reactionary, selfish and corrupt governments in the Middle East instead of leaders who have the interest of their people at heart?” (Stafford Cripps, Chancellor in the Attlee government, 1945-51)

Former SAS officer, Peter de la Billiere, the commander of British forces in the 1991 Gulf War to eject Iraq from Kuwait, makes an extraordinary comment in his personal account of the war. He notes Saudi Prince Khalid telling him of the latter’s need to ensure that the Saudi ruling family remained in power after the war, and replied:

“I fully understood the Prince’s difficulties and sympathised with him, but my understanding attitude was not entirely altruistic. As we, the British, had backed the system of sheikhly rule ever since our own withdrawal from the Gulf in the early 1970s, and seen it prosper, we were keen that it should continue. Saudi Arabia was an old and proven friend of ours, and had deployed its immense oil wealth in a benign and thoughtful way, with the result that standards of living had become very high. It was thus very much in our interests that the country and its regime should remain stable after the war”.

The “system of sheikhly rule” in Saudi Arabia to which de la Billiere casually refers is one that systematically imprisons, tortures or beheads all political opponents in one of the world’s most repressive states. That a military commander can write of Britain’s interests in the continuation of Saud family rule says a lot, to me, about the values of British political elites. That it can be said in a best selling book without creating a furore says a lot about the deafening silence on Britain’s complicity in massive human rights abuses in the Middle East.

British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests. This is having two outcomes. The first is that Britain is undermining the prospects for the emergence of more popular and democratic governments. The second is that Britain is helping to fan the flames of religious extremism that is often the only alternative available to those repressed. Britain’s role in the region is far from benign and is, frankly, dangerous to its inhabitants as well as – perhaps increasingly – people in Britain and the West.

These are truisms about all British governments, but that new Labour is continuing, indeed with real enthusiasm.

Britain’s importance in the Middle East should not be underestimated. Although the US is clearly the major power in the region, Britain has an array of close diplomatic and military relations with the Gulf regimes in Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait and it has the world’s largest arms deal with Saudi Arabia, whose brutal internal security forces it is continuing to train. Britain is responsible, with the US, for the continuation of sanctions against Iraq and the policing of the “no-fly zone” over the north and south of the country. It is traditionally the only country to actively and unequivocally support US violence in the region, as in the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq, various missile attacks against Iraq in the past decade, and in Afghanistan.

London has also traditionally been a primary apologist for massive human rights atrocities in Turkey and is a current diplomatic champion of Turkey’s attempts to join the EU (see chapter 8). Britain under Blair has also played an extraordinary role in adopting a pro-Israel position in the context of violence in the occupied territories (chapter 7).

There has been no greater myth since September 11th than that everything has changed as a result. In the post-September 11th world, Britain – and the US – have simply continued their traditional policies of supporting the existing repressive regimes in the Middle East. Indeed, continuing – in some cases deepening – support for these regimes is partly what the “war against terrorism” is about, as noted in chapter 7.

Robert Fisk, Britain’s most outstanding journalist on the Middle East, has noted that:

“In Egypt, I have catalogued the systematic torture of Islamist prisoners by the state security police; conducted dozens of interviews with torture victims in Cairo, Assiut and Beni Suef and identified the floor of the Lazoughli Street police headquarters where electricity is used on prisoners. The Egyptians have both denied the evidence and pointed out that they are fighting ‘international terrorism’. But gross human rights abuses have merely grown worse. Britain and other Western governments have put no pressure on the Egyptians to halt these practices. President Mubarak is called the West’s most faithful Arab friend.”

The pattern of human rights abuses is the same across the Middle Eastern regimes supported by Britain and the West, where torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm.

Britain’s current commitment to the Gulf regimes is so great that, according to the Ministry of Defence, “all of the [Gulf] countries have an expectation that we would assist them in times of crisis”. All six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have military officers being trained in the UK while all (except Bahrain) house British military officers.

The fundamental interest in the region is of course oil, described by British planners in 1947 as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”. US planners spoke at the beginning of the postwar world of a “mutual recognition” with Britain that the two countries’ oil policy was based upon “control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world”.

“We must at all costs maintain control of this oil”, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, noted in 1956.

Oil is designated to be under the control of Western allies in the region to ensure that industry profits accrue to Western companies and are invested in Western economies, and that the world’s oil industry – including prices – is run to support the priorities of those in control of the wider global economy. A traditional threat in the past has been that nationalist regimes would use oil wealth primarily to benefit local populations and to build up independent sources of power to challenge US domination over the region.

An additional factor is that the Gulf elites should spend their stupendous oil incomes on Western arms. Repressive Middle Eastern elites understand these priorities, and also that it is their role in this system that helps keep them in power locally. The West could withdraw its support for them if they got any wayward ideas.

The policy of supporting elites, and aiding their internal repression, is therefore long-standing, as I tried to document in my previous book. The Gulf sheikhdoms were largely created by the British to “retain our influence” in the region. Policy was to defend them against external attack but also to “counter hostile influence and propaganda within the countries themselves.” Training their  police and military would help them in “maintaining internal security”. The US shared the same concerns, noting that British and US interests in the region could be preserved by recognising the challenges to the West and “to traditional control in the area”. US planners based their policy on supporting the “fundamental authority of the ruling groups”.

The chief threat to these rulers was never Soviet intervention but what the Foreign Office called “ultra-nationalist maladies”. The Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, told the Prime Minister in 1961 that “we are fighting a losing battle propping up these reactionary regimes” in the Middle East. Britain was recognised as being opposed to the “rising tide of nationalism” and “the force of liberalism”.

Thus along with supporting repressive elites has been more or less permanent opposition to popular regimes or groups in the Middle East. In 1957, for example, the Foreign Office identified the danger of the existing rulers “losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with the United Kingdom”.

The same goes today. The West has continually failed to support the democratic rights of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, preferring brutal regimes to keep order from Baghdad and Ankara. Similarly, in Bahrain the West has spurned support for those calling for the restoration of the suspended Bahraini constitution that would confer some democratic rights on the population; instead, London (and Washington) prefer to offer unconditional support to the regime while refusing to speak out against its human rights violations. The West opposed Yasir Arafat “in opposition”, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was more a popular, legitimate representative of the Palestinians; it supports Arafat as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority (until very recently, in the case of the US) when his rule has become increasingly repressive.

Similarly, Britain and the US have refused to offer support to opposition groups in repressive regimes such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Committee for the Defence of the Legitimate Rights of the Saudi People in Saudi Arabia. Egyptian president Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s – popular, nationalist – was an official enemy; current Egyptian president Mubarak – repressive, unpopular – is official friend. There are many other examples. Only in Iraq does Britain support opposition groups posing alternatives to repressive rule.

Britain and the US have throughout the postwar period connived with Middle Eastern elites to undermine popular, secular and nationalist groups which have offered some prospect of addressing the key issues in the region – the appalling levels of poverty and undemocratic political structures. Postwar US planners, for example, recognised that “among increasing numbers of Arabs there is… a conviction that we are backing the corrupt governments now in power, without regard for the welfare of the masses”.

With the disappearance of these secular, nationalist opposition groups, the field has been left open for anti-Western Islamic groups to offer themselves as the only alternative to the Arab elites. Britain and the West are not anti-Islam, in my view. They quite happily support Islamic extremists in power when they do the West’s bidding – as in Saudi Arabia, the most “fundamentalist” of all ruling elites. It is when groups cross the line in threatening fundamental Western interests that they become official enemies. However, the “Islamic threat” is likely to prove increasingly useful to British and Western elites in coming years. Liberal, more democratic groups and regimes – in the Middle East as elsewhere – are a threat; our allies are repressive regimes. This simple truth about British policy cannot be expressed in the propaganda system. But there is a lot of current and historical evidence to show it.