Why is the west still so close to reactionary monarchies in the Middle East when all the evidence suggests they’re on their way out?
A few days ago, the American ambassador in Beirut said he was deeply concerned about the “paralysis of Lebanon’s political institutions”, and called for new elections to be held as soon as possible.
This prompted a wry comment from the blogger known as The Angry Arab: “I would like the US ambassador in Saudi Arabia to call for elections ‘as soon as possible’.”
The Angry Arab has a point. There are some countries where it’s OK for western diplomats to call for elections, and other countries where they wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing.
The Gulf monarchies include some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes but so long as they can be regarded as “useful” friends, western governments let them off lightly. If they are criticised at all, it’s done cautiously … and preferably in private.
This timidity is most apparent in the contrasting treatment of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran can be criticised vigorously – and deservedly so – but in terms of translating archaic religious ideas into government policies, our friends in Saudi Arabia are at least as bad. Internationally, Saudi Arabia has also managed to spread its baleful religious influence wider than Iran has done.
Of course, it would be unfair to say that Saudi political institutions are paralysed, as they are in Lebanon – because Saudi Arabia, unlike Lebanon, doesn’t have political institutions in any meaningful sense. Its pseudo-parliament is appointed by the king, and political parties are not allowed. It did (rather nervously) hold municipal elections in 2005 and 2011. in which only men were allowed to vote, and for only half the seats. As a precaution against male voters electing the wrong candidates, the other half were to be filled by royal appointment.
Being nice to Gulf autocrats certainly brings some benefits for western countries: we buy their oil and they spend the money on buying our weaponry. They also ingratiate themselves with the west by performing “useful” services from time to time – most recently when some of them joined the military alliance against Isis.
For the last half-century or so, this has formed the basis of British and American policy in the Gulf and the benefits it brings have blinded our governments to the long-term cost, which is potentially very high.
The danger in ignoring the negative side of the Gulf/west relationship has become increasingly apparent since the Arab uprisings broke out almost four years ago. Fearful of popular demands for accountable government, Gulf states have mostly aligned themselves with the counter-revolutionary side.
When protesters challenged the monarchy in Bahrain, Gulf rulers sent in troops to prop up the king. They sabotaged the Yemeni revolution with a “transition” deal that allowed the ex-president Saleh to stay in the country causing mayhem, and they are now backing Sisi’s new dictatorship in Egypt – which can only create more problems for the future.
In more general ways, Gulf states (along with other ancien regimes in the Middle East) are fuelling turmoil in the region rather than alleviating it. “The cultural, educational and religious stagnation evident in so much of the Middle East and North Africa,” a recent report by the Soufan security intelligence group said, “does not encourage any new way of thinking about the future beyond a desire to return to the past and start again.”
And the report warned:
”So long as governance in so many countries fails to meet the expectations of the people, there will be a steady flow of hopeful recruits to the ranks of the Islamic State; and many others who lack the means or opportunity to travel may be tempted to follow its directives within their own countries.”
Unless these regimes change their ways radically and quickly, they will eventually be swept away. Almost all of them are incapable of such reform, so we have to consider them doomed.
This is something western policymakers can’t afford to simply brush aside. They need to take into account not only the problems these regimes are causing but the likelihood that they will not be in power for many more years – and act accordingly. For a start, that means becoming a lot more circumspect than at present in our dealings with them.
Britain’s current relations with Bahrain, for example, are bafflingly cosy – even to the extent of removing an ambassador who upset the Bahraini authorities by meeting some members of the opposition, and replacing him with one who is much more amenable.
Britain also relies heavily on arms sales to the Middle East, on the dangerous assumption that the regimes buying them will still be in power to take delivery, and for as long after that as the weapons remain usable.
In 2012 David Cameron jubilantly announced a £2.5bn order for 20 warplanes from Oman, which he said would support thousands of jobs in the UK.
But deliveries are not due to start until 2017, and neither Cameron nor anyone else can be sure that Sultan Qaboos, the ailing tyrant who seized the Omani throne with British help 44 years ago, will be there to receive them – or who may eventually end up using them.