Activists have defied the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia by getting behind the wheel. Photo: Getty
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Is Saudi Arabia seeking friends?

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has always been concerned with one aim – political survival. Since the kingdom’s creation in 1932 with the aid of the British Colonial Office in the Arabian Peninsula, political analysts have frequently predicted its imminent collapse. All of them have been proved wrong. In large part, the key to Saudi’s survival has been its special relationship with the United States. This is enshrined in the 1928 Red Line Agreement, which the US exploited to gain exclusive rights to Saudi oil exploration after the First World War.

And yet, in the 1980s and at the turn of the 2oth century, Saudi Arabia unwittingly limited its political options. First, as Peter Schweizer revealed in his cold war history Victory, during the Reagan administration the Saudis worked with the CIA on a plan to bring down the Soviet Union by increasing Saudi crude oil production, thereby triggering a collapse in global oil prices.

This wasn’t entirely in the Saudis’ interest: the Soviet Union’s collapse deprived them of an alternative superpower with which they could work, in certain circumstances, to safeguard their own interests.

A decade later, the Saudis supported the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Iraq was destroyed, depriving them of a powerful ally and a counterbalance to Iran’s regional ambitions. Today, Saudi Arabia stands alone in the Middle East as Iran’s influence grows, bolstered by the pro-Iranian regimes of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah and the Houthi Shia tribe found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom. This, coupled with its oil resources and vast international cash reserves, encourages friends and foes alike to support local opposition groups that destabilise the country.

At the same time, its historic support of religious extremists is no longer a viable way for it to gain regional influence, and is counterproductive if it wants to maintain a close relationship with Washington.

There is, however, one option open to Saudi Arabia if it wants to maintain the stability of the kingdom and challenge Iran: it should convince the US to stop arming the Iraqi government and persuade it to put pressure on al-Maliki to end his violent sectarian policies. US weapons are being used by the Iranian al-Quds Force to crush the Iraqi opposition and kill innocent civilians. The Saudis should also offer active support to those Iraqis resisting al-Maliki’s rule, such as by providing training camps to members of the former Iraqi national army, disbanded by Viceroy Paul Bremer in 2003.

In the face of potentially existential threats, a politically, economically and militarily powerful Iraq would no doubt enhance Saudi Arabia’s chances of political survival, against all the odds.

Burhan Al-Chalabi is the publisher of the London Magazine

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war