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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear