A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
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Jeremy Bowen: I know there’s trouble in the Middle East when I need my flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar pants

The BBC’s Middle East editor on John Kerry striking the wrong tone over Ukraine, and remembering the Aleppo souks.

I saw someone looking on sympathetically as my attempt at running for the train turned into a hop and then a hobble. It was the kind of sympathy no middle-aged person needs or wants and I didn’t turn around to look for any more when the doors of the carriage came together with a smug hiss, leaving me on the platform. At the moment my left knee, calf and Achilles tendon have various injuries, all caused by sport. Some go back to the late 1970s. The most recent was self-inflicted during a rash attempt to ski off-piste a month or so ago.

Journalists in the Middle East need to be mobile. Visits to presidential palaces, foreign ministries and embassies all matter but being on the streets is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. My physio tells me I will stop limping fairly soon. Then I’ll be able to cycle and, after that, run.

Perhaps getting my left leg to work properly will be a mixed blessing. In the past year or so, two good legs have taken me to any number of Egyptian riots and have stumbled, nervously, as I tried to wade through streets full of rubble in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. And they have trudged through the snow in miserable informal  refugee settlements for Syrians in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Informal” means their inhabitants are barely supplied, burning pieces of plastic to keep warm and melting snow to get water.

 

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Sometimes the challenge of covering the misery and complexity of the modern Middle East is almost overwhelming. Since the Arab uprisings started at the end of 2010 the region has been in a profound process of change, which looks likely to go on for at least a generation.

Its consequences have turned millions of lives upside down and in Syria alone ended more than 100,000. Journalists have been extremely busy.

I always have a big flight case packed in my garage. It contains a flak jacket, a ballistic hel­met, vivid yellow and black Kevlar-woven “blast boxers”, assorted dressings and first-aid kits, along with a riot helmet, a gas mask and shatter-proof protective glasses. The case is my personal index of Middle Eastern trouble. I needed it all only rarely before 2011, usually because of a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians or Lebanese. Now I take the case to most places.

 

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The international news reporting machine has turned its attention to Ukraine. I would never wish the attentions of a pack of journalists on anyone. Yet the world is in a time of trouble and bad news is going to happen somewhere. The Middle East is still pumping out stories, but for now Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin are getting top billing.

It is a relief, in a strange way. I have been travelling for more than half of the time since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began in January 2011. It’s refreshing to be able to hobble for the train in London.

 

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I watched a live broadcast of the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Ukraine. The way he mocked the Russians at his news conference sounded as if he was trying to win a debate, not help settle a crisis. I think that Russia should not send its troops on to the territory of its neighbours. However, it is hard to listen to an American official talking about sovereign territory, international law and invasions without thinking about what happened in Iraq in 2003.

I am not proposing a reprise of the row over UN Security Council resolutions or whether or not the United States, the UK and their allies were acting legally or illegally but it is important to remember that many countries did not buy the west’s version, so it has to expect a sceptical response when it scolds others.

 

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If Middle East politics was a lake, it would always be turbulent. The US and UK threw in a big rock in 2003 and the waves it made are still washing up, from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from the obscene amount of death in Iraq since 2003, the worst consequence of the invasion was the way it heated up sectarian tensions.

The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims make up one of the world’s oldest religious and political quarrels. Yet the invasion’s reordering of the regional balance of power brought the conflict stretching and snarling into the new century. Events since then have made it much worse.

 

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In early March, I will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The organisers have invited authors to bring a guest. Mine is my 13-year-old daughter, Mattie. It’s not her first time in the Middle East. In 2010, with my mother, we travelled through Lebanon and Syria.

We couldn’t do that now. Mattie loved the Old City in Damascus. She would still be able to recognise it. Physically it has barely been touched by the war, though foreigners are rare and foreign tourists extinct. Most of all she loved the old heart of Aleppo, its alleys, khans and mosques and the great citadel. Friendly traders sold us dried fruit, freshly roasted nuts, soap made from olives, embroidered cotton and a slimy nylon football shirt in Syrian colours.

Every time I see pictures of the devastation, the deserted, burnt-out souks, the toppled minarets and punctured domes, I think of the people who used to buy and sell in Aleppo’s narrow streets, of the way they smiled at my mother and daughter, and wonder what happened to them. l

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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