Show Hide image

Britain’s two-faced relationship with Middle-Eastern tyranny has to end

It’s all very well preaching democracy, but while our government continues to arm and vocally suppor

Have you been invited to Kate's and Wills's wedding at Westminster Abbey on 29 April? No? I didn't think so. Nor have I.

But Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa has. He happens to be the king of Bahrain, where thousands of people have been peacefully protesting against his unelected royal regime since 14 February. His Majesty's response? On 16 February, shortly before dawn, he ordered his security forces to storm Pearl Square in the heart of Bahrain's capital, Manama, where the protesters - emulating those who had gathered in Cairo's Liberation Square - were camping out. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the king's sleeping subjects, killing at least four, including a two-year-old girl, and injuring hundreds of others. The next day, they switched to live ammunition.

Nonetheless, the king of Bahrain has received his gilded invitation from Buckingham Palace, embossed with the Queen's EIIR royal cypher. The Bahraini monarch is not the only Middle East tyrant to have made the cut. Invitations are reported to have gone out to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan. Then again, given the pace of events in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing unrest in Libya, it is a matter of debate as to whether the two Abdullahs or Hamad will still be in power come 29 April.

Despots of gold

In the Middle East, the age of autocracy could - belatedly, slowly, fitfully - be drawing to a close. The royal thrones of various Gulf despots are wobbling and, as we've seen, the military dictators in the region haven't been immune to the force of "people power" either: first, Air Chief Marshal Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; now, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

But where does our government stand as the Arabs revolt against their rulers? With the people or the princes? Shamefully, for much of the postwar period, the British establishment - royals, ministers, diplomats, spooks and the rest - has propped up the region's strongmen. "Why do we support reactionary, selfish and corrupt governments in the Middle East instead of leaders who have the interests of their people at heart?" asked Stafford Cripps, chancellor in the Attlee government between 1947 and 1950. In his book Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, based on declassified Foreign Office records, the historian Mark Curtis concludes that Britain's primary concern since 1945 has been "to defend the autocratic rulers of the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East against any external or internal opposition, however liberal or democratic, to ensure that pliant regimes are in charge".

New Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, failed to buck the trend. British support for, and complicity in, despotic, repressive and corrupt rule across the Arab world continued with alacrity between 1997 and 2010. Despite the invocation of an "ethical" foreign policy and all the talk of "liberal interventionism" - a concept that the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, has tried to resurrect in recent days, with his reference to a responsibility beyond your own borders" - in practice, Labour's approach had a distinctly realist bent.

But it went beyond mere realism, that is, the prioritisation of national interest or security over morality or ideology. Blair and his family stayed as guests of Mubarak at his villa in Sharm el Sheikh in December 2001; on 1 February, at the height of the Egyptian crisis, our former PM described Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good". What was he thinking?

During his ten years in No 10, Blair described Saudi Arabia as a "good friend" and, in 2006, intervened to block the Serious Fraud Office's investigation of a multibillion-pound arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi royals. In May 2007, he hugged Colonel Gaddafi at a meeting in the desert, at which the then BP boss, Tony Hayward, signed an oil and gas deal worth around £2bn - yet, less than a year earlier, Gaddafi had publicly encouraged his supporters to "kill" enemies of his regime. Gaddafi's son, Saif, has described our former premier as a "personal family friend". Blair's government armed and trained Bahrain's security forces; in 2001, his then trade minister, Elizabeth Symons, described the relationship between Britain and Bahrain as "special".

This Conservative-led coalition has proved to be no better. In his first major speech as Foreign Secretary, in July 2010, William Hague spoke of the new coalition's efforts to "elevate links with the Gulf" and of "strengthening our ties across the board". There was no mention of any need for political or economic reform; not a word about the lack of democracy or freedom in the Arab world. The first response to the uprising in Egypt from Hague's Foreign Office colleague Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East, was to call for "stability".

Hug-an-emir policy

On 22 February, in a much-lauded speech to the Kuwaiti parliament, David Cameron dumped Hague's "hug-an-emir" approach, dismissing the "false choice" between "our interests and our values" and arguing that "ours must now also be a partnership that recognises the importance of political and economic reform". (Perhaps Middle East policy should be added to the long list of coalition U-turns!)

But it was too little, too late. The unarmed protesters on the streets of Tripoli and Manama who have been attacked and shot at will not forgive the British state for having armed their governments. Cameron may have "condemned the violence" in Bahrain and Libya but, in 2010, the coalition approved the sale of tear gas, small arms ammunition, stun grenades and smoke canisters to the former; and teargas, small arms ammunition, military cameras and sniper rifles to the latter.

In recent days, the British government has revoked 44 licences to sell arms to Bahrain and eight licences for Libya. But there is no sign of an arms embargo, as demanded by Amnesty International. The Prime Minister was joined on his "democracy tour" of the region - prior to arriving in Kuwait, he became the first world leader to visit the post-Mubarak Egypt - by eight of Britain's leading arms manufacturers, including the boss of BAE.
Foreign policy should be based not just on commercial interests or pragmatic considerations but on sound judgement and strong values. On the Middle East, Cameron, like so many of his predecessors, has shown that we British continue to talk democracy while backing autocracy.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants