As editor of Defence Review, I normally talk to senior industrialists, officers and politicians who tend to be rather conservative – especially if they are in the current government. To provide a contrast, I wanted to interview George Galloway MP, who, despite his high-volume lambasting of government policy on Iraq and Afghanistan among others, is actually the senior vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s foreign affairs committee.
After tea and a very cordial welcome, the former amateur boxer was very pugnacious as he castigated the “militarised mendacity of the [UK] government” over allegations that Iraq’s oil revenues destined for food were being diverted by Saddam Hussein to the development of weapons. As for George Bush, he was “an inch from imbecility”.
This was all familiar territory to George Galloway-watchers. Then he broached an entirely new project that – if true – could have huge international ramifications.
I asked whether he advocated removing western support from the House of Saud.
“I regard the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as a very big step forward from what went before. I think that he is a person of some dignity, but I also believe that other members of his family are corrupt and are slaves of the west. The big question in Saudi Arabia is whether Crown Prince Abdullah will be able to establish full control of the country. If he does, I think you’ll see a different policy from Saudi Arabia towards the Iraq issue, the Palestine issue and the question of whether the oil wealth of the Arabs is for the Arabs or the west.
“The question may be answered for us, however. There are people in these buildings around here [Westminster/Whitehall] . . . who never knew anything about the struggle to unify Saudi Arabia by the Saud family, who are now openly discussing the dismemberment of Saudi Arabia, openly discussing its partition – a new Sykes-Picot in Saudi Arabia. MPs, ministers and ex-ministers have all spoken to me in the past few months.”
I wanted to know who, but Galloway would not divulge any names. However, he did suggest that a “new Sykes-Picot” – the absorption into the British and French empires of swathes of the Middle East after the First World War – “if not on the drawing boards is at least in the air in powerful Anglo-American circles”.
“You say ministers, ex-ministers and MPs. Please give me names.”
“I can’t. But all these categories of people have been coming up to me in the tea-room and talking about Hijaz and Najd, and suchlike. As though they’ve only just discovered that Saudi Arabia is an artificial state . . . and may not always be one state.”
The MP continued: “Their argument is: we are interested only in one small part of Saudi Arabia – the eastern province where the oil is. If the Islamists don’t like us being in Saudi Arabia, then let’s have two Saudi Arabias. Let the Muslims keep Mecca and Medina. We’re not interested in controlling their holy places; all we want to control is their oil. There is a neat demographic division between the eastern province and the others, allowing the potential for division: 25 per cent of the population in the eastern province are Shi’ite, for example. Saudi Arabia has so far refused to join the war plan against Iraq. The Americans may make them pay a high price for that.”
This was strong stuff, but the Scot was now into his stride: “The ambition of the Bush administration does not stretch only to the removal from power of Saddam Hussein . . . They can, when King Fahd passes away and the crown prince becomes king, make sure that the crown prince appoints one of their men. Or perhaps we’ll find the situation where Crown Prince Abdullah doesn’t make it to the throne at all. They are rightly very worried about the stability of Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis were to use their land for the 250,000-strong crusader army to invade Iraq, then the chances of survival for the House of Saud would be very, very slim.”
I scoured my contacts in the murky underworld of defence and foreign planning. The kindest interpretation was that Galloway had picked up some bar talk. Government officials went on the record with: “It is balderdash.” And yet Galloway’s ties with the Foreign Office are good, even though the Ministry of Defence is hostile, not least because of his direct-action campaigns against nuclear weapons (he was recently arrested and fined for protesting at Faslane).
Galloway’s information does not sound wholly implausible. So far, the US-Saudi special relationship has lasted 50 years because of a simple deal: oil in exchange for security. American bases in the kingdom would be useful in a war against Iraq, but they are not necessary. In exchange for being let off the hook, the Saudis will accept, indeed welcome, a change of regime in Baghdad – providing it is done in a relatively surgical way.
Dr Paul Moorcraft recently left the Ministry of Defence to become editor of Defence Review