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The bizarre alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia is finally fraying

As the conflict in Yemen rages, there are plenty of signs that times are changing.

How would you explain the long-standing and bizarre alliance between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the proverbial Martian who had landed on Earth for the first time? The close friendship between the secular republic and the Salafist theocracy? The unbreakable bond between the liberal democracy and the absolute monarchy? You would probably have to begin by going back to February 1945. That’s when Franklin D Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, on-board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, to strike a Faustian bargain: Washington would provide the security while Riyadh would provide the oil.

No US president since FDR has deviated even slightly from these terms – not even Barack Obama who, while loathed by the Saudis for his Iran nuclear deal, agreed to sell an unprecedented $115bn worth of weapons to them during his eight years in office. (British governments haven’t been any better: the Saudis have been close allies and major buyers of UK arms since the 1960s and, this summer, Theresa May buried an official report on the foreign funding of extremism which is believed to have highlighted the significant role played by Saudi Arabia.)

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That’s been the shameless position of Western governments when it comes to the Gulf kingdom. Successive US administrations, Democrat and Republican, have even stayed silent on the supposedly all-important issue of terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens? No problem. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to a leaked State Department memo? Don’t worry about it. Islamic State is printing copies of Saudi textbooks to use in their schools? Ssshhhh.

These days, the conventional wisdom is that the Trump administration has revitalised the US-Saudi special relationship. The president – who once suggested the Saudi government was behind 9/11! – made the kingdom the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip in May and then threw his full support behind Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s controversial purge of his royal rivals on 4 November.

Yet the conventional wisdom may be wrong. There are plenty of signs that times are changing. Consider events on Capitol Hill. In September 2016, a bipartisan bill in the Senate to stop the sale of more than $1bn worth of American-made tanks and other weapons to Saudi Arabia was defeated 71 to 27. Yet, in June this year, a similar bipartisan bill to block the $510m sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia was defeated by a much narrower margin: 53 to 47. “Regardless of whether the number is 48 or 51 or 45, this is an important message to the Saudis that we are all watching,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters ahead of the vote. Other senators have gone further. “I consider [Saudi Arabia] to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world… they are not an ally of the United States,” Bernie Sanders, a supporter of the Murphy bill and perhaps the single most influential political figure in America right now, told me in a recent interview.

On 13 November, for the first time since the Saudi-led, US-backed bombing campaign in Yemen began in March 2015, the House of Representatives voted 366 to 30 in favour of a controversial resolution. It noted how “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorising the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war” and denounced the “deliberate targeting” of civilians. The (non-binding) resolution also pointed out that the US has “provided midair refuelling services to Saudi-led Arab Coalition warplanes” and that “at least 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in this conflict since 2015”.

Co-sponsor Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, tells me he is outraged by the Saudi-induced “humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen. “Why in the world is the United States aiding the bombing of a civilian population which is leading to outbreaks of cholera and famine?”

Khanna does not advocate any sort of confrontation with Riyadh but thinks the US “certainly should not be doing their bidding”. Such increased hostility from legislators, combined with the growing number of anti-Saudi op-eds in the American press, is perhaps part of the reason why Riyadh, as reported by the Financial Times, plans to set up new public relations “hubs” to “improve international perception of the kingdom”. It may also help explain the rather cynical timing of the Saudi king’s recent decision to lift the ban on women drivers.

But can a PR offensive save the House of Saud, which has beheaded far more people than Islamic State? How long are US politicians and pundits expected to turn a blind eye to Saudi support – both ideological and financial – for some of the worst “jihadist” groups? “How can you be allied with a regime that is exporting terrorism?” asks Khanna. The Saudi vision of Islam, he adds, “is against pluralistic, liberal, open values”.

Khanna is well aware of the influence of the Saudi lobby, which he acknowledges has “built relationships” with power players across Washington DC and helped cement the seven-decade alliance between the two countries. Nevertheless, he has a clear message for Riyadh. “There is a growing sentiment on the right and left that we should hold Saudi Arabia more accountable,” Khanna says, referring to his colleagues on Capitol Hill. “We’re not going to give up.” The Saudis can’t say they weren’t warned.

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 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist