David Cameron this week spent three days in the Persian Gulf, leading a UK business delegation in a series of meetings with officials from the entrenched dictatorships of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. His goal was to show “respect and friendship” for both countries while securing business deals with them — and Oman — for the defence manufacturer BAE Systems. With 300,000 jobs in Britain apparently at stake, such sales, potentially worth billions of pounds, were “legitimate and right”, Cameron declared. He intended “to help Britain compete and thrive in the global [arms] race.” In particular, he was trying to persuade the Emirates to buy 60 Eurofighter Typhoons to replace their ageing fleet of French Mirage jets; and to sell yet more of the same to the Saudis (who already have 72). A permanent Western military base in the Emirates was also in the offing, justified by the threat posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
A decades-old pact was thus solidified. The Sunni monarchies provide a steady supply of affordable oil to the West. In return, they funnel much of the cash back in the form of arms deals and private investments. By default, the West secures stability in countries that may indeed have abysmal human rights records but which pose no military threat to Israel, are vital to containing their arch-rival Iran and are therefore crucial to the West’s economic and geopolitical interests.
It could all be described as business as normal, if it were not for the fact that Cameron’s trip took place in the midst of the so-called Arab Spring. This accounts for the curious timing of Cameron’s whirlwind tour of wheeling, dealing and horse-trading. The world’s media was preoccupied with the US presidential election results. Cameron’s decision not to invite a gaggle of UK media hacks on his private plane was equally cunning. Instead, he tried to reconcile his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and his eagerness to sell fighter jets to the region’s two most cruelly repressive regimes in a single BBC interview with the ever-sanguine Frank Gardner and the Abu Dhabi-funded newspaper The National, supplemented by brief press conferences.
Mr Cameron fell flat on his face at every turn. “Different countries take different pathways to becoming more open societies,” he said. “We should be respectful of the different journey countries can take and… of different traditions and different cultures.”
Which begs the question: Why endorse the region-wide upheavals with the generic term “Arab Spring”? In fact, the people of North Africa and the Levant colloquially describe Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis as “Arabs”, to distance themselves from a region they generally loathe as full of ignorant but super-rich Bedouin who abuse immigrant workers from poorer Arab countries while flocking to the latter in their desperate search for alcohol and prostitutes.
Moreover, the Emirates’ own foreign affairs minister, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, rebuked Cameron by warning that the West should “be wary” of supporting opposition groups born out of the Arab Spring protests. Mr Gargash’s description of the Emirates as a “outward looking, secular, and open” was mere hogwash. Some 60 political dissidents have been detained in the Emirates during the past year, merely for calling for greater democracy.
However, his analysis of the consequences of the Arab Spring was spot on: “Many people are still caught in the euphoria of the Arab Spring but in reality what we’re seeing currently… is basically an entrenchment of conservative religious parties.”
The real irony is that the Sunni monarchies are themselves increasingly under threat. Jordan is teetering on the brink of a popular uprising; tens of thousands of Kuwaitis have held unprecedented demonstrations in recent weeks; the Shia-led uprising in Bahrain has regained momentum; and protests in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia show no sign of petering out. A number of highly respected Western experts on the Persian Gulf are now predicting the Sunni monarchies’ demise within the next five years.
Waiting in the wings are indeed radical Islamist groups. As in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the West’s folly in unconditionally supporting the Sunni Gulf monarchies could have disastrous long-term consequences.
Indeed, the next time Mr Gargash meets a British prime minister, it may well be in London as he applies for political asylum.