Journalists suffer from a occupational disease. We have a bad habit of placing ourselves at the centre of events, even though, more often than not , we are as distant to it as everyone else is. The corollary of that is that when we find ourselves by chance in the middle of a big story, we fail to see it.
Brexit Britain; a US presidency in perpetual crisis, one plea bargain away from impeachment; the rise of the extreme right in Germany, Sweden, Italy; the culture wars in France against the veil —- all these are symptoms of a similar political and social malaise.The world’s wealthiest per capita populations appear to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown, unable to find leaders they can trust, indulging in identity politics, with a white working class left behind by neo-liberalism who take out their frustration on immigrants and Muslims.
Rather like global warming, the effects of this mental condition are to be felt across Europe and the US : populism; ethno-nationalism; the use of anger as a tool of political discourse; public reputations destroyed in a tweet and without evidence and a universal sense of victimhood.
The internet works as an accelerator, but the causes of this state of mind are harder to pin down. Is this a delayed reaction to the banking crash ten years ago, and the stagnant economies since, or are there fears that another bigger collapse built on a mountain of private debt could be around the corner?
Or is a collapse taking place on a grander scale? Are we at the end of empire? Are we collectively witnessing the decline and fall of the West as a global reference point ? Is the bench mark from which other lines have been drawn across the globe, in economic, political and social discourse since the end of the Second World War gradually disappearing?
The US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, and the US armed forces the only truly global military power. But the self-confidence which contributed to such military campaigns such as Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Libya in 2011, and an intervention-lite policy in Syria in the same year, has vanished. Warrior philosophers like David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal have gone too, even though the theories which nurtured such interventions, neo-conservatism abroad and neo-liberalism at home live on.
The battalions of Western “ state builders” and “ transition economists” who once descended on Moscow at the end of the Soviet Union and the start of Russian Federation, have withdrawn with their tails between their legs.
Confidence is an essential component of intervention. I remember how a senior KGB general described coming to work at the start of a short-lived coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.The seasoned KGB man told me he knew the coup would not work when he saw the lead tank stop at a red traffic light.
This brings me to one very obvious point. The region we call the Middle East has lost its monopoly of political chaos. There is a concurrent political and social crisis going on the very countries that shaped and dominated the Middle East, the countries which sent out the Gertrude Bells, the Sykes, the Picots and the Balfours of this world. The boundaries, too, of the Middle East as a region of chaos are no longer hermetically sealed. It is less clear where one region’s chaos starts and another region’s stops. They are fundamentally intertwined.
Colonial relationships reversed
In some cases, colonial relationships are reversed. At times it appears as if the new rulers of the Middle East are in driving seat of British, French and US foreign policy, and we Brits, French and Americans are in the back seat. When the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed turned up in London to demand a response to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron jumped to attention, ordering a domestic inquiry into the activities of the Ikwan in Britain. This was resisted both by the Foreign Office and the external security service MI6, who swiftly cleared the Brotherhood of links to terrorism. The resulting review by Britain’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins has never been published in full.
The same pattern was repeated with Trump and the blockade of Qatar, which was a policy born in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh . It was licensed in Trump’s tweets but disowned by his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Pentagon.
The same reversal of roles between sponsor and sponsored can be seen in the careers of John Bolton, the national security adviser and David Friedman, US ambassador – who are arguably more committed to Israel than they are to the US.
Bolton, in the words of Danny Gilerman , then Israeli ambassador to the UN , was so fervent in his support of Israel that he “ called down fire on his own forces” , sabotaging the foreign policy of his then boss , Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Friedman has just said that Israel should not have to ask US permission to build in the West Bank. For which country is Friedman an ambassador? A White House which still claims a political settlement can be reached with the Palestinians, or the Settlers?
This is not a new phenomenon. It is however more pronounced now. Britain’s dependance on Saudi as a market for British arms industry goes all the way back to Margaret Thatcher, the corruption plagued al Yamamah contract and beyond. But its dependance is more acute now and will only increase post-Brexit.
A friend and colleague was once invited after a liquid lunch with William Hague, a former Foreign Secretary , to knock on any door in Charles Street the home of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He chose a door marked Head of Policy. He entered, and asked the Head of Policy , what British policy was towards Saudi Arabia : “11,000 jobs” the Head of Policy replied. The figure now is more like 9000 jobs, but the dependance on BaE Systems on contracts from the Saudi Royal Air Force has increased.
The same story was repeated by Spain’s decision to call off a contract to supply Saudi with laser-guided bombs, a decision reversed under the threat of a Saudi boycott.
Crises which feed off each other
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, two concurrent political crises are interconnected.
Despite the years which separate them, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Donald Trump have much in common. Neither have had to work for a living. Neither is overburdened by intelligence, education, or experience. For each, knowledge is a disqualification. Each man buys his friends, and blockades his enemies , whether that happens to be Qatar or the International Criminal Court . Both only trust their closest family and are strangely immune to expert opinion.
Both are outsiders to their respective political systems. They trade off the fact that they are outsiders but they also fear their isolation. When the New York Times published a devastating anonymous op-ed by written by someone on Trump’s team, the writer described it as an “act of resistance”. An interesting word for someone inside the White House to use.
Bin Salman felt so excluded by his princely cousins, that he was obliged to book audiences with them, much like any commoner. According to the secret author of the op-ed, Trump “veers off the rails.. engages in repetitive rants and whose impulsiveness results in half-baked , ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”
So when they found each other, they identified in each other strong characteristics which bind them together. Trump behaves transactionally and bilaterally. With him, what governs the world is bilateral transitional business between strong men, in relationships which are hammered out one on one. This is much how the Saudis think.
Trump has no problem bonding with President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, admiring his shoes, and telling the man responsible for the worst civilian massacre since Tienamen Square “ that he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” When an American citizen is involved, he tells his aides that Sisi is a “ fucking killer”. That how Trump’s mind works.
Bin Salman has a very clear foreign policy agenda. Under the close guidance of his mentor the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, it is to create a close personal, business and military relationship to America and Israel , and to leverage them to become leader of the Sunni Arab world. He wishes to construct a modern police state, whose surveillance technology is supplied by Israel’s high tech industry.
In carrying out this plan, bin Salman is relatively unconcerned about what the Arab street thinks.
He is oblivious to, and disdainful of, Jordan’s role as the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, and the legacy of the anguish King Hussein felt for losing the East of the city in 1967. This triggers bad memories among the Hashemites of Jordan, who remember their family once controlled all three holy sites of Islam,
As for the Palestinians, bin Salman walks and talks like the Israelis he is so keen to normalise relations with.
“For the past 40 years, the Palestinian leadership has missed opportunities again and again, and rejected all the offers it was given,” the Saudi leader reportedly said.“It’s about time that the Palestinians accept the offers, and agree to come to the negotiating table — or they should shut up and stop complaining,” he reportedly went on.
So what is the deal on the table? We should start with what is off it: East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State; the right of return; and the number of internationally recognised refugees reduced by nine tenths; UNWRA defunded along with hospitals giving Palestinians treatment in Jerusalem.
Worst still, the assumption underpinning all efforts since Madrid and Oslo to reach such a deal has been abolished. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative sponsored by then Saudi King Abdullah was predicated on the assumption that agreement would follow a successful negotiation, and then put to the popular vote in Palestine and Israel.
The logic of Saudi Arabia and UAE’s headlong attempts to normalise relations with Israel and trade with it, is to reverse this process. A deal is implemented before it is even published, let alone negotiated, let alone voted on. The latest evidence for this is Saudi Arabia’s ceasing to recognise the Jordanian passport, known as T passport, held by Jerusalemites . This is interpreted in Amman as a step to cease recognising Jordan’s custody over the Holy Sites of the city.
The longer the Palestinian side stays away from that table, the more they are penalised or punished by the implementation of a plan of action they have yet to have any hand in. This amounts to an imposed settlement , with Riyadh one of main enforcers working on Israel’s behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can hardly believe his luck. He has a US president in his pocket along with the de-facto leaders of three Arab states, Sisi, bin Salman and bin Zayed.
The Fragility of bilateralism
You will not be surprised if I now turn to the weaknesses of a world order based on this kind of bilateralism. The first is that it is person to person, not country to country, let alone people to people. When the person goes, there is a greater chance that the policy goes with him.
Bin Salman’s financial investment in Trump – up to $500b in arms contracts over the next decade – is not looking right now like a safe bet. One can indeed point to the Saudi direct investment interest in Silicon Valley, and in Elon Musk’s Tesla. But that is not yet strong enough to constitute a US national interest, which would be sustained by Trump’s successor.
The leverage acquired by bin Salman and bin Zayed on the current US president requires Trump to stay around. Anyone else, even a Republican in the mould of the late John McCain represents an existential threat to their project . McCain was described in the Egyptian media on his death as “the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood”, a stronger guide to the MB than both the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
This does not mean that the US will abandon Saudi after Trump, but it does mean US policy could easily revert to being more cautious, more neutral, less focussed exclusively on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, to the exclusion of Doha, Amman, Beirut, Ankara and Tehran. One could easily envisage a post Trump reinstatement of the nuclear accord with Iran, a goal that Tehran is today actively working towards.
The second weakness of this project is that it is counter-revolutionary. Bin Zayed ’s idea is to turn Saudi Arabia under a future King Mohammed into a bigger version of Abu Dhabi – a police state with liberal lip gloss. Saudi Arabia is a much more complex country. It has tribes, it has Wahabbism, socially conservative Islamists, it has a royal family used to a share out of the riches, and taking collective decisions.
Bin Salman has shattered the omertà – the obligation to maintain silence – in the al Saud family. The last story I covered was a curious incident on a London street in which King Salman’s brother Ahmed was accosted outside one of his homes by Yemeni and Bahraini protesters. Instead of ignoring them , Ahmed engaged with them. “Why are you saying this about Al Saud?“ Ahmed began. “What does the whole of the Al Saud family have to do with this? There are certain individuals who are responsible. Don’t involve anyone else.”
What Prince Ahmed meant was this : If we the family are not involved in your mad decisions to go to war in Yemen, we are not responsible. To attack both the royal family and popular conservative Islamist preachers at the same time, is risky. MbS will need all three rings of bodyguards to protect him. Maybe he already has had need of them.
The third point follows on from this : I still believe after all that has happened since the Arab Uprising, that the forces which fed it, which surprised the Brotherhood and overwhelmed two dictators are the greater and more durable than the forces which suppressed it.
It certainly does not look that way now, with Idlib the next target of the counter-revolutionary fight back. But viewed as pages of history which keep on turning, the forces of the Arab Spring will eventually prevail. This is not because they are particularly adept at unifying. Far from it.
The Egyptian opposition is chronically split as a functional political force. It is more that absolute rulers like bin Salman and el Sisi are hurtling down a path on which they can not reverse. Their rule alone will assemble greater and greater circles of Saudis and Egyptians, who will eventually find common cause in ending it and someone to do the job. Egyptians who supported the ouster of Mohammed Morsi have themselves been targeted by the same oppression. The sons of Hosni Mubarak are the latest the target of Sisi’s political vengeance .
The Arab Spring was the work of masses and the counter-revolution the response of elites. When the gloss of youth wears off, Bin Salman reverts an old-fashioned autocrat, a prince engaged on a project to bring dictator into the internet age. I think he will fail, as his projects crumble one after the other. He will create a lot of damage on the way, but I am confident in saying that he will not able to establish Abu Dhabi in Riyadh.