Tag Archives: Oman

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Book review: AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing

Book review: AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2018

Considering the region’s importance to the UK, it’s surprising to discover this essential and deeply impressive book is the first comprehensive study of the UK’s relationship with the authoritarian states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Taking a broadly Marxist perspective – the Middle East scholars Gilbert Achcar and Adam Hanieh are thanked for their guidance in the acknowledgements – David Wearing sets out how Britain has played an important role “in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”, which, in turn, has helped the UK to maintain its global power status since the demise of the British Empire.

Turning to the primary reason for Western interference in the region, Wearing, a Teaching Fellow at in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, notes “The UK’s current interest in Gulf oil and gas is less about direct energy supply and more about strategic, geopolitical and commercial interests”. He takes a similarly wide-angle analysis of the billions of pounds worth of weapons the UK sells to the GCC, arguing the arms trades are of key strategic value to British military power rather than simply about commercial profit. In addition, British arms sales have “enable[d] autocratic governments to stay in power”, Professor Eugene Rogan, the Director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, with many of the weapons “used against their own people”.

For example, Saudi Arabian soldiers rode into Bahrain to help crush the 2011 popular uprising in Tactica Armoured Personnel Carriers manufactured by BAE Systems in Newcastle Upon Tyne. “Even the police dogs we have are trained up by a British company called Top Dog”, the Bahraini activist Ala’a Shehabi told me in 2015.

Wearing also does a public service by devoting a section of the book to the ongoing Saudi-led, UK and US-backed assault on Yemen – the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet today, according to the United Nations. With the war energising Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a UN panel of experts, Wearing contends the ongoing slaughter is a good illustration of “the strength of the British state’s commitment to support the Saudi kingdom even in the face of considerable pressure and criticism”.

Carefully written and well referenced, Wearing writes in a very controlled academic style which is accessible to the general reader. He ends with some brief comments about an alternative UK foreign policy: abandon attempts to project power on the international stage, restrict the military posture to one of self-defence, and transfer the arms industry’s highly-skilled workforce to the growing renewable energy sector.

Though Wearing doesn’t mention it, the best chance of achieving these much-needed changes in the near future is almost certainly a Corbyn-led Labour government. If implemented these unprecedented shifts would, of course, transform our relationship with the Gulf autocracies, giving civil society activists and the people of the GCC a fighting chance of winning significant democratic change in their own nations.

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 January 2017

A Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, in 2012 Dr Christopher Davidson published the best-seller After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.

Endorsed by John Pilger and Ilan Pappe, in his new book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, Davidson turns his attention to the West’s often covert counter-revolutionary activities in the region.

Ian Sinclair: What have been the US and UK’s broad aims in the Middle East since World War Two?

Christopher Davidson: Although limping through World War Two as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat.  With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counter-revolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what was now the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable resources. With ‘classic nationalism [having become] impotent’ in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale once described, many of the new ‘Arab nationalist’ revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries.

Despite some muted discomfort over Britain’s stance on Arab nationalism, the United States of the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union.  Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by such antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counter-revolutionary action, even surpassing the British. As Karl Korsch put it, the US may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage it was fast losing its ‘capitalist infancy’.

Advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat, and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East, and especially the Persian Gulf region, was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check.  As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the US. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a ‘high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.

Just two years later the region got its own ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’; an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that ‘the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East…’, Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was ‘prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. He also proclaimed that ‘the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the US before it is filled by Russia’.

The sudden special treatment of the Middle East at this time was, for the most part, due to the simultaneous deepening of US dependency on crude oil imports. Although still a net exporter at the end of World War Two, by 1950 the US was importing a million barrels per day, and by the 1960s more than a third of the US energy demands were being met by such imports, mostly from the Shah’s Iran and the Gulf monarchies. US oil companies had already arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in 1933, eventually founding the American-Arabian Oil Company – Aramco – in Saudi Arabia, and with President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming in 1943 that ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US.

IS: Though most accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East focus on the large scale interventions such as the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Shadow Wars you’ve decided to look at the West’s often covert actions in the region. What are some of the common strategies and tactics the West has used to achieve their aims in the Middle East?

CD: Since the 1950s a variety of different strategies and tactics have been employed, mostly determined by the scale and urgency of the perceived threat to Western interests. The first ‘wave’ of activity, led by the US and Britain’s fast-growing intelligence agencies, mostly comprised of assassination attempts, false flag operations, and efforts to destabilize uncooperative governments by sponsoring street protests and public political violence. Our best case studies from this period of course include the multiple attempts to kill off Gamal Abdel Nasser, the efforts to unseat Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, who sought to part-nationalize his country’s oil industry, and the steps taken to undermine various Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian administrations.

With other, more paramilitary threats, such as the challenges to Britain’s control over Yemen and then the Dhofar rebellion against the British-backed Omani sultan, such strategies needed to be supplemented by ‘shadow wars’ in which British forces were secretly deployed to assist the troops of their local clients or ‘proxy’ regional allies. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia was conducting airstrikes with considerable British assistance and was sponsoring ‘tribal irregulars’ to fight against a new nationalist regime that had unseated a British-backed imam who had been ruling autocratically over the northern part of the country. In Oman, as well as British intelligence helping to wage a propaganda war against the rebels, the SAS was being deployed without the British parliament’s knowledge, while forces from several other pro-British states including Iran and Jordan arrived to buttress the sultan’s beleaguered army.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, with the West’s demand for Middle Eastern resources intensifying and with the Soviet Union still undefeated, a much darker strategy started to form in which US and British officials sought to cultivate an ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement capable of countering secular, progressive or potentially Soviet-aligned national liberation movements, or even simply nationalist governments. Gestating since the 1960s, by the 1980s the strategy was bearing great fruit as a CIA and Saudi-funded international jihad had already facilitated the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and helped forge a hardline Islamic state along the vulnerable Muslim-majority southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Al-Qaeda had emerged in the jihad’s wake, and since then its leaders and various splinter organizations proved themselves more than capable of sustaining the same sort of financial networks originally put in place for the Afghan campaign.

In the 1990s such Islamic fighting forces remained a strategic, but volatile asset for the US and British intelligence agencies, with Al-Qaeda veterans helping form a jihadist ‘foreign legion’ in the Balkans to assist the Bosnian and Kosovan forces against Serbia, and with the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ – whose leaders were living in Britain – being protected and paid by MI6 as part of a plot to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Al-Qaeda blowback to the West by the end of the decade, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen was largely contained. Even the massive disaster of 9/11 – which briefly threatened to expose and undo the US’s historically useful relationships with Saudi Arabia and other ultraconservative allies in the region – was successfully repackaged as a casus belli for a fresh round of US military interventions against other problematic regimes, and was carefully refocused on the immediate symptoms rather than the root causes of Al-Qaeda terror.

More recently, the nationwide revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment and had satisfactorily played the game of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. Their overthrow certainly wrong-footed the Western powers, but very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began as the West again began to call on key regional allies to either sponsor Islamist parties that could continue to uphold capitalistic structures and prevent the formation of inclusive, democratic, and secular societies, or could sponsor hard-man ‘deep state’ military dictatorships if Islamist parties proved incapable of keeping the crowds off the streets. By March 2011 a parallel campaign had also been launched to help re-direct the ‘Arab Spring’ to states such as Libya and Syria that remained antagonistic to Western interests. Wilfully fostering, funding, and weaponizing localized uprisings in an effort to create fresh nationwide revolutions, key US and British allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE all played major roles in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under the banner of the Arab Spring.

IS: Your book includes several sections on the ongoing Syrian war. The media and think-tank commentary around the conflict seems to be increasingly dominated by analysts who are pro-US intervention, or at least sympathetic to Western governments’ broad framing of the conflict. What do you make of the common arguments being put forward about the war?

CD: Despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA] bungled efforts in the twentieth century, the Western powers have still repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria’s affairs, with even Britain having had fairly well developed plans prior to 2011 to use the terrorist-designated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and ‘armed men’ to destabilize the Al-Assad regime should it fail to prove more cooperative.  Given this, many seasoned commentators, and not just ardent anti-imperialists or pro-Iran/pro-Kremlin partisans, have correctly understood the dynamics behind the current, post-2011 Syrian conflict, seeing close parallels with the 1980s Afghanistan war, and understanding it as a function of covert Western assistance to Syrian opposition factions combined with more extensive support provided by the West’s regional allies to groups that have included Al-Qaeda franchises and other terrorist-designated organizations.

Nevertheless, as with the very vocal Western supporters of the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1980s, most of whom were oblivious to the CIA’s ongoing ‘Operation Cyclone’ and the other efforts to wilfully create a hardline central Asian Islamic state, a significant proportion of the Western commentariat today continues to call for even greater Western intervention in Syria, either on some sort of selective humanitarian basis, or because Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lobbying strongly for more extensive efforts to remove the Damascus administration from power once and for all, even if this would likely entail the disintegration of the Syrian nation state and the rise of yet another reactionary, conservative religious regime in the region. Indeed, most of the major think tanks and policy institutes in the United States and Britain that focus on Syria either receive substantial donations from such allied governments or, at minimum, have interests that are now incredibly closely intertwined with the political elites of the Gulf monarchies.

IS: What is the role of the Western mainstream media in the West’s ongoing shadow wars in the Middle East?

CD: In general, the Western ‘mainstream’ media seems to be suffering from something of a crisis, perhaps best exemplified by its relentlessly one-sided coverage of the British ‘Brexit’ referendum and the recent US presidential campaign, which has done little to contribute to informed debate and, as far as I can see, has helped to polarize Western society. Its coverage of international events is certainly in trouble too, as although there are still some outstanding foreign correspondents, severe cuts have drastically reduced the number able to provide high quality coalface reporting. I believe this is particularly evident when it comes to writing on the Middle East, as there are now only a handful of journalists left to cover several parallel conflicts all at once. Understandably unable to visit warzones populated by groups known to kidnap for ransom, this means that most have had to rely on difficult-to-vet intermediaries and an increasing army of organized ‘information entrepreneurs’.

Easily able to manipulate this situation, a number of bespoke media outlets and ‘atrocity propaganda’ operations either directly funded by Western governments or Western regional allies, and managed by leading PR firms, have been able to create believable, seemingly credible on-the-ground sources in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya that the Western media has largely had to rely upon. Usually identifiable by their catchy logos, high definition videos, slick websites, and bilingual twitter feeds, they are often ostensibly humanitarian, civil defence, or ‘citizen journalist’ non-governmental organizations, but yet they consistently produce a highly-politicized, and often very emotive narrative that almost always seeks to undermine the adversaries of the Western powers and their regional allies.  For those who remember the ‘Nayirah testimony’ of ‘babies in incubators’ in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, or perhaps the story of Soviet soldiers burning babies alive in Afghanistan, there is an eerie sense of familiarity.

IS: Other than your book, which other writers and books would you recommend to someone trying to understand the West’s real role in the Middle East?

CD: Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game. William Blum, Killing Hope. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs and Web of Deceit. Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.