Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies
by Ian Sinclair
29 March 2022
In 1917, after listening to an account of fighting on the Western Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have said “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
80 years later and a similar quote from a “senior official” was included in a book published by the establishment think-tank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”
The government camouflages the reality of British foreign policy in a variety of ways, including blunt censorship by the British military in war zones, ‘requests’ to edit reporting by issuing D-notices, the favouring of particular journalists and, likely most important, the normalisation of policy discussion and decision making that excludes the general public – an arrangement largely taken for granted by the media.
As Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Ruth Harris, a researcher at RAND Europe, noted in a 2020 report prepared for the Ministry of Defence, “The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power.” This means “the making of [‘defence’] strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.”
Nowhere is this defacto concealment of British actions abroad more important than the UK’s relations with the repressive monarchies in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Check out, for example, the 1972 Thames Television documentary about the war in the Dhofar region of Oman, available on Youtube. “The war in Oman is an unknown war and Britain’s involvement in it something of a mystery,” presenter Vanya Kewley notes about the British role supporting the dictatorial Sultan Qaboos in the war against leftist rebels. Why? “Both the British government and the government of Oman are anxious to play down the British presence in such a sensitive area of the Arab World where British soldiers are fighting and dying for the Sultan of Oman,” she notes.
Mark Curtis explains the inconvenient truth in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World: “British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests.”
“Torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm” in these nations, he notes.
Little has changed since then. In the UAE, “scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences… in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges,” Human Rights Watch report. Saudi Arabia recently executed 81 men on one single day. And though it seems to have been forgotten, in 2006 the head of the Saudi national security council “threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London” unless a UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into a UK-Saudi arms deal was halted, according to the Guardian. (Days later Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Attorney General and the inquiry was, indeed, dropped).
In Kuwait – generally consider the most open society in the Gulf – criticism of the head of state is outlawed, sex between men is criminalised and nearly 5,000 books were banned in the seven years up to 2020, according to the Guardian. “Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and the country’s cybercrime law to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents,” Human Rights Watch note.
How did the UK respond to the challenge the Arab Spring represented to the Gulf’s rulers? “With a major strategic vote of confidence in the conservative regional order,” David Wearing explains in his 2018 book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Speaking about the UK’s support for Bahrain following its violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, Middle East specialist Professor Rosemary Hollis noted “the British do not want to be seen – in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this – to be aiding and abetting oppression of the civilian population.”
As with the quotes from Lloyd George and the unnamed “senior official” above, the underlying assumption is the British public is a threat to the UK’s support for the Gulf’s repressive elites – that people would be distressed by the truth. Indeed, occasionally it becomes clear just how much the public cares given enough information. According to John Pilger, when his 1994 documentary Death of a Nation, about the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the genocide that followed, was first shown on TV it triggered more than 4,000 calls a minute to a helpline telephone number in the hours that followed. More recently, around one million people marched in London on 15 February 2003 in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq – the largest demonstration in British history. And earlier this month more than 100,000 British people offered homes to Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the government scheme that allows families and individuals to bring them to the UK.
However, when it comes to revealing and explaining what the UK and the local elites are up to in the Gulf, institutions that should inform the public have not done their job.
Media coverage of UK foreign policy tends to broadly follow the priorities and interests of policymakers, with minimal space allowed for critical, independent journalism. “Key British foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, are being routinely under- or un-reported in the UK national press”, Curtis noted in 2020. For example, on 13 March investigative journalist John McEvoy tweeted “The Guardian has published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in all of 2022.”
Academic research on the Gulf is often compromised by the fact many academics and research centres focussing on the region are themselves funded by Gulf monarchies. As well as steering research away from sensitive topics, in his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies academic Christopher Davidson argues this funding means “it is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has… paid for his or her salary”.
The funders of two premier think-tanks focussed on UK foreign policy, Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute, include the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, US State Department, BP, Chevron, BAE System and the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Earlier this month Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – a UK government-funded organisation “working to strengthen democracy across the world” – “hasn’t a single ‘pro-democracy’ project in any of the 6 UK-backed Gulf dictatorships.”
Perhaps understandably, the anti-war movement and the broader left tends to focus on active wars, such as Ukraine now, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last two decades. However, this means the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states has largely been ignored.
What all this means is that for decades UK governments have been able to continue their support for the despotic governing monarchies in the Gulf with relatively little public scrutiny and opposition.
The job of concerned citizens should be clear: to bring the UK’s dirty dealings in the Gulf into the public sphere. As US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once famously claimed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
An idea: how about solidarity campaigns and organisations are set up for individual Gulf states, like there is already for Palestine, Venezuela and Western Sahara? These would draw attention to UK’s support for authoritarian rulers in the Gulf, educate the British public, act as a centre of knowledge and expertise and give support to pro-democracy activists and movements in the Gulf – all of which would apply pressure on the British government.
The Saudi Arabia Solidarity Campaign. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.