Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
9 November 2018

In his new book Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues the UK’s relationship with the authoritarian GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) is one of “asymmetric interdependence”: the UK and the Gulf monarchies depend upon each other, but it is the UK that is in the stronger position.

Providing a historical analysis starting from the British Empire’s dominant position in the Gulf, AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain explains how “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”, which, in turn, has assisted the UK maintaining its global power status since the demise of the British Empire.

Ian Sinclair questioned Wearing about the UK’s interest in the region’s energy reserves, its role in the Gulf during the 2011 Arab uprisings and how the relationship between the UK and Gulf may change in the short and long-term.

Ian Sinclair: You argue that the UK’s interest in the Gulf’s vast oil and gas reserves is not about “direct energy supply” to the UK. Can you explain why this is, and what the UK’s interest is really about?

David Wearing: Britain imported a lot of oil from the Middle East during the post-war years, but this tailed off significantly from the 1970s as North Sea oil came on stream. At this point, we import a little more than we export, and only about 3% of our imports come from Saudi Arabia, less from the other Gulf states. However, gas is an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and imports from Qatar comprise about 13% of our gas consumption.

Gulf oil does matter to the UK, but in different ways. First there’s the structural power in the world system that major states gain from control over hydrocarbons – the lifeblood of the industrialised world economy. Those sorts of geopolitical questions are slightly above the pay-grade of post-imperial Britain, but are of real relevance for the global hegemon, the United States, and the UK of course supports and complements US power in the Gulf. A reasonably stable flow of oil out of the Gulf is also important to the world economy (and thus to British capitalism, with its extensive global connections) since price shocks can be hugely disruptive. And Gulf oil remains a major commercial prize for two of the UK’s leading firms, BP and Shell.

But as I argue in the book, what the UK is interested in above all is the wealth that Gulf oil sales generate, and how it can use the connections developed with the Gulf Arab monarchies during the imperial era to attract those “petrodollars” into the British economy and arms industry.

The move to neoliberalism, and the consequent growth of the City of London alongside the decline of manufacturing export industry, has left Britain with a large and growing current account deficit. That’s the deficit between income and outgoings related to trade and investment that the UK has with the rest of the world. Running such a deficit puts downward pressure on your currency, which can be offset in two ways: first, by finding areas of the world where you can run a trade surplus, thus narrowing the overall deficit, and second, by attracting foreign inward investment, by which demand for assets in your own currency “finances” the deficit, and keeps your currency stable.

What I describe in my book is a process whereby, while neoliberalism in the UK was becoming more entrenched, the Gulf states were enjoying a huge windfall from oil prices, starting in the early 2000s and continuing until very recently. Gulf demand for imports of goods and services rocketed, as did the sovereign wealth they had available for investment. So British neoliberal capitalism and Gulf rentier capitalism came to complement each other. The UK provided the goods and services and the investment outlet that the Gulf monarchies required, while the Gulf monarchies provided an export market with which it was possible to build a trade surplus, as well as a source of capital inflows that could help finance the current account deficit.

In addition, about half of UK arms exports go to the Gulf, mainly to Saudi Arabia. Britain’s post-war strategic objective to remain a global military power despite the loss of empire requires it to maintain its own arms industry. Arms exports make that industry more economically viable, especially when we’re talking about the major, sophisticated weapons systems – military jets and the supporting infrastructure – that the UK provides to the Gulf monarchs. Those exports are a very small part of total UK exports worldwide – less than 1% – ad alternative employment could certainly be found for arms industry workers. This is not about economic benefits for the British people but the strategic priorities of the British state.

So “Gulf wealth matters to Britain”, as the book title says, but to a specific neoliberal, militaristic Britain. Gulf wealth could matter a lot less to the UK if we ran our economy differently and reconfigured our foreign relations.

IS: During the 2010-11 ‘Arab Spring’ there were significant pro-democracy protests in the Gulf, most notably in Bahrain. What was the UK’s response to these events?

DW: Notwithstanding the nominal “concerns” expressed by Whitehall about state abuses during the anti-democratic crackdown, the UK effectively took up the PR line of the Bahraini government: that the violence was down to sectarian divisions, that any abuses were regrettable mistakes, and that “reform” was now underway – led by the regime – to resolve matters. In reality, the uprising was broad based and democratic, the abuses were the predictable response of an authoritarian regime to the threat of democracy, and the “reforms” were designed to whitewash the regime’s international image and consolidate its position after that threat had been substantively extinguished. British arms sales increased during this period, and strategic military ties deepened considerably, in what was a visible vote of confidence in continued monarchical rule.

This was entirely consistent with the preceding two centuries of Britain’s involvement in the region. The Gulf was originally brought under the control of the British Empire as part of a wider buffer zone around the Indian subcontinent. Local rulers were given British protection, and through the crucial decades of state formation and development, especially as the oil revenues came in, the UK and increasingly the US played a decisive role in entrenching monarchical rule and building up the body and muscle of the coercive apparatus that blocked any prospect of socio-political change (despite the brave efforts of many of the region’s people).

In light of this, one can only attribute the common association of democracy with especially “Western values”, and the belief that authoritarianism springs from the region’s “culture”, to a refusal to look at the history, together with a deeply ingrained set of basically racist assumptions that frame many people’s understanding of our relationship with this part of the world.

IS: How might the economic and political responses needed to combat climate change alter the UK’s relationship with the Gulf?

DW: It’s increasingly understood that global decarbonisation is now a matter of urgency. Fundamentally, the majority of the world’s oil has to stay in the ground. Most Gulf oil goes to East Asia, and China in particular is making massive efforts to decarbonise. The oil-dependent Gulf monarchies could well be sitting on stranded assets, which means the petrodollars helping to prop up British neoliberalism and post-imperial militarism could soon begin to dry up. The UK needs to adapt to these realities.

IS: In the short-term, arguably the best chance for making significant and lasting positive change to the UK’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies is electing a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. How difficult would it be for a newly elected Labour government to shift the UK’s relationship with the GCC?

DW: As indicated above, these relationships are contingent, not inescapable. The Labour leadership’s aim of demilitarising UK foreign policy and transitioning away from neoliberalism fit well with – and would be decisive in making possible – a major rethink of UK relations with the Gulf Arab monarchs. The fact that it is achievable, however, does not mean that it wouldn’t be a challenge.

There are interests within the Labour Party committed to Britain maintaining a major arms industry, and its status as a military power. The 2017 manifesto was clearly a compromise between those interests and the Corbyn leadership. Sustaining that compromise results in the current line that Britain can compensate for ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia by selling an equivalent value of arms elsewhere. The reality is that alternative markets simply do not exist. Ending arms sales to the Gulf will undoubtedly impact on the UK arms industry and thus the UK’s ability to maintain its status as a military power. Corbyn and his allies will likely be fine with that, especially if they (correctly) believe that alternative jobs for arms industry workers could be created as part of the proposed industrial strategy. But they will be forced to stop triangulating on this issue area, and to take on and defeat the party right. If they frame that battle around what’s happening in Yemen they could mobilise the support of the mass membership and probably win.

On the wider economic dimensions, an export-oriented industrial strategy would over time obviate the need for petrodollar inflows to finance the current account deficit, but in the short and medium term that need might remain. The Saudis would have the option of retaliating against any cessation of UK arms supplies by pulling some of their investments, and Labour should at least be war-gaming such a scenario in advance of taking office. I suspect that, in their current position of weakness, especially after the Khashoggi murder, it’s doubtful that the Saudis would want to further alienate the Western allies upon whom they depend by taking such an aggressive action. I also suspect that a major programme of public investment under a Labour government would attract a good deal of foreign capital, which may well offset any withdrawal of Saudi and Gulf capital. But again, these are challenges that Labour would have to think through and prepare for.

The major misconception I’ve found when discussing my book in public and in the media is that the Gulf monarchs have decisive power over the UK and that there’s nothing policymakers can do about the relationship. That isn’t true. Recalibrating and disentangling these relationships is certainly possible. It won’t be easy, but the coming changes resulting from global warming make this challenge an inescapable one.

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.

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2018

With almost the entire Western media in a constant state of mass hysteria about Russian interference in Western political systems, it’s worth considering some pertinent information largely missing from the debate.

First, it is likely the scale and effectiveness of Russian interventions has been greatly exaggerated. “The simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it”, argued Masha Gessen, a US-Russian journalist and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, when asked about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election by National Public Radio.

“I feel a lot of pressure… from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat”, said New Yorker’s Adrian Chen – one of the first to write about Russian internet trolls – agreeing with Gessen. “People want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There’s not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue.”

Turning to the Brexit vote, research by the Oxford Internet Institute looked at 22.6 million tweets sent between March and July 2016, finding just 416 tweets from the Russian Internet Research Agency – the organisation the US Senate says is involved in interfering in Western elections. A second report from the University of Edinburgh discovered 419 accounts operated by the Agency attempting to influence UK politics. However, the study’s lead researcher told the Guardian these 419 accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of just 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Second, when asked about US claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential race, US academic Noam Chomsky replied “My guess is that most of the world is just collapsing in laughter.” Why? Because when it comes to undermining democratic systems Russia is an absolute beginner compared to the United States.

Here is the New York Times in February 2018: “Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades.”

According to a database compiled by political scientist Don Levin from Carnegie Mellon University, the US attempted to influence elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. In contrast, he found the Soviet Union/Russia had attempted to sway 36 elections in the same period. Reporting on the database in December 2016, the Los Angeles Times notes the US figure “doesn’t include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the US didn’t like, notably those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.”

On top of all this, the evidence clearly shows other nations have exerted a level of influence on Western governments and political systems that Russia could only dream of.

Chomsky again, this time speaking to Democracy Now! in August 2018: “If you’re interested in foreign interference in our elections, whatever the Russians may have done barely counts or weighs in the balance as compared with what another state does, openly, brazenly and with enormous support.”

Chomsky is referring to Israel, whose “intervention in US elections vastly overwhelms anything the Russians may have done”, he says. “I mean, even to the point where the Prime Minister of Israel, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, goes directly to Congress, without even informing the president, and speaks to Congress, with overwhelming applause, to try to undermine the president’s policies” —a reference to Netanyahu’s attempt, in 2015, to destroy the US-led deal to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Back in the UK, in January 2017 the Middle East Eye reported on “undercover recordings” that “revealed how an Israeli diplomat sought to establish organisations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence inside the opposition Labour party, in an effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” Shai Masot, the Israeli diplomat, said he had helped set up other groups in the UK which, although they presented themselves as independent, received support from the Israeli Embassy.

Israel is not the only Middle East nation who works to undercut Western democracies. In 2006 the Guardian reported that the British government – citing ‘national security’ concerns – had halted a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged corruption by the arms company BAE Systems, connected to their dealings with Saudi Arabia. According to the article “In recent weeks, BAE and the Saudi embassy had frantically lobbied the government for the long-running investigation to be discontinued.”

Like its regional ally in Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates has also been busy, carrying out an “intense lobbying campaign… over the last few years” in the UK, according to a new Spinwatch report. This campaign has “helped shape UK government policy towards Muslims at home, and UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East”.

This “massive” PR effort by the corporate-friendly Gulf dictatorship appears to have “had the desired effect”, Spinwatch notes. “With pressure building on Downing Street… the Emiratis pulled off” a “spectacular lobbying success… in March 2014, [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, out of almost nowhere, announced a review into the Muslim Brotherhood” – a useful folk devil for the UAE government.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to influence the heart of global power in Washington. For example, the Associated Press noted the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the UAE that started in June 2017 “ignited a multimillion-dollar battle for influence” with the two rivals spending “heavily over the last year on lawyers, lobbyists, public relations and advertising to seek better trade and security relationships with the United States”.

In a March 2018 article the New York Times reported on “an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of the two oil-rich Arab monarchies” UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim? “Pushing the White House to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and “backing confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar” – something Tillerson was seen as a block on.

This lobbying seems to have achieved one of its goals, with the New York Times’s Roger Cohen revealing that a European ambassador had told him about a December 2017 dinner party in Washington he attended along with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. After the ambassador had complained to Kushner that his nation’s foreign minister was having difficulty organising a meeting with Tillerson, apparently Otaiba said “Things will be much better when Mike’s installed.” Tillerson was sacked four months later, replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

What all this confirms is that media reporting and commentary is largely framed by the concerns of the governing elite. Which explains the difference in the size and tone of coverage – Russia has been designated an Official Enemy of the West, while Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE are close allies. However, it is important to separate the interests of Western elites and those of the general population. So while it is obvious why the British elite would want a close ties with the authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, it is difficult to see what the British public get out of these unholy associations.

The obsessive focus on Russian interference serves a couple of important functions. First, as highlighted above, it hides inconvenient but important truths – that many of our so-called allies are carrying out sophisticated and long-running campaigns to undermine the will of Western publics. And second, it acts as a displacement activity – instead of looking at the deep-seated domestic reasons behind Trump’s victory and why the UK voted for Brexit we continue to be fixated on the all-powerful evil Disney villain Putin.

As always, to see through the fog of propaganda and gain an accurate understanding of the world citizens need to be careful and critical consumers of the mainstream corporate news, making sure to combine their intake with a healthy dose of alternative and independent media.

Ian Sinclair tweets at @IanJSinclair

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 March 2018

A former Research Fellow at Chatham House and the ex-Director of the World Development Movement, British historian Mark Curtis has published several books on UK foreign policy, including 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, endorsed by Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Ian Sinclair asked Curtis about the recently published new edition of his 2010 book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

Ian Sinclair: With the so-called ‘war on terror’ the dominant framework for understanding Western foreign policy since 9/11, the central argument of your book – that Britain has been colluding with radical Islam for decades – will be a huge shock to many people. Can you give some examples?

Mark Curtis: UK governments – Conservative and Labour – have been colluding for decades with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The second group includes extremist private movements and organisations whom Britain has worked alongside and sometimes trained and financed, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. The roots of this lie in divide and rule policies under colonialism but collusion of this type took off in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

For example, in the 1999 Kosovo war, Britain secretly trained militants in the KLA who were working closely with al-Qaida fighters. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s right-hand man. The British provided military training for the KLA at secret camps in Kosovo and Albania where jihadist fighters also had their military centre. The ‘dirty secret’ of the July 2005 London bombings is that the bombers had links with violent Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Mujahidin whose militants were previously covertly supported by Britain in Afghanistan. These militant groups were long sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, in turn long armed and trained by Britain. If we go back further – to the 1953 MI6/CIA coup to overthrow Musaddiq in Iran – this involved plotting with Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani – who in 1945 founded the Fadayan-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), a militant fundamentalist organization – was funded by Britain and the US to organise opposition and arrange public demonstrations against Musaddiq.

More recently, in its military interventions and covert operations in Syria and Libya since 2011, Britain and its supported forces have been working alongside, and often in effective collaboration with, a variety of extremist and jihadist groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Indeed, the vicious Islamic State group and ideology that has recently emerged partly owes its origins and rise to the policies of Britain and its allies in the region

Although Britain has forged special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist extremists as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Whitehall does not work with these forces because it agrees with them but because they are useful at specific moments: in this sense, the collaboration highlights British weakness to find other on-the-ground foot soldiers to impose its policies. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they share the same hatred of popular nationalism and secularism as the British elite.

IS: Why has the UK colluded with radical Islamic organisations and nations?

MC: I argue that the evidence shows that radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.

This collusion has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies. The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh.

IS: You include a chapter in the new edition of the book exploring the UK and West’s role in Syria. Simon Tisdall recently noted in The Observer that the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. This is a common view – including on the Left. For example, in September 2014 Richard Seymour asserted “The US has not been heavily involved” in Syria, while in February 2017 Salvage magazine published a piece by Dr Jamie Allinson, who argued it was a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change” in Syria. What is your take on the West’s involvement in Syria?

MC: These are extraordinary comments revealing how poorly the mainstream media serves the public. I’ve tried to document in the updated version of Secret Affairs a chronology of Britain’s covert operations in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. These began with the deployment of MI6 and other British covert forces in 2011, within a few months after demonstrations in Syria began challenging the regime, to which the Syrian regime responded with brute force and terrible violence. British covert action, mainly undertaken in alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, has involved working alongside radical and jihadist groups, in effect supporting and empowering them. These extremist groups, which cultivated Muslim volunteers from numerous countries to fight Assad, have been strengthened by an influx of a massive quantity of arms and military training from the coalition of forces of which Britain has been a key part. At the same time, Britain and its allies’ policy has prolonged the war, exacerbating devastating human suffering.

UK support for Syrian rebel groups long focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), described by British officials as ‘moderates’. Yet for the first three years of the war, the FSA was in effect an ally of, and collaborator with, Islamic State and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. London and Washington continued to provide training and help send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of jihadists. Some of the militants who joined the Syrian insurgency with British covert support were Libyans who are believed to have been trained by British, French or US forces in Libya to overthrow Qadafi in 2011. Some went on to join Islamic State and also al-Nusra, which soon became one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad.

Britain appears to have played a key role in encouraging the creation of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria in November 2013, which included groups which regularly worked with al-Nusra; these included Liwa al-Tawhid – a group armed by Qatar and which coordinated attacks with al-Nusra – and Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group that rejected the FSA. Both groups contained foreign jihadists, including individuals from Britain. Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombing through a series of money transfers and personal contacts; a Spanish court document named him as Bin Laden’s ‘courier’ in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack.

The UK role in Syria has not been minor, but has been an integral part of the massive US/Arab arms and training operations, and British officials have been present in the control rooms for these operations in Jordan and Turkey. Britain also consistently took the lead in calling for further arms deliveries to the rebel forces. British covert action was in the early years of the war overwhelmingly focused on overthrowing Assad: evidence suggests that only in May 2015 did UK covert training focus on countering Islamic State in Syria.

IS: What role has the mainstream media played with regards to Britain working with radical Islam?

MC: It has largely buried it. In the period immediately after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, and more recently in the context of the wars in Libya and Syria, there were sporadic reports in the mainstream media which revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in Britain. Some of these individuals have been reported as working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas and some have been reported as being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture of collusion which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy: this is rarely noticed in the mainstream.

IS: The British public and the anti-war movement are not mentioned in your book, though they seem a potentially important influence on the nefarious and dangerous British foreign policies you highlight?

MC: Yes, it’s largely down to us, the British public, to prevent terrible policies being undertaken in our name. We should generally regard the British elite as it regards the public – as a threat to its interests. The biggest immediate single problem we face, in my view, is mainstream media reporting. While large sections of the public are deluged with misreporting, disinformation or simply the absence of coverage of key policies, there may never be a critical mass of people prepared to take action in their own interests to bring about a wholly different foreign policy. The mainstream media and propaganda system has been tremendously successful in the UK – the public can surely have very little knowledge of the actual nature of British foreign policy (past or present) and many people, apparently, seriously believe that the country generally (although it may make some mistakes) stands for peace, democracy and human rights all over the world. When you look at what they read (and don’t read) in the ‘news’ papers, it’s no surprise. The latest smears against Corbyn are further evidence of this, which I believe amounts to a ‘system’, since it is so widespread and rooted in the same interests of defending elite power and privilege.

The other, very much linked, problem, relates to the lack of real democracy in the UK and the narrow elitist decision-making in foreign policy. Governments retain enormous power to conduct covert operations (and policies generally) outside of public or parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees, meant to scrutinise the state, rarely do so properly and almost invariably fail to even question government on its most controversial policies. Parliamentary answers are often misleading and designed to keep the public in the dark. Past historical records of government decision-making are regularly withheld from the public, if not destroyed to cover up crimes. British ‘democracy’, which exists in some forms, otherwise resembles more an authoritarian state.

There are fundamental issues here about how policy gets made and in whose name. It’s not an issue of whether Labour or Conservative is in power since both obviously defend and propagate the elitist system. Jeremy Corbyn himself represents a real break with this but the most likely outcome, tragically, is that the Labour extremists (called ‘moderates’ in the mainstream) and the rest of the conservative/liberal system which believes in militarism, neo-liberalism and the defence of privilege, will prevail if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. The signs are already there in the Labour manifesto for the last election, which would have continued the present extremism in most aspects of UK foreign policy, even if it promised some change and still represented a major challenge to the establishment. Again, it will obviously be up to us to change policies, democratize the media and transform British governance more broadly.

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2018

Informed by months of research in the National Archives, this updated edition of Secret Affairs reconfirms the so-called war on terror the West has been waging since 9/11 “is a joke”, as British historian Mark Curtis argues.

Rather than the self-serving narrative endlessly repeated by Western governments and the credulous mainstream media, Curtis underlines how, in the pursuit of foreign policy and commercial interests, the UK has colluded with radical Islam for decades. UK support has gone to two sets of actors: major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Pakistan and the theocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and extremist movements and organisations. The UK’s relationship with the latter has tended to be “a matter of ad hoc opportunism”, Curtis notes, with Whitehall working with Islamist groups to counter what a Foreign Office official in the 1950s called the “virus of Arab Nationalism”. With this pan-Arab movement threatening the UK’s control over the Middle East’s vast energy reserves, the UK covertly connived with Islamist forces to overthrow the elected prime minister of Iran, aswell as attempting to bring down President Nasser in Egypt and the Syrian government.

First published in 2010, this new edition includes a welcome section on how the UK fought on the same side as radical Islamist forces in the 2011 NATO war to overthrow the Libyan government. Curtis also highlights how the UK has bolstered its “longstanding special relationship” with Saudi Arabia despite – or arguably because of – the Kingdom’s military intervention to prop up the Bahraini royal family in 2011, and its ravaging of Yemen over the past three years. Most devastating of all is the chapter on the UK-US intervention in Syria. According to The Observer’s Simon Tisdall the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. In contrast, Curtis notes that “beginning in 2011, Britain embarked on covert operations to overthrow the Assad regime”, working closely with those great democrats the Saudis to arm the rebels, knowing that there was a good chance the arms would reach the Nusra Front – Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Alongside Christopher Davidson’s 2016 book Shadow Wars, Curtis has written the most detailed and critical account of the West’s dangerous actions in Syria, which have both prolonged and escalated the conflict.

In a world full of Western government-created propaganda, Secret Affairs is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the reality of UK foreign policy.

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £10.99.

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 January 2018

Last month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy.

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook.

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion.

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media.

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.”

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor.

“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises.

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths.

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.”

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets).

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times.

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017.

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen.

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017.

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported.

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.”

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.”

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments.

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 July 2014

You’ll have heard, of course, of the maxim “Don’t speak ill of the dead”. However, you are probably less familiar with the media’s recent modification to this: “Don’t speak ill of the recently departed Foreign Secretary”.

Over at the Financial Times political commentator Janan Ganesh noted William Hague, who announced he was stepping down as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs last week, “has hardly erred” since taking over the Foreign Office in 2010. “Nobody disputes his technical competence, his facility with a brief, his easy but authoritative style of management”, explained Ganesh.

The Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Julian Borger reported that Hague had “suffered early setbacks but emerged at the end of it as a pioneering campaigner in partnership with one of the most glamorous film stars on the planet.” Indeed, Borger devotes over half of his article’s 756 words to Hague’s work with film star Angelina Jolie on sexual violence. And the “early setbacks”? That would be the rumours of Hague having an affair with his assistant and the incident when planes broke down trying to rescue British citizens from Libya.

Perhaps most shocking of all, Zara Taylor-Jackson, UNICEF UK’s Government Relations Manager, tweeted that Hague “has been a fantastic Foreign Secretary. He’s shown remarkable leadership in his efforts to end sexual violence in conflict.”

What these three responses to Hague’s resignation reveal is that propaganda is just as much about what is left out as what is actually stated.

So all three failed to mention that Hague was a key player in the NATO attack on Libya in 2011. The West quickly overstepped the United Nations resolution, escalating the level of violence and number of dead and arguably fanning the flames of conflict into Mali. Today Libya is in a state of perpetual violent crisis, with rival militias fighting over Tripoli’s international airport in the past week.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in pushing for war in Syria in August 2013, a course of action that would have increased the level of violence and dead, according to such anti-war liberal pinkos as two former NATO Secretary-Generals and Yacoub El Hillo, the highest ranking UN humanitarian official in Syria at the time.

They also failed to mention Hague’s involvement in the continuing US-NATO military occupation of Afghanistan. Last week the United Nations reported civilian casualties in Afghanistan had surged 24 percent in the first half of the year – their highest levels since 2009.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in standing with Bahrain’s rulers in opposition to democracy and human rights, and how Hague continued the long-standing British policy of supporting the other Gulf autocracies of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, overseeing billions of dollars of arms sales to these undemocratic governments.

They also failed to mention that while Hague has been foreign secretary Britain has armed Israel and provided cast-iron support to Israel as it attacks the “prison camp” of Gaza.

And finally they also failed to mention how Hague has given his support to the murderous US ‘war on terror’ and all that entails – drones attacks on seven nations, US special forces operations across the world, extraordinary rendition and the US prisons in Bagram and Guantanamo.

All this is not to single out Hague as especially bad or evil – he is simply fulfilling his role as British Foreign Secretary. If he had thought or acted differently he would never have risen so high in the British political elite. As the historian Mark Curtis explained in his 1995 book The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945 “Rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour have been in power.”

However, I would argue that writing an assessment of Hague’s time as Foreign Secretary and not mentioning any of these significant global events displays an extraordinary level of internalised establishment-friendly thinking – something huge chunks of the British media seem to excel at. As Curtis said in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, “The British liberal intelligentsia generally displays its servitude to the powers that be rather than to ordinary people, whether here or abroad.”