Notes From the Margins…

Our Man in Riyadh

  • January 13, 2012
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Today, David Cameron makes his first state visit to that beacon of democracy and human rights Saudi Arabia.     According to the BBC’s ineffable ‘security correspondent’ Frank Gardner

 …the trip is important for both Mr Cameron and his Saudi hosts.   He says Saudi Arabia has been rattled by both the overthrow of its longstanding ally, President Mubarak of Egypt, and the recent tensions with Iran. He adds that both the UK and Saudi Arabia are hoping to forge a new strategic partnership in energy, business and security. A Saudi official says the leaders will discuss sales of the latest technology and weaponry, and making Britain a major part of a massive Saudi military expansion.

On the Today programme earlier, Gardiner also included Syria amongst the list of subjects that the Old Bullingdonian will be discussing with King Abdullah.     One imagines the conversation going something like this:

Cameron: Salaam aleikum Your Majesty.   I understand that you are rattled by the fall of Mubarak and the other momentous historical changes that have swept through the region in the last 12 months?

King Abdullah:   Aleikum salaam Prime Minister.   I am rattled – so rattled that sometimes I have difficulty sleeping at night.

Cameron: I’m awfully sorry to hear that Your Majesty.   If there is any way my country can assist you…

King Abdullah:   In fact there is.   You could sell my holy kingdom millions of pounds of fighter planes and other equipment to enhance our military capability, so that we will be able to assist you in our common goal of bringing about regime change amongst the Persian heretics and security and stability to our energy-rich region.

Cameron: I have anticipated this Your Majesty.   And I have brought with me an extensive list of cutting-edge technologies that I feel will be appropriate to your needs, which their company representatives will be happy to present to you.

King Abdullah: Praise be to God.

Cameron: And I’m sure that you also share our dedication to the principle of R2P and our concern for the brave people of Syria, whom we are morally obligated to prevent from genocide by all means necessary?

King Abdullah: My heart bleeds for them.

OK, so it probably won’t go exactly like this, but it’s nevertheless worth deconstructing Gardner’s plummy flannel about ‘security’ in a bit more detail. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has indeed been ‘rattled’ by the fall of Mubarak – and by the political challenges to similar regimes that are unfolding across the region – and is very keen to prevent these choppy waters from washing up against the House of Saud.

This is why 1, 500 troops were sent into Bahrain last March to snuff out the protest movement there – or rather ‘ to help protect government facilities’ as the official Saudi explanation put it. Saudi anxieties regarding the unwanted consequences of the Arab uprisings also explain the fact that Saudi Arabia – like the US – has continued to support Ali Abdallah Saleh’s attempts to remain in power in neighbouring Yemen over the last year, why it promised Egypt’s ruling military council $3.98 billion in order to provide Mubarak’s successors with ‘ a certain level of comfort’.

Then there is the ban on demonstrations inside Saudi Arabia itself, the suppression of internal dissent that includes more than 5,000 political prisoners, and the planned expansion of the Grand Mosque at Mecca to allow 2 million worshippers – more than double the current 800,000 capacity – a project that is clearly intended to enhance the House of Saud’s prestige in the Muslim world for reasons that undoubtedly owe as much to politics as they do to religion.

There is no doubt also that Saudi Arabia, like the other Gulf monarchies and emirates,   feels threatened by the strategic shift in the region towards Iran – so much so that it is arming itself to the teeth in preparation for war.   Saudi Arabia has also been instrumental in the diplomatic isolation of Syria and may well be keen to go further in weakening a country that is perceived to be a key Iranian ally.

Gardner’s assertion that Saudi Arabia is ‘rattled’ by ‘recent tensions with Iran’ somewhat glosses over the contribution that the Saudis themselves have made to these ‘tensions’, for example, through its contribution to last year’s ridiculous and blatantly stitched-up ‘Saudi ambassador assassination plot’ in the US.

It’s clear that Saudi Arabia is a key component in US contingency planning for war with Iran – and that the vast arms deals concluded by Obama last year are intended to create an armed proxy state that will do what is necessary when the time comes. But the Saudis can never get enough weapons, and some countries   can never sell enough of them.

Saudi Arabia currently devotes some seven percent of its GDP to military expenditure and the UK has always been one of its favoured suppliers.     Cameron himself insisted last year that Britain ‘ had nothing to be ashamed of’ in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and other regimes in the region.       Accompanied by delegates from BAE Systems and other UK arms firms on a visit to democratic Kuwait in February,   he argued that ‘democracies have the right to defend themselves’.

Apparently unelected monarchies do too – and a number of them were present at the Abu Dhabi arms fair that same month, where some 93 British companies were selling gear that included rubber bullets and CS gas.       And that brings us to the crux of the matter – ‘making Britain part of a massive Saudi military expansion’ as Gardner puts it.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate this desire   from the ongoing encirclement of Iran. Today, according to the New York Times, the US warned Iran that any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz will be considered a ‘red line’ that will not be be tolerated.

The tripwires are all in place – and if (when?) war breaks out, the House of Saud looks set to be a part of it.   And one thing you can be sure of, is that when Our Man in Riyadh sits down to chat with King Abdullah, democracy, peace and human rights will probably not be the main focus of attention.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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