The controversial visit to Britain by the Saudi monarch highlighted the need for a more equitable alternative to the client state model.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's official state visit to Britain last week stirred up a lot of public debate regarding the propriety of feting the absolute monarch of one of the world's most repressive regimes, given the kingdom's dire human rights record and the exporting of its puritanical, iconoclastic and fiery Wahhabi version of Islam.
Although I agree that the Saudi regime ought to be more isolated internationally than it is, we must be careful not to express selective outrage. By the same token, should the queen refuse to greet George Bush because of the catastrophe he has unleashed on Iraq? Should the leaders of the countries who were opposed to the invasion of Iraq also refuse to meet Gordon Brown or before him Tony Blair? What about all those murky Anglo–American arms deals used to soak up those petrodollars?
A more profound reason is that Britain has played a pivotal role, over almost a century, in creating and arming the Saudi ogre it is now beginning to fear, and without a major Anglo-American policy shift, potential disaster looms around the corner.
Most people have heard of the larger-than-life exploits of the self-promoting Thomas Edward “Lawrence of Arabia” and his role in recruiting the Sharif of Mecca to rebel against Ottoman rule, rewarding his sons with thrones in Jordan and Iraq. A more obscure British agent who went by the more literary name William Shakespear forged a similar deal with the most conservative clan leader in Arabia, Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and his newfound kingdom became a British protectorate.
When abundant oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, its client status was sealed. In return for keeping supplies of cheap oil flowing, the British and Americans turned a blind eye to internal oppression and the messianic nature of the Saudi version of Islam. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, the export of Wahhabism was seen as a “moderating” counterbalance against the more independence-seeking pan-Arabist movement.
But the short-sighted nature of the indirect rule exercised over oil-rich Middle Eastern states through the client state model has served to deliver one disaster after another. It is essentially a system in which even moderate independence is not tolerated, which has led to the gradual radicalisation of the political landscape in Iraq, Iran, and festering under the surface, in Saudi Arabia.
It is exactly four years since President Bush launched a so-called new policy, “a forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East”. He observed that: “Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long term stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
Despite Bush's noble words, little has changed in the fundamental pattern of relations established by the British during the World War I, except for the fact that it has become more overtly militaristic since Bush came to office, as the proxy warfare favoured during the Cold War gave way to direct military engagement.
The basic pillars of this model, of which Saudi Arabia is a prime example, is that client regimes are invariably right, no matter what mischief they get up to at home or abroad, as long as it does not threaten the immediate economic interests of the West. Meanwhile, regimes which try to steer a more independent course are always wrong, no matter how much they respond to the will of their people and how much their presence may actually be beneficial for long-term global stability – Iran's Mohammad Mossadeq is a classic example of this.
For the past century or so, the chasm between lofty rhetoric and reality has been a gaping one, as are the refusal to learn lessons from earlier disastrous interventions. British Major-General Stanley Maud proclaimed upon entering the Iraqi capital in 1917: “People of Baghdad, remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants. Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”
Then, as now, the Iraqi people refused to be “liberated” at gunpoint and did not accept the installation of a foreign monarch to rule over them, even though the British unconvincingly claimed that King Faisal came to power with a 96% referendum showing. A similar situation took shape across the border in Iran.
This short-sighted policy led to a long and bloody series of revolts and coups and western-sponsored counter-coups which ultimately led to the virulently anti-western Iranian Islamic revolution and the turning of “our friend” Saddam Hussein against his one-time backers and sponsors.
Although this has not yet happened in Saudi Arabia, largely due to the brutal oppression of all opposition, some signs of this have already emerged, as the blowback from the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan amply illustrates, which led to the attacks of 11 September 2001.
This suppression of internal dissent has had dire consequences in Saudi Arabia. One of these is the fact that moderate and more secular opposition has been pretty much eliminated in the kingdom, leaving extreme Wahhabists with a growing monopoly on opposition.
As Saudi scholar Nawaf al-Obeid pointed out in his groundbreaking thesis, the Taliban of Afghanistan provide “a glimpse into what Saudi Arabia could become if the traditional balance of power is disrupted in favour of the religious establishment”, with the added catalyst of petrodollars.
So, what would happen if, as many analysts have feared for years, the House of Saud was overthrown by radical Islamists? It is difficult to tell whether life would get worse or better for your average Saudi given the ultra-conservative nature of the current regime. But it is likely that any revolutionary regime would be anti-western, given the decades of corruption western support has fostered in the kingdom and more hostile towards its Shia'a neighbours, given Wahhabism's total rejection of other versions of Islam.
Judging by the existing track record of the Anglo-American alliance, no matter what the complexion of the overthrowers – even if they were moderate secularists – any indigenous regime change in Saudi is unlikely to go down well.
A panic would probably ensue over the threat to oil supplies and all the western-supplied advanced weaponry that has fallen into “hostile” hands. Iran, which had also amassed a massive arsenal under the “friendly” Shah, was disarmed by proxy in Gulf War I, Iraq directly in Gulf Wars II and III, this future Saudi could be next in line in Gulf War IV or V (if the current overtures against Iran end in actual blows).
Not only would this be horrific news for the peoples of the Middle East, the world's most militarised region, but it would draw America into the kind of sapping cycle of conflict that brought down the imperial European powers in the 20th century. There is also the danger that, with China also scrambling for a share of the world's dwindling oil supplies, the fragile global order could be pushed over the edge and we could possibly see the first world war of the 21st century.
This worst-case scenario, and other less extreme but undesirable outcomes, can be averted through the abandonment of the client-state model and by nurturing Anglo-American tolerance of Middle Eastern peoples' right to choose. This would empower the emergence of a more moderate and less-hostile opposition. After all, Arab countries will not stop needing the technologically advanced West, but a more equal relationship will be to the long-term good of all concerned.
In a rare moment of clarity, TE Lawrence wrote in a letter to The Times: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government [sic] was notably bad but because they wanted independence.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 November 2007.