With Britain’s post-Brexit economic outlook uncertain, Prime Minister Theresa May was doing her best this week to drum up trade prospects in the Persian Gulf. But her assiduous courting of the monarchs and emirs in what is perhaps the most despotic region in the world spells, ironically, a Mayday distress signal for an intensification of conflict and human rights violations.
May, who took over from the ill-fated David Cameron following Britain’s shock referendum vote to quit the European Union in June, was attending the 37th annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). She was reportedly the first woman to ever address the GCC whose member states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman are all ruled by unelected, self-styled monarchs with appalling human rights records. This year’s summit was held in Bahrain, which like the other GCC member states is a former British colonial territory.
There seems little doubt that Britain is gearing up to maximize business ties with the Gulf. The push is given added impetus following the Brexit result and Britain’s forthcoming exclusion from the European single market. Britain’s touting for more business in the Gulf is apiece with similar unctuous overtures to US president-elect Donald Trump. Falling off the EU cliff, Britain needs to quickly find bilateral trade safety nets in other parts of the world. And it looks like Britain is desperately seeking to return to its old colonial patch in the Persian Gulf as compensation for breaking with the EU bloc.
One pointer to British fervor is the stepped up frequency of official visits. In October, Bahrain’s King Hamad Al Khalifa was hosted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth during a state visit to the United Kingdom. The following month, November, Britain’s heir to the throne Prince Charles returned the compliments while in Bahrain on a regional tour. Now this month, UK premier Theresa May was again greeting the monarchial rulers of Bahrain and the other Gulf states at the GCC summit.
According to the BBC, the British government is counting on doubling its trade with the oil-rich region to around £30 billion ($38 billion) over the next five years.
«Gulf security is our security, your prosperity is our prosperity», said May in obsequious tones to the assembled Gulf leaders in Bahraini capital Manama this week.
To this end, Britain is rapidly scaling up its military-security presence in the region in what seems to be a throwback to the heyday of its colonial pretensions. Last month, Prince Charles opened a new naval base in Bahrain, the first permanent such facility since the island gained nominal independence in 1971. The base is also the first military installation to be established by Britain east of the Suez Canal since 1971.
While in Bahrain this week, May reportedly «promised Britain would step up its security commitment to the region». She unveiled plans for British military staff to be newly posted in Dubai «to coordinate regional security»; and for the opening of a training base on the territory of Oman.
What is at stake here are huge arms export orders for Britain to the Gulf. In the last year alone, Britain sold some $4 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. Similar sums are pending for further British arms sales to the other GCC states.
Theresa May told the Gulf autocrats that «a post-Brexit Britain would not abandon the Middle East».
It is hard to overstate the utter cynicism in the British prime minister’s honeyed words. Her grubby touting for business opportunities is made to seem like a virtuous act by Britain of affording «protection».
This is classic British colonial-speak. When Britain imposed «protectorate» status on the Gulf, for example in Bahrain in 1861, it had nothing to do with protecting the people of the region. It was all about protecting British imperialist trade and other interests along the vital maritime route to India – Britain’s colonial jewel in its crown. An essential part of this British «protection» was to install despotic rulers like the Khalifas in Bahrain and the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia to suppress any democratic uprising by the indigenous peoples. Playing on sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia muslims was a major instrument of Britain’s colonial control, just as playing on tensions between Christian, ethnic and tribal sects were in other parts of the British empire.
This week, the London government was reprising the best of British cynicism when premier May «assured» Gulf rulers that Britain would not be abandoning them.
She talked about the shared threat of «terrorism» – without the slightest hint of shame that the scourge of jihadist extremism has been sponsored and fomented by her Gulf hosts as well as by her own military intelligence agencies as a matter of covert policy in order to destabilize the Middle East for regime change. The nearly six-year war in Syria is the evil fruit of British-Gulf machinations to overthrow the Assad government, along with the intrigue of Washington, Paris and Ankara.
The gaffe-prone British foreign secretary Boris Johnson gave a partial admission this week when he reportedly let it slip that Saudi Arabia was guilty of pursuing proxy wars and acting as a sectarian «puppeteer». With typical British conceit, however, Johnson omitted to say that it was Britain that tutored the Saudis in these nefarious ways.
Theresa May also said she was «clear-eyed» about the threat to regional stability posed, allegedly, by Iran. She accused Iran of «aggressive actions» in Syria because it supported the Assad government, and of inciting conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and within the Gulf states. If rule of law were to truly apply internationally, May should be prosecuted for making such provocative statements and recklessly stoking conflict.
This is incredible hypocrisy from a British leader whose country is supplying Saudi Arabia with warplanes, bombs and logistics to commit slaughter against civilians in Yemen; and whose country was responsible for an illegal war of occupation in Iraq resulting in the death of over one million people since 2003, which bequeathed a legacy of fanatical terrorism contaminating the entire region.
With stupefying cynicism, May claimed that she would address human rights concerns with her Gulf hosts. There was no outward sign that she actually did so while in Bahrain this week. To expect otherwise would be a feat of naivety.
Ever since the Arab Spring protests that erupted in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in 2011, British governments have routinely whitewashed the litany of systematic violations in these countries, where thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been imprisoned without trial, tortured, maimed and killed by regime forces, armed and sometimes directed by the British state. Amnesty International recently accused Britain of being «completely disingenuous» in its official claims of concern over human rights in the Gulf.
Indeed, Britain’s pandering to the Gulf’s autocratic regimes is set to increase in the wake of its decision to depart from the European Union. As Britain’s economy faces an insecure future exacerbated by Brexit, there is evidently a strategic move to court new trade and investment in the Gulf.
In pursuit of that objective, Britain is playing time-worn colonial cards of talking up «security threats» in the region while boosting arms to its despotic regimes. In the real world, as opposed to official British rhetoric, that will mean more repression within these regimes and very possibly more sectarian conflict between regional states. The British puppeteer is back with a vengeance.
Theresa May said Britain «won’t be abandoning the Middle East». Mayday, Mayday! For many sane people, the heart-felt wish is that Britain would do just that. That is, to get out and – for once – leave those nations to develop in peace.