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Local cops on the beat

9th September 2011

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Up to thehague libya present day, the standard tactic for the West has been to support a favoured dictator for as long as possible (CeauÈ�escu in Romania, Duvalier in Haiti, Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Mubarak in Egypt, and countless others), until popular struggles or a military coup depose him, before supporting a regime change with a few altered faces amongst the leadership to pass 'reforms' (i.e. 'changes you’re supposed to like').

Throughout the twentieth century, Whitehall has continuously 'nurtured and promoted extremists for reasons of realpolitik often at a terrible cost to the population of those countries', writes The Independent’s Kim Sengupta.

Britain’s 'see no evil' strategy towards the Gulf regimes and its strong arms trade with the Middle East (in particular Israel) encourage the violation of human rights through torture and the oppression of women.

To take a recent example, Human Rights Watch reports that 'Saudi Arabia’s strategic and commercial importance to the UK has until now silenced criticism [of] the kingdom's internal affairs by British leaders. [In 2007] the UK government dropped its enquiry into fraud in the al-Yamamah arms sale to Saudi Arabia by BAE citing potential damage to the UK’s 'national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.''

Around the time it became a PLC (with the government keeping a special £1 share to ensure it remains under British control), BAe secured 'the biggest sale ever of anything to anyone by anyone' with the £25bn al-Yamamah deal, in the words of the Financial Times. The deal involved the sale of 48 Tornado bombers, 24 Tornado fighters, 30 Hawk trainer-fighters, and a large number of Rapier missiles. 'It also involved', writes Mark Curtis, 'millions of pounds worth of corrupt commissions paid to Arabian businessmen, which the Conservative government of the time denied.' Little heed was taken of Britain's export licensing rules, which state that the government 'will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used to internal repression.' The deal also condemned by Amnesty International as a sign of Britain's endorsement of a country which displayed 'persistent pattern of gross human rights abuses.'

Britain's continued arms sales to the Gulf states has the effect of hampering democratic change in the region, while supporting police torture and brutality. The Middle East regimes the US and western Europe support are, in the words of US Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, 'local cops on the beat,' keeping an eye out for savage human rights activists. If the world's most precious resources are on the other side of the planet, it's purely by accident – the US and Britain are native everywhere. The idea that the primary beneficiaries of a country's resources should be the people of that country is outrageous to elite opinion. To quote Dewey's observation: 'Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.'

The Orwellian 2003 Defence White Paper also explained that 'The Gulf will remain a region of considerable strategic importance, with its energy supplies being crucial to the world economy.' The term ‘world’ in international relations is an interesting one, usually referring to whichever countries happen to be on the side of the US and Britain (with 'economy' meaning concentrations of private capital). A report in 1958 by the British Joint Intelligence Committee expressed, in terms more honest than today, Whitehall's distrust of Arab freedom:

The maintenance of our interests in the Persian Gulf states is dependent on continued stability in the area. At present only the Rulers can provide this. No alternative regimes are in sight, certainly not regimes which could provide the stability on which the maintenance of British interests depends. A failure to support any one of the Rulers would weaken the confidence of the others in our ability and willingness to protect them.

Inviting Bahraini elites involved in the torture of citizens to the 2011 Royal Wedding is another footnote to history, which ties Britain into stronger relations with the region in the name of 'stability.' Mehdi Hasan reports that, on '16 February, shortly before dawn, [the king] ordered his security forces to storm Pearl Square in the heart of Bahrain's capital, Manama, where the protesters ... were camping out. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the king's sleeping subjects, killing at least four, including a two-year-old girl, and injuring hundreds of others. The next day, they switched to live ammunition.' This would have been of no surprise to Blair, whose government trained Bahraini security forces, leading Labour's trade minister Elizabeth Symons in 2001 to describe British-Bahraini relations as 'special.'

In the same year, Blair and his family stayed at Hosni Mubarak's villa in Sharm el Sheikh. A decade later, on February 1st at the height of the Egyptian uprisings, the former prime minister described the dictator as 'immensely courageous and a force for good' (for Obama, he was 'our kind of guy'). It makes one wonder if there's a foreign language in which 'Blair' means 'charlatan.' His views are not too distant from the revered Lord Palmerston who, speaking with his usual honesty about Britain's 'liberal interventionist' policies, announced that 'no ideas of fairness [towards Egypt] ought to stand in the way of such great and paramount interests' of Britain, as it ensured its economic control over the nation.

Predictably, Cameron and Clegg's coalition government have proved to be no more resilient against the oppressive regimes of the Gulf. The prime minister and William Hague often appeared on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning talk show during the Arab Spring, praising the protestors and saying of Mubarak that 'it's time for him to step down.' This is after the huge number of UK arm shipments to the brutal Egyptian police are shifted from the public's attention.

With his scrupulous choice of misleading words, Hague also spoke in July last year of the government's efforts to 'elevate links with the Gulf' and of 'strengthening our ties across the board.' In June of this year, he also publically announced his deep feelings of inspiration after meeting with Libyan rebels in the northern city of Benghazi, tears running down his cheeks as he passes Gaddafi’s armoured crowd control vehicles produced by the British 'defence' company, NMS.

Cameron also decided to show his support for Egyptian activists by being the first world leader to visit the country after the fall of Mubarak, bringing with him eight of Britain's leading arms manufacturers, including the bosses of Rolls-Royce and BAE – a move which surely touched the hearts of the Arab world. The prime minister's hopes are trained on the opportunity to 'build' democracy in the region (his actions are not unlike Churchill's warm treatment of Franco and Stalin). In 2010 the coalition government also sent tear gas, stun grenades, small arms ammunition and smoke canisters to Bahrain, and military cameras, sniper rifles, and tear gas to Libya. These have been of great use in the riots now condemned on Sunday morning breakfast shows.

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