Power and petroleum in the Arabian peninsula

Issue: 167

Diana Young

A review of David Wearing, AngloArabia, Wiley (2018), £15.99.

It is now 50 years since Britain formally ended its colonial rule in the Persian Gulf. However, David Wearing’s AngloArabia shows that the relationship between the British state and the Gulf kingdoms, emirates and sultanates remains strong. For instance, both Boris Johnson and heir to the throne Prince Charles attended the funeral of Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in January this year. Few other events attract such a double seal of approval from the British establishment. Just below the symbolism of official protocols is the intersection of real economic, strategic and political interests. AngloArabia sets out the historical foundations of this relationship. It charts the development of a mutually advantageous alliance, benefiting both the Gulf economies and the strategic needs of British capitalism, its arms industry and its military establishment.

Often the British-Gulf liaison is presented as a relationship between a liberal democracy and a collection of authoritarian states to which it provides tutelage. This is the orientalist narrative of Britain as the patient parent that nudges its children towards democracy and liberalisation. For Wearing, by contrast, Britain’s connection with the Gulf is the story of elites making common cause for nefarious ends. At the heart of this real story is oil. The discovery of crude oil under the Arabian sands at the beginning of the 20th century has been the defining fact of political and economic development in the region ever since. In 2015, roughly a quarter of global oil production was by countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

However, neither Britain nor the US depend directly on GCC oil. In fact, only 3 percent of Britain’s oil needs are met by the Gulf nations. Rather, the region’s autocrats play an important role on the international stage as “swing producers” who can determine the global market price of oil by varying output. Thus the region remains a key vector for the projection of imperial power. Of course, Britain’s imperial decline since the end of the Second World War has left the US as the key foreign power in the Gulf and the wider region. However, Britain is still capable of leveraging its strategic relationships with both the US and the Gulf autocrats.

Wearing explains that Britain is able to play this role in the region because of its imperial past. Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates achieved independence from Britain as recently as 1971—these are states that grew up in a close relationship with the imperial heartland. This has resulted in a ­complementary relationship between the British and Gulf economies. For instance, the consolidation of the City of London as a global financial centre in the period of Britain’s industrial decline has been partially based on capital flows from the Gulf. It was through the City that financial surpluses generated by the Gulf oil industry became available on capital markets from the 1970s onwards.

Britain is itself also a major investor in the Gulf. In fact, it is Saudi Arabia’s “second largest cumulative investor” and “Oman’s biggest foreign investor” (p127). The Gulf aristocracies’ realisation that they cannot rely on oil forever has also led to the opening up of new opportunities for British capital as these states seek to diversify their industrial base. It is developments such as these that led Theresa May to call, in 2016, for “an ambitious trade arrangement for when the UK has left the EU” that would encompass “the whole Gulf area” (p152).

Another dimension of this relationship is armaments, to which Wearing devotes a whole chapter. The Gulf states play a crucial role in maintaining the British arms industry, which in turn is indispensable in sustaining Britain’s status as a global military power. Britain is one of the leading arms exporters in the world and the GCC countries provide some of its key markets. Moreover, this business is as much a source of geopolitical advantage as it is of commercial gain. The arms deals that emanate from this special rapport between Britain and the GCC states (especially Saudi Arabia) are often mired in corruption. The British government has gone out of its way to cover up this sleaze and protect arms exporters. The strategic importance of the Gulf states for British capitalism and the projection of its global power means that Britain is often drawn into defending the GCC rulers from the threat posed by their own populations. Moreover, arms exports come with long-term commitments to training, maintenance and repair that have seen Britain engaged in full-scale military cooperation with these states.

When questioned on human rights issues in the region, the British ­government maintains that “the monarchies…are agents of moderation and sustainable reform” in the region. It argues that “continued friendly engagement is the key to encouraging them further down the path” of liberalisation (p201). Yet British weapons and British-trained troops were involved in repression of the uprising for democratic rights in Bahrain in 2011. In Yemen, the use of British weapons and the role of British military trainers has been well-documented by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Wearing cites one commentator saying that “rather than bringing influence, arms sales have made Britain dependent apologists for insecure governments” (p213-214). Wearing concludes that Britain’s alliance with GCC countries may be vital for securing its status as a global power but that it is a choice, not a necessity.

At times this book betrays its origins in a PhD thesis, but generally it is accessible to the non-specialist. Wearing does us the service of demystifying Britain’s empty claims to be a human rights defender in the region. He shows instead that the needs of capitalism, and in particular the financial sector, ­dictate British foreign policy. This book is a valuable tool for activists and the left.