Democracy, Bush-style, in the Gulf

Please prepare for a laugh. Here is Bush on an electioneering junket talking to US soldiers about Iraq on June 5, 2003: “Criminal courts are now reopening. Day by day, the United States and our coalition partners are making the streets safer for Iraqi citizens. We also understand that a more just political system will develop when people have food in their stomachs, and their lights work, and they can turn on a faucet and they can find some clean water – things that Saddam did not do for them . . . We recently found two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents. [Saddam Hussein] spent decades hiding tools of mass murder. He knew the inspectors were looking for them. You know better than me he’s got a big country in which to hide them. We’re on the look. We’ll reveal the truth.”

Here he goes again, on November 6, 2003, saying that “dictators in Iraq and Syria” have “left a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin . . . the regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy”. But, he said, some governments “in the region” were “beginning to see the need for change”, citing Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen. (I didn’t know Morocco was in the region of Iraq, as it is a North African country whose capital, Rabat, is 3000 miles from Baghdad which is the same distance as is Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, which isn’t exactly “in the region” ; but you learn something new every day.)

We might as well ignore the deliberate lie by the President of the United States of America about the non-existent “mobile biological weapons facilities”, which, with other malicious falsehoods, was brushed aside by 59 million people who voted for this deceitful charlatan, and also pass over the plain fact that streets in the capital of Iraq are not “safer for Iraqi citizens” but are deathtraps for US troops and Iraqi citizens alike, and that clean water and electricity are like gasoline and justice because they are almost unobtainable. So let us consider the Bush yearning for a “just political system” and “democracy” in Iraq and in the Middle East, where he imagines Morocco to be.

The only country in the Middle East that is officially regarded as a democracy is Israel. In that unhappy land the blood-stained word ‘Democracy’ disguises ethnic cleansing and brutal repression to a degree that would excite the approval of Hitler, Mao and Stalin. In the gallant Israeli army they shoot kids in the name of freedom. Here is the transcript of an exchange of evil, as broadcast on Israel’s Channel Two TV: “The observation post replies: “It’s a little girl. She’s running defensively eastwards, a girl of about 10. She’s behind the embankment, scared to death.” It was not until four minutes later that it was reported that the girl had been hit and had fallen. The observation post reports: “Receive ; I think that one of the positions took her out.” Operations room: “What, she fell?” Observation post: “She’s not moving right now.” The tape later records the commander as telling his men after [himself] unleashing a burst of automatic gunfire at the corpse of the girl and declaring he has “confirmed” the killing: “Anyone who’s mobile, moving in the zone, even if it’s a three-year-old, needs to be killed”.” A Nazi SS man could not have put it more despicably. Democracy, anyone?

Most other countries in the Middle East are absolute autocracies, but to my knowledge their soldiers haven’t actually murdered ten year-old girls as a matter of state policy. Nevertheless they have no intention whatever of letting there be anything so quaint (to use a word favored by the new US Attorney General concerning human rights) as one man one vote. And as for one woman, one vote: forget it, for ever.

Let’s begin with Qatar, described in glowing terms by that great supporter and imposer of democracy, George W Bush, as “a great friend to the United States”.

Qatar is the country where the ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, deposed his father in a coup in 1995. “Since then”, says the State Department, “the Emir has announced his intention for Qatar to move toward democracy and has permitted a free and open press and municipal elections as a precursor to parliamentary elections expected to occur in 2005.”

Excuse me while I fall about laughing. The man has had ten years to introduce democracy and has yet to hold elections for a parliament in a country with 744,000 citizens, which is about the same population as Columbus, Ohio. (And do we imagine that a Qatari parliament, even if elections are held, will be empowered to make decisions contrary to those of the supreme ruler? Yes ; I believe in the Tooth Fairy, too.)

In the farcical but extremely lucrative family arrangement that purports to be a government in Qatar the supreme authority is Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani. The prime minister, deputy prime minister, first deputy prime minister, the ministers of communications, defense, foreign affairs, economy, housing and interior, and six ministers of state are named Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani, Al Thani and Al Thani. And of course all of them will give up their massive incomes and trappings of power to an elected parliament next year, just when the pigs fly past their gaudy palaces.

Bush demands that Iraq should be a democracy within two years of his invasion of the country. He demands that Syria should be a democracy. Why does he not demand that Qatar should be a democracy?

The answer lies in the oil. The State Department says that Qatar and the US “enjoy extensive economic links, especially in the hydrocarbons sector,” which is Bush propaganda-speak for oil and gas, and tells us that “Ties between the US and Qatar are excellent and marked by frequent senior-level consultations in Doha and Washington. Amir Hamad [Al Thani] visited Washington in May 2003 and President Bush went to Qatar in June.” And of course Mr Al Thani hosts HQ CENTCOM, a massive offshoot of the Pentagon that controls US military operations and the rapidly-growing number of military bases throughout the Middle East and Central Asia that are never talked about in mainstream US media.

So we have been given the message. Qatar could have elections in a New York heartbeat if the supreme ruler wanted them to happen, but he need not fear democracy in his country because, as Washington so coyly has it, there are “extensive links in the hydrocarbons sector” and HQ CENTCOM can’t move anywhere else without enormous logistical problems. Nobody imagines for a moment that Bush is going to insist on democracy in feudal Qatar. The man is a humbug.

Then there is Kuwait. According to the State Department : “Political parties: None; formal political parties are banned, although de facto political blocs exist . . . There are no executive branch elections; the Amir is hereditary; [the] prime minister and deputy prime ministers are appointed by the Amir, His Highness Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah.”

This is the country which the US went to help in the name of democracy in 1991. Its government, like that of Qatar, is a family affair. The Crown Prince is of course an Al Sabah; and the prime minister, first deputy prime minister and ministers of interior, defense, foreign affairs, transport, communications, energy and oil, and social affairs as well as the governor of the central bank and ambassador to Washington are named Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah, Al Sabah and Al Sabah.

The Amir has had since 1992 to establish democracy, or even a semblance of it. He hasn’t even tried to do so. He never will.

Bush demands that Iraq should be a democracy within two years of his invasion of the country. He demands that Iran become a democracy right now. Why does he not demand that Kuwait become a democracy right now?

The answer lies in oil and military equipment money: “US military sales to Kuwait total $6.8 billion since 1992. The United States is currently Kuwait’s largest supplier of goods and services . . . The Kuwaiti dinar is a strong currency pegged to a basket of currencies in which the U.S. dollar has the most weight”, says State, and “Kuwait has about 96.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil; only Saudi Arabia and Iraq have larger proven reserves”. That’s why Kuwait’s monarch is under no pressure whatever from Bush to even consider democracy.

Further engagement by Bush concerning the spread of democracy is evident at the end of the Gulf where there are the seven mini-states of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which the State Department informs us “. . . has no political parties. There is talk of steps toward democratic government, but nothing concrete has emerged. The rulers hold power on the basis of their dynastic position and their legitimacy in a system of tribal consensus.” Democracy, anyone? I won’t bore you with the list of the UAE government, which is divided between the families of Al Nahyan (or Nuhayyan ; Washington can’t quite make up its mind about the spelling), who are the rulers of Abu Dhabi (6 ministers), and Al Maktoum (or Maktum ; ditto), the rulers of Dubai (4 ministers), with a few others thrown in to placate the other five Emirates.

The UAE is efficiently run and seems a happy enough country, providing you are not a Filipino domestic slave/servant or interested in democracy or the rights of women or other silly things. Dubai is a rich and thriving place of outstanding kitsch and vulgarity and is a popular destination for tourists who like that sort of thing, and I always fly Emirates, which is one of the world’s best airlines, and stop in Dubai for a day or two en route from New Zealand to Europe or the Sub-continent. (And enjoy a good bottle of claret while dining in this Islamic country.)

But don’t let’s kid ourselves that there is ever going to be freedom to vote in the UAE. The last ruler died November 2, and Bush sent this kind message: “The United States mourns the passing of a great friend of our country, Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayan”. [Nahyan? Nuhayyan? – just when is Washington going to agree on Anglicized spellings of Arab names? Little wonder they can’t trace terrorists by name when they have at least three different official spellings for the name of a head of state].

Then Bush informed us that the dead autocrat was “. . . an elder statesman, and a close ally. He and his fellow rulers built their federation into a prosperous, tolerant, and well-governed state.” And Colin Powell echoed him: “Sheikh Zayed [or Zayid ; there we go again] was a friend. He stood both at home and abroad as a symbol of benevolent and wise leadership characterized by generosity, tolerance, and avid pursuit of development and modernization.” Modernization, eh? And tolerance as well. Now that is really amazing, considering that Colin Powell’s own State Department tells us the place “has no political parties. There is talk of steps toward democratic government, but nothing concrete has emerged.” Does Washington have a different definition of “tolerance” to the rest of us?

There is not a word about democracy in the UAE, but who bothers about democracy when “US President George W Bush received here [Washington] yesterday evening Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan [or Nahayan or Nuhayyan ; whatever], UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs . . . President Bush hailed UAE-US relations, citing as an example the visit of Sheikh Hamdan to the US and the subsequent outcome of the meetings of the joint committees between the two countries.” And the State Department explains all the lovey-dovey stuff by saying: “The United States has enjoyed friendly relations with the UAE since 1971. Private commercial ties, especially in petroleum, have developed into friendly government-to-government ties which include security assistance . . . The air force is currently awaiting an expected 2005 delivery of 80 advanced US F-16 multirole fighter aircraft.” Which they need like a hole in the head ; but never mind, it’s only US citizens’ petroleum taxes that pay for them.

As long as it has oil for Washington and buys F-16s the UAE is keeping the world safe for democracy. It doesn’t matter that democracy doesn’t exist in the country itself, because it will continue to receive every bit of support from Bush no matter what it does. As it happens, I think that benevolent autocracy as it applies in the UAE is what suits the country (apart from total lack of women’s rights) ; it’s better than rule by a bunch of corrupt and decadent knaves who chop off people’s hands and heads, as happens in Saudi, and much better than the chaos that would apply if the mullahs got into power. And the army doesn’t shoot ten year-old girls, as in Israel. But don’t let’s have all this crap from Bush about democracy.

* * *

I had to do some fact-checking about Bahrain, that little island half-way up the Gulf that is connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. It is an Islamic country, but like many of them in its region is not averse to alcohol and prostitution. Here is the Washington Post on the subject of the link between Bahrain and its neighbor. “Saudi Arabia may consider itself a guardian of the Islamic faith and may officially adhere to Islam’s ban on alcohol, but Saudis aren’t necessarily abstemious. Many rely on their more permissive neighbor [Bahrain] as their outlet for fun Every year, more than 2.5 million Saudis cross the 15-mile Causeway that has connected the two countries since 1987.” In fact Bahrain is a large dose of humbug, just as is the entire Kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose privileged, vulgar and debauched princelings are the Islamic world’s biggest consumers of Scotch whisky and vodka.

But the reason I had to do a bit of checking about Bahrain was that in November 2003 Bush spoke at the National Endowment for Democracy and “praised Bahrain’s steps towards democracy, saying that Bahrainis last year elected their own Parliament for the first time in nearly three decades.”

That seemed straightforward, although a bit puzzling to anyone who knows anything about the region. The country, according to the President of the United States, was taking “steps towards democracy” and its citizens “elected their own parliament” in 2002. Wonderful. But then I read what the State Department had to say about Bahrain in November 2004, and it was just a bit different: “Bahrain: Political parties: None. Formal parties are banned but political societies have been formally sanctioned since 2001.” Parliament? Democracy? How can the Bush claim about “steps towards democracy” possibly stand up against the facts? Is the man insane? Or is it that he is majestically ignorant of world affairs and just reads out what his minders give him to spout?

Certainly Bush does not disapprove in any way of Bahrain, because a White House press release told us that “President Bush will welcome King Hamad Bin Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa of Bahrain to Washington for a working visit on November 29, 2004. The meeting marks the continuation of the long friendship between the United States and Bahrain.”

Then it was announced that “His Majesty King Hamad arrived at Andrews Air Base last night at the start of a visit to the United States in which he will become the first Arab leader to meet President George W Bush since his re-election as US president”. You will have noted that the ruler who does nor permit political parties in his feudal country is called Al-Khalifa. So are the prime minister, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (the crown prince), the two deputy prime ministers, and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior, oil (surprise!), justice, electricity and water, housing and transport, as well as the chairman of the Bahrain monetary agency, the governor of the Bahrain monetary agency, and, last but far from least, the ambassador to the United States.

Little wonder Bush is so effusive about the Al-Khalifa mob, because the State Department tells us: “US-Bahraini economic ties have grown steadily since 1932, when Americans participated in the development of Bahrain’s oil industry. Bahrain is a regional base for numerous American banks and firms. The U.S. and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA) in September 2004.” And it so happens that the HQ of the US Sixth Fleet is in Bahrain, and that this country of 660,000 people (the same number of citizens as Memphis, Tennessee in an area a quarter the size of Rhode Island), has been designated a Major Non-Nato Ally, giving it access to all sorts of military goodies that can be given to them without Congressional oversight, not that that matters anymore.

So the despot Hamad Al-Khalifa, this complete autocrat, the ruler who does not permit political parties to exist in his totally undemocratic country, was the first Arab leader to meet Bush after the US presidential election. This mark of favor and approval has been warmly welcomed by all feudal rulers in the Middle East (and probably elsewhere) who are now assured that they will be backed to the hilt by Bush, provided they always back Bush to the hilt. And there wasn’t a peep from the White House about “democracy” during the visit of a man who has no intention of permitting democracy in his country. Bush didn’t even mention the word. All that appears on the White House website about the visit is a photograph of the two grinning potentates captioned “President George W Bush welcomes His Majesty King Hamad bin Issa [sic: see Isa, above, from the White House] Al Khalifa of Bahrain”. But confused old Colin Powell told reporters November 29 that he and Mr Al-Khalifa “talked about the commitment that we all have to help the Iraqis have their election on the 30th of January as scheduled. And we’re all working toward that end.”

Are we on the same planet? The United States of America is “working toward” holding an election for Iraqis in January, with the “commitment” of a total monarch who is about as democratic as King George the Fourth. The State Department tells us that the king of Bahrain is the “Executive” who has a “Council of Ministers (cabinet) appointed by the King and headed by the Prime Minister.” And these are the people who are helping the United States of America to help the Iraqis have a democratic election. This is the country about which the State Department informs us: “Political parties: None. Formal parties are banned but political societies have been formally sanctioned since 2001.”

Stop laughing. Please stop laughing . . . . .

* * *

A Pentagon report completed in September but not released until well after the US presidential election (and then only after the New York Times published parts of it) is actually critical of US policy regarding the Bush Doctrine on Democracy. Its authors can be expected to be consigned to outer darkness, because nobody, but nobody, can criticize Bush and expect to stay anywhere near his Administration, but they observed sagely that:

“when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy . . . In the eyes of Muslims, [the] American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.”

This wise and accurate summation was by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, a body that I had formerly considered a bunch of pro-Bush patsies. (Sorry, people: I misjudged you terribly. I offer my sincere apologies.)

The killer punch from these distinguished analysts (or bunch of disloyal creeps, as the Bush people are saying) is the assessment that Muslim peoples in such places as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries actually want “to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the US so determinedly promotes and defends”.

You said it all, Defense Science Board. You are a bastion of common sense, reality and decency. You know that the Bush democracy campaign is a cynical swindle, and that all that Bush and his military-industrial empire care for is domination. And you are aware that if a country’s undemocratic ruler is happy to provide the US with oil and buy F-16s and host enormous military bases, it doesn’t matter a tinker’s curse if women have no rights and if there isn’t a hope of one person one vote.

“It’s time for Iraqi citizens to go to the polls,” Bush pronounced in the Oval Office on December 2.

If you addressed your demand about elections to the citizens of your autocratic friends in the Gulf, little Bush, then we might believe you have a commitment to world democracy. But you are just indulging yourself in a pathetic charade.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.