Time was when a mere statement from a secretary of state – let alone a US president – would have the phones jangling across the Middle East. The Reagans, Clintons, Bushes or Obamas of this world actually did have an effect on the region, albeit often malign, US leaders being poorly briefed and always in awe of Israel (not to mention its power to destroy political lives in Washington). But today, who is calling the shots across the old Ottoman Empire?
Well, just take a look at Putin and Assad and Erdogan and Sissi and Macron and Rouhani. These are the men who are currently holding the headlines, either declaring Isis dead or beaten or Syria “saved” or the Kurds “terrorists” or rescuing Prime Minister Saad Hariri from his hostage home in Saudi Arabia – although now we’ve all got to believe that he wasn’t detained and didn’t really intend to resign or did resign but doesn’t want to resign any more. And rather oddly, Mohamed bin Salman looks less and less influential, a Gulf Crown Prince whose attempts to destroy Yemen, Assad’s Syria, Qatar and Al Jazeera and even poor Lebanon look more and more like a child in a tantrum, throwing his toys around in an attempt to frighten the neighbours – including the one neighbour he will not fight, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So the Middle East I live in looks less and less like the place I arrived to report on more than four decades ago. Then US “policy” was real if often delusional, balanced by an ever more crumbling Soviet Union, constantly reassuring a battery of dictators that they would support them – at various times, they included Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Anwar Sadat, King Hussain of Jordan, Colonel Gaddafi and the Shah of Iran. It was a time, too, when even the PLO and Arafat were “terrorists” – though they were confusingly taken on and off “terrorist lists” by the US or Israel every few years. In fact, these were the jolly days when the Israelis were encouraging that nice friendly Hamas movement – now, of course, back in the “terrorist” cage – to open new mosques in Gaza to counterbalance Arafat’s statelet in Lebanon. The Israelis have effectively “forgotten” that dangerous little policy of theirs.
And in those far-off days, who could imagine the cults that would emerge to recast all the “terrorists” of yesterday as “moderates” and present an entirely new chamber of horrors – al-Qaeda and Isis – to put the fear of God into us all and to spread their influence around the globe and to force even the dunderheads in the Pentagon to call them “apocalyptic”? And it’s interesting that Iran’s own President announces that Isis is beaten – it used to be George W Bush who talked about “mission accomplished”.
And of course, now it is Putin who invites Bashar al-Assad to Sochi, and chats to the presidents of Iran and Turkey, and whose army remains in Syria, and remains a good friend of President-Field Marshal al-Sissi of Egypt. So, please note, does Emmanuel Macron who invited Sissi to Paris this month without once mentioning human rights – all this with 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, thousands of “disappeared” and many mysterious murders. Yes, it’s all very well to thank Macron for pulling Hariri out of his glitzy prison in Riyadh – and he did that rather well, by the way – but do not think that France is going to be a beacon of reform in the Middle East any more than Putin. And if Bashar al-Assad talks again of his preparedness to negotiate with “anyone”, he did so only after meeting Putin and thanking him for “saving” Syria (and himself, one might add).
Truly, the US has turned into the Cheshire Cat, sometimes quite disappearing from our vision with the exception of various bits and bobs of American special forces who pop up to help Kurds and weirdly named militias – all of which appear to have three-letter acronyms – who will be abandoned, betrayed or forgotten in the months to come. Perhaps only the Cheshire Cat’s grin will remain. The Hezbollah, I suspect, is the only armed force in the Middle East which has only one name. And they’re on the “terrorist” list – though not of course in Moscow, where Putin supports the Hezbollah’s ally Bashar.
What has not changed, however, in all these years, is the pit of injustice, impoverishment, educational ignorance, fear and indignity in which the Arab and Muslim peoples live in the Middle East. And not one of the “new” leaders who are taking over from the Americans is doing anything to alleviate either the corruption that is the great sickness of the Arab world or the inequality and tribal politics which the Ottoman Empire bequeathed to the Middle East when it collapsed. Humanism has retreated rather than advanced and human and civil rights are now scarcely mentioned in the context of the region. The great Arab revolutions have played themselves out, in some cases – in Egypt, for example – actually re-infantalising their people to yet again love deep state dictators and brutal cops and generals with governessy eagles on their cap badges. Perhaps Saudi Arabia is a revolution still to come. I have always thought that the day the royal princes started locking each other up might be the beginning of the end of the Kingdom.
But there is precious little reason to find any optimism across the smashed and rubbleised landscape of the Middle East. And we should remember that it was from this place of abject sorrow that al-Qaeda emerged, and then Isis and the whole gamut of frightening men with hoods and knives which still exists in the deserts of Iraq and Syria and across Africa from Sinai to Mali. And what new monster is going to arrive next? Those glorious days of the 1970s seem quite tame by comparison. You could almost wish for the return of the corrupt old PLO. Even the return of serious American foreign policy – which does not these days even amount to a Cheshire Cat – would be a relief. Kipling’s “Recessional” sounds even more geographically appropriate today, when navies melt away and all the pomp of yesterday “is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”