Middle East dictators, we like to believe, live in heaven. They have palaces, servants, vast and wealthy families, millions of obedient people and loyal armies who constantly express their love for their leader, not to mention huge secret police forces to ensure they don’t forget this, and masses of weapons to defend themselves, supplied, usually, by us.
These tyrants – autocrats or “strongmen” if they happen to be our allies – exist, we suppose, in a kind of nirvana. Their lawns, like their people, are well-manicured, their roses clipped, their rivers unsullied, their patriotism unchallenged. They wish to be eternal.
But this is our Hollywood version of the Middle East. Having not suffered our own dictators for a generation, we suffer from mirages the moment we step into the sand. Real dictators in the Middle East don’t behave or think like this. It is power and the risks of power and the love of ownership that obsesses them. The possession of untold wealth or an entire nation, and their own form of patriotism – and the challenges they have to face to sustain this way of life: that is the attraction.
Their countries — and their countries’ histories – are their personal property, to dispose of as they wish. They may lock up their opponents by the tens of thousands or drop barrel bombs upon them or chop up an unruly journalist. But they know – and it is true – that there must be residual support for the beloved dictator from all those millions who swear that they will sacrifice themselves – “our blood, our soul” – rather than allow harm to come to them.
How else would the majority of Egyptians go on supporting their field marshal-president when he has abandoned all forms of freedom? How else could the Syrian government survive if its army had not fought on for its country – and saved the regime – after tens of thousands of deaths? Attribute this to patriarchy, tribalism, minority fears or – in the case of Egypt – infantilism. Or straightforward love of country. But dictators cannot survive without some measure of genuine fealty from their populations.
This provides the thrill of power, the excitement of domination – or “responsibility”, as they would call it. It is about personal gratification. The people are not just loyal. The dictator is their father. Did not Mubarak, in his very last speech as president in 2011, address Egyptians as “My children! My children!”?
Within his personal mental asylum, the American president managed to blurt out this essential truth earlier this month when he mixed up the real and incinerated Californian town of Paradise with a mythical place of his own imagination called Pleasure. Twice he said it – an easy and obvious mistake for a man who is himself captivated by power and assumed popularity.
Trump, like his dangerous Middle Eastern allies, doesn’t want to live in heaven. He craves the pleasures of leadership. He enjoys risk. He believes not in history or morality. He believes in himself. That is why a lot of Arab despots rather like Trump. They have much in common.
Except for understanding. And here’s the problem. Arab dictators, delusional though they may be, have got us taped. They see through our lies and our arms sales and our lust for oil and our fraudulent desire that Jeffersonian democracy embrace the Muslim world. But we simply do not comprehend the Middle East. We do not spot even the most obvious clues to the behaviour of these Arab gauleiters. We roar with laughter at their sword dances and fake elections and talk of equality and liberalism, when we should be terrified.
Let me give you a particularly grizzly example of this. Take what appeared to us to be the weird behaviour of the Saudi consul in Istanbul in the days following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. We all watched the extraordinary footage of Mohammad al-Otaibi as he took Reuters on a tour of his six-storey building. During this apparently bizarre performance, the consul opened up cupboards, filing cabinets and panels covering air-conditioning units to show Jamal was not there. But how on earth, we asked ourselves, could they have conceivably hidden the journalist in a cupboard, as the consul seemed to suggest? What a nincompoop the poor chap must be! What a charade.
But I don’t think it was a charade at all. Otaibi did not take part in Jamal’s murder. But he may well have known the Saudi goons had dismembered the journalist. And in his truly unconscious way – confronting a real crime – Otaibi performed a very natural act to prove his own innocence: he showed us that not a single chopped-up limb, not a leg, foot, arm, stomach or bone fragment or piece of skull, was left inside the embassy.
We – still unaware of Jamal’s terrible dissected fate – thought: well, you couldn’t store an entire body in a filing cabinet. What’s this guy Otaibi playing at? But, of course, you could hide a severed hand or a skull in a cabinet. And the consul showed us – truthfully — that no bits of Jamal were still lying around the diplomatic premises. We thought Otaibi’s antics with the cupboards and the air-conditioning panel were funny rather than suspicious. Apparently, we still do. In fact these antics were very serious indeed.
I point out this salient fact because we allowed our natural racism towards the Arabs to overcome any serious line of enquiry. By wrongly assuming that the consular official was a fool, we missed the significance of his actions – which is exactly what we do when we frame our foreign policy in the Middle East.
The Arabs comprehend our world rather well. They are not stupid. They watch CNN and Fox with the same irreverence, ironically, as a western liberal or leftist, and they know that the simplest Hollywood themes will appeal to the Americans: fear of Islamist “terror”, political stability and low oil prices, and fortunes in cash that may be bestowed upon western nations in return for political support and military power.
It is we who do not understand them but we who choose to paint the backcloth to their politics. They may lock up and torture the innocent but they are also “moderates” fighting “Islamist extremism” – this of the Saudis, who gave us 15 of the 19 killers involved in 9/11, for heaven’s sake.
Thank goodness we’ve got these vicious men on our side. Needless to say, if we back the wrong side in the Arab world and call for the overthrow of the local “strongman”, then the Russians can step in to support the erring dictator — whom they will also dub a “moderate” fighting “Islamist extremism”, who will also be preserving the world from terror. Vladimir Putin is a ruthless and cynical enough man to know just how far to take this performance.
But we are not. Our political leaders climb into the old Bush rhetoric bath about the expansionist evils of Iran – without once, ever, mentioning Shiism, which is what the Sunni Arab world is trying to destroy. US defence secretary Michael Pompeo – and can we please, just once, drop the “Mike” bit? – has accused Iran of being “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror” and a “mafia”. Trump tweets of Iran’s “demented words of violence and death”. Yet who was it who first demanded that America should “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake” as long ago as 2008? According to leaked US diplomatic memos, it was King Abdullah – the brother of the present King Salman, father of America’s dodgiest best friend, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. And along with Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated and demented comparison of Iran with Nazi Germany – a follow-up to the crown prince’s description of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei as “the new Hitler of the Middle East” – our regional war map has been pretty well sketched out.
Who is responsible for the Syrian civil war? Iran. Who is responsible for the Yemen war? Iran. Who is responsible for sectarianism in the Middle East? Iran. Who threatens Israel? Iran. Only three and a half years ago, the Saudis launched their bombing campaign and military adventure against the Houthis – “Iranian-backed”, as we like to say – in Yemen. This was the creation of Mohammad bin Salman, who was then Saudi defence minister. It had two codenames: Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope. It proved neither decisive not did it give hope to anyone. It merely killed tens of thousands – let’s not get involved in the wretched statistics scorecard yet once more – yet the western powers which gave its military and logistics support to the Saudis in this awful conflict shrugged their shoulders. Iran was to blame.
Even when Mohammad bin Salman jailed many of his fellow princes and business colleagues in a luxury Riyadh hotel and kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, we smiled. Good chap, our MbS. Opening up the Saudi oil market, letting women drive. Our kind of guy. We’ll leave out for now Tom Friedman’s grovelling articles in The New York Times. Then came the demise of Jamal Khashoggi – of whom more has been written than of all the dead of Yemen – but even then, we’re still behind the Saudis in their Sunni war. We couldn’t blame Iran for this murder, so the world itself must be to blame. Isn’t that what Trump said? The world might be “accountable” for the chopping up of Jamal, he said, because “it is a very vicious place”.
Vain are our leaders in their failure to remember the entanglement of their fates with Middle Eastern history. Suez destroyed Anthony Eden. The Iranian hostage crisis destroyed President Jimmy Carter. Irangate almost did for Ronald Reagan. George Bush Sr’s “new order” in the Middle East may have doomed his subsequent election. George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq has besmirched his political reputation forever.
The same goes for Tony Blair – although it is instructive to remember that it was Lebanon and Israel which caused Blair’s downfall. His refusal to accept an early ceasefire during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon after more than 1,000 civilians had been killed – in support of George W’s plan to give the Israelis more time to destroy Hezbollah (Iran again, of course!) – finally destroyed the Blair premiership. The Syrian war provoked the ocean of Muslim immigrants who fled to Europe and probably – and very sadly – ultimately finished off the political career of Angela Merkel. And how much did her version of the murder of the US ambassador in Libya lead to Hilary Clinton’s downfall?
So I have a prediction. If the Trump regime collapses – for regime it is – I suspect it will not be his frolics with the Russians which destroy it. Nor his corruption, nor his domestic lies. Nor his misogyny. Nor his anti-immigrant racism. Nor his obvious mental instability, though this clearly connects him to his friends in the Arab world. The Middle East has already got its coils into the White House. Trump is a friend of a highly dangerous state called Saudi Arabia. He has adopted Israeli foreign policy as his own, including the ownership of Jerusalem and wholehearted support for Israel’s illegal colonisation of Palestinian Arab land. He has torn up a solemn treaty with Iran. He has joined the Sunni side in its sectarian war with the Shias of the Middle East, in Iran, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Bahrain and, of course, in Saudi Arabia itself.
Many countries have gone to war on behalf of other nations. Britain drew the sword for Poland in 1939, albeit a little late in the day. But to actively seek participation in someone else’s sectarian war for no other reason than to continue to sell weapons to a wealthy and unstable autocracy, to amalgamate your own country’s foreign policy with that of the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East — to the point of depriving an entire people of a share in its capital city – and to wilfully ignore the long and lucrative support that our Gulf “allies” have given to the most frightful of our cult enemies – those who have indeed struck in the streets of London and New York – is beyond the usual lexicon. It is beyond shameful. Beyond wicked. Were it not for the insanity of the man responsible, the word “depravity” comes to mind.
Crystal balls are dangerous objects in the Middle East. Mine have been broken several times. But there’s no reason why Donald Trump should be immune from the fate of so many of his predecessors. It’s no longer good enough to say merely: “Watch out.” We all do that by nature these days. But the Arabs and Muslims who live in territory which many of the American supporters call the holy land may well decide his future; after all, he thinks he can decide theirs.
The world is indeed a vicious place – but the Middle East is its most treacherous.