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Reconfiguring Arab-Western Relations – OpEd


Exactly five hundred years ago, in 1516, the renowned English statesman and social philosopher Sir Thomas More published “Utopia”, a novel in which he pictured an imaginary island where a totally just government had created the perfect society. More, however, was under no illusion that paradise is attainable in this wicked world – which is why the two Greek words from which “Utopia” is constructed translate as “nowhere.”


In the real world, where imperfect societies abound, it is certainly incumbent on everyone to strive to eliminate injustice and improve life for humanity in general. But it is also necessary to recognize who your friends are – imperfect though they may be – and which are the malign forces that seek global power and domination.

On December 6, 2016 Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to Bahrain to meet members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gathered in the capital, Manama, for the organization’s 37th summit. The GCC, established in 1981, consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and comprises around 15 percent of the Arab world.

Individually the member states of the GCC are far from Utopia – some further than others. But collectively, and with certain reservations, they are friends of the West. Assuredly none seeks regional hegemony or world domination. Nonetheless when Theresa May’s visit was announced it aroused a storm of protest both within the UK and beyond.

Iran’s propaganda medium, PressTV, broadcasting in English around the clock, was quick to publicise the objections of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a UK-based hard-line Khomeneist non-governmental organisation. Earlier in 2016 this group bestowed their ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ award to the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo. At their awards ceremony the IHRC joked about what a shame it was that none of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were around to collect it.

It is not likely, therefore, that Mrs May took much notice of the letter that arrived at 10 Downing Street, urging her to cancel her projected meeting with GCC Arab monarchies because it “shows a glaring disregard for human rights and also a dangerous message of approval to the leaders of GCC regimes who continue to perpetrate human rights abuses against their own and other citizens.”


It is no surprise that the IHRC took a swipe also at Saudi Arabia for the military coalition it is leading in Yemen, where it is countering the efforts of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow the legitimate government. The Saudi effort is backed by the US and the UK. Also roundly condemned by the IHRC was Britain’s continued support for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by way of weapons and intelligence.

The IHRC is playing the long-established game of using the tools of democracy to destabilise democracy itself. Amnesty International (AI) is a non-governmental organization founded in the UK in 1961 whose self-assigned purpose is to draw attention to human rights abuses, and to mobilise public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place. It is therefore to be expected that AI puts under scrutiny the value and independence of two UK-supported human rights institutions set up in Bahrain. The bodies, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, and the special investigations unit within the public prosecution, were established in 2012 following a fierce crackdown by the Bahraini government on protests the previous year.

Whereas the British Foreign Office believes the two institutions show the government in Manama is willing to respond to western pressure, and the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons in January 2015 that Bahrain was “a country which is travelling in the right direction”, AI’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “It was a welcome move when Bahrain set up these two bodies back in 2012, but it’s utterly disingenuous of the UK government to pretend they’re delivering substantial human rights reform in Bahrain. Instead of acting as overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms, UK ministers ought to be confronting the awkward reality that these UK-backed institutions are seriously flawed and widely seen as a PR tool of the Bahraini government.”

Amnesty International is fulfilling its self-imposed remit by pressing Bahrain to improve human rights within the kingdom. It can do nothing about an outside pressure group like the IHRC, with its strong Iranian links, jumping on the bandwagon for its own, less savoury, purposes.

An important aspect of Theresa May’s visit to the Gulf has been to rebuild relations with the Middle East, following the truly disastrous results of the Obama administration’s policies in the region. Obama began his presidency by trying to reassure the Muslim world of America’s respect for Islam and his intention to avoid its past “colonialist” interference. He ended by having empowered the Arab world’s greatest enemy, Iran, through the deal that ensures that Iran will become a nuclear power within 10-15 years. He consistently supported the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. His refusal to engage wholeheartedly against the enemies of stability in the Middle East, such as President Assad of Syria and Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, left a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to fill. As a result confidence in, not to say respect for, the USA has been severely shaken in the Arab world.

As regards the UK, the Gulf states, always strongly Anglophile, found their sympathies severely strained by the British government’s support for the Iran deal. If in the future Theresa May takes a more hardline approach towards Iran, she would ease this tension – and indeed she is likely to do so, if only to align British foreign policy with that of President-elect Trump.

With foreign policy hawks such as General Mike Flynn, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, occupying senior posts in the next administration, the Iran deal – or at least the way it is currently being administered – is unlikely to survive. Amending the Iran deal, or at least imposing rigorous compliance with its terms on Iran, would help Washington repair relations with traditional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Israel, alienated by Obama’s pro-Iranian policies.

It seems pretty certain that a reconfiguration of relations between the West and the Arab world is in the offing. Utopia it will not be, but it may result in a more harmonious and balanced situation in which friends are supported, and malign forces are opposed not appeased.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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