Empire Wants What’s Best for the Arabs

The fear among international players with a stake in the Arab world that more instability threatens the political systems in place was palpable at the Doha Forum I attended last week. This even extended to the Gulf, purportedly the most stable part of the region, despite its having survived the first wave of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011. What was also striking was the idea among foreign powers that change among the Arabs can only happen through their coaching and supervision.

That in itself is hardly surprising – in their liberal moments colonial and neo-colonial states have relied on the White Man’s Burden trope to dress actions in a positive light – but the amount of rhetoric along those lines last week was an indication of the depth of fear that the surefire allies of today might not survive, and at a time when the United States is downgrading its role in the region in the hope that a minimal military and political presence will be enough to secure the future.

“The region is poised before a momentous transformation and the peril of failed revolution,” Mona Yacoubian, a U.S. think-tanker from the Stimson Center told one seminar, plugging an Arab “Marshall Plan” to save the day. “It’s fair to say that time is not on the side of the Arab transitions. The instability that brought about the Arab transition has exacerbated the social and economic ills that brought young people to the streets in the first place.”

Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson International Center continued the theme. “The dirty little secret of the transitions is that corruption is deepening and spreading. A senior official in Libya said to me that in the Gaddafi era there was one Gaddafi, today there are 6.5 million,” she said. “There has been a proliferation of democracy beyond what is viable. In Libya there 200 seats in the Congress; 120 of those are allocated for individuals and over 3,000 ran for those; 80 seats are allocated to parties and over 130 parties ran for those seats. That is not viable in the long-term. There is a great danger of divisive forces – that (say) ‘I want to be leader, I want the privilege of power’ – that is going to backfire in the long-term.”

Former U.S. ambassador Richard LeBaron, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Michael Posner, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, both warned that Gulf governments must get their head out of the sand and prepare for new political arrangements.

“There is a clear need for greater dialogue at all levels on the evolution of political models that Gulf states… in the next 20 years. We need to have confidence as mature partners to have a frank and sincere discussion about politics and political systems,” LeBaron said. “Change is inevitable in any region but it is not unmanageable… Unless our ambitions are vast, our accomplishments will be limited and they may not sustain this vital relationship in the coming years.”

He said that one of the changes the Gulf will have to deal with concerns the expat community, which forms a clear majority in Qatar, UAE and Kuwait, around half of Bahrain and a third of Oman and Saudi Arabia. “We have in the United States the growing phenomenon of working class poor… and those in the vast limbo of undocumented labour. In the Gulf the vast majority who do the bulk of work come from somewhere else… These arrangements are no more sustainable than the broken immigration system in the United States.”

Posner went further saying political rights were needed “before it’s too late”. Bahrain’s uprising had been a chance to start a non-threatening process of change, he argued. “I’ve been disappointed by GCC countries for not recognizing that in the aftermath of the Pearl Roundabout events the government of Bahrain introduced a notion of reform… and undertook some of them but not the hardest ones. Interestingly the opposition was not calling for regime change but a stake of power and more democratic, open society,” he said. “The Gulf states should look to what’s happening there as a smooth way of change without overthrow. Very much in this region there is a need for leadership now before it’s too late.”

But the strongest words came from Sherard Cowper-Coles, former ambassador in Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as UK foreign secretary’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009-10. According to him, the region was witnessing no less than the unraveling of the Arab order established by Western powers after the First World War. He said a failure of Western states to realize this and act upon it would worsen violent conflict, and pointed to the failure of Britain and its successor power in the region the United States to ensure a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Great forces of history are unfolding in front of us as we meet in Doha this evening,” he said, in melodramatic tones. “We are seeing the beginning of the end of America as the great regulating power in the Middle East. After two failed expeditions into the ‘land of the two rivers’ (Iraq) and one into Southwest Asia (Afghanistan/Pakistan), America is withdrawing. Those two wars were sins of commission and still in Palestine we have the sin of omission, the failure to address the mistakes made by Britain and the United States.”

He went on: “All of us know what needs to be done for Israel’s sake in Palestine, all of us knows what needs to be done for the wretched people of Syria’s sake. All of us know that we need more and not less diplomacy and America’s engagement above all… All of us know what needs to be done but each of asks ourself whether the will is there any longer, particularly in Washington.”

What was interesting in all of this was the idea that the West had to chaperone these processes to make sure they were less painful.

“In my view the best the West could do is provide education for the Arabs, as Qatar is doing, to help with the emancipation of the Arab peoples from the crippling burden of tradition that prevents change and then to provide benevolent engagement of the kind that this forum symbolizes,” he said. “I fear that unless action is taken by those who care about this region and its people, above all in Washington and the White House, we – you, the people of the Middle East – face a long dark winter.” Before light appears at the end of the tunnel of misery, “We will have to allow you to live through periods of danger and oppressive rule,” he said, suggesting that perhaps “a new Versailles” would be necessary to consecrate a new regional order.

The talk was peppered with other references to the past – to British Prime Minister during World War One Lloyd George, and to Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour who in 1917 penned the famous letter to the British Zionist Organization stating that Britain had decided to view favourably the idea of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman territory with its own inhabitants, politics and society. One of his own relatives, distant cousin Colonel Hankey, was an aide to Lloyd George, he reminded the audience.

I knew Cowper-Coles when he was British ambassador in Saudi Arabia. He was extremely affable and open, and willing to share opinions and information. But a son of empire, he strikes me as typical of a class of British official, rooted in the past, that can only see the region through the eyes of empire and need of the White Man, who may also reserve the right to make a nice late-career packet on the side from facilitating British business interests with regimes propped up by the West: Now Cowper-Coles is director of international business development in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for BAE Systems, the UK firm whose lucrative contract with Saudi Arabia’s Defence Ministry Cowper-Coles fought to save as ambassador in Riyadh when British press revelations of corruption in the contract were revealed.

I asked him afterwards about his fear over the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the absence of the “two-state solution”. He launched into a few impassioned sentences about the future of Israel as a state intended for Jews which would end up practicing apartheid, confirming for me what I suspected all along: this is about concern for Israel as Jewish state, not for Palestinians whose dispossession has been tolerable for liberals since 1948. Indeed, as he said himself, “all of us know what needs to be done for Israel’s sake in Palestine”.

The past week saw another highlight on the regional conference circuit: the World Economic Forum in Jordan. Speaking on Sunday night, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke of the need to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and for the same reasons: otherwise the future of Israel as a Jewish state is in danger. With the state of Palestine now adopted by friends of Israel as a Zionist imperative, Kerry’s rhetoric in fact contained threats over favouring the notion of one state in which Palestinians of the occupied territories have the full civic rights enjoyed by Israeli Jews. Repeatedly invoking the mantra “two states” or “two-state solution”, the speech was a warning to the Palestinian side of the consequences of not coming to a deal with the Israeli government.

“Those who suggest that a two-state solution is already a casualty of years of failed negotiation, and who say that we should search for a new and a different solution, my friends, they have noticeably failed to actually articulate one. And this is for a very simple reason: It is because there is no sustainable alternative solution that exists,” he said.

“A greater Israel that would end up trying to swallow up the Palestinian people could only possibly survive in a state of institutionalized division and discord, a pale shadow of the democratic vision that motivated and animated the founders of Israel. And any attempt by Palestinian politicians to wait out Israel in the hope that somehow, some day, the Israelis will just give up and go away, or that somehow they can win a one-state solution, that will only result in decades of futile confrontation and eventual disillusion, and perhaps worse, violence.”

So Palestinians who hope for full rights inside the current state structure, Israel, will face “confrontation and eventual disillusion, and perhaps worse, violence”. Attempts to ethnically cleanse Palestine of more Palestinians will be their fault for not preserving the two-state solution. But Empire will be there to help Arabs avoid that historic mistake on their journey to modernity.

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