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Middle Eastern reigns of error

Lawrence Joffe wonders why the West always backs crooks and creeps in the Arab world; A Brutal Friendship: the West and the Arab elite by Said K Aburish, Bloomsbury, pounds 20
From the opening sentence of A Brutal Friendship, it is clear that Said Aburish intends to be the Emile Zola of Araby. "There are no legitimate regimes in the Arab Middle East", he states; and few escape his ire. He spares neither Whitehall mandarins, nor mendacious arms dealers, nor Israeli-sponsored think-tanks, nor wheeler-dealer CIA agents, nor well-tailored Arabs in London's "Beirut-on-Thames". Not even that perennial British favourite, "plucky little" King Hussein of Jordan, emerges unscathed. As if to clinch the point, the gruesome dustjacket shows two hands shaking, one smeared in oil, the other in blood.

Yet throughout its 360 exhaustive pages, A Brutal Friendship is informative, engrossing and entertaining. Aburish, a Palestinian writer whose book attacking the House of Saud established him as a leading Arab dissident, now extends his offensive to all "pro-West" regimes. His thesis seems obvious. Arab people deserve as much dignity and liberty as anyone else. For Aburish, this alone is the litmus test for a government's legitimacy. The "street", he implies, is always right, and whichever leader it adopts is therefore legitimate. Even bogey figures such as Saddam Hussein do better than King Fahd when it comes to spending on education or economic development.

Aburish accuses the West of moulding the Arab world to further its own interests, handpicking minority elements and criminals as leaders while denying Arab people their basic rights. From Britain encouraging the slaying of popular King Ghazi of Iraq in 1938 to the CIA instigating coup after coup in Syria, such interventions "almost became a bad habit". Then comes another, somewhat paradoxical argument: apart from being immoral, to mollycoddle dictators is to endanger long-term Western interests. Now that London has become "the new capital of the Middle East", Arab corruption has started "infecting the hosts" - witness Jonathan Aitken. And the Arab-Israeli peace process, Aburish warns, is doomed unless and until the parties heed the voices of ordinary people.

"Arming friends" - such as Britain's multi-billion weapons supply to Saudi Arabia - is equally short-sighted. The average Saudi soldier costs five times as much to maintain as his US equivalent, but poor training renders him useless in battle. The most obvious example is Saddam himself, who eventually bit the Western hand that had fed him with arms. Aburish unveils an entire hidden history of mendacity, as the CIA nurtured the young thug in the Sixties as their secret weapon against the anti-Western Iraqi leader Kassem.

Curiously enough, Western powers follow no Machiavellian master-plan, but rely on the improvisations of field officers and PR agents. Thus Britain's Harry Philby and the CIA's Miles Copeland could change history merely by exploiting personal ties with their Arab "pets". Given this accidental quality, Arab acquiescence seems all the more shameful.

Aburish may be quirky - having condemned "commission-skimming" arms-brokers, he suddenly reveals himself as one of their number - yet it is his keen eye for personal foibles, and the psychological background to political developments, which brings the book to life. His rogues' gallery includes "the gun-toting, whiskey-swigging, skirt-chasing" PLO agent, Hassan Ali Salameh; and the roving Orientalist, Gertrude Bell. She dined off the finest silverware in her desert tent and made blunder after blunder, yet created the State of Iraq from nothing. Meanwhile, Lebanese delegates to France wore an assortment of fezzes, baggy trousers, turbans and lounge suits to express their ethnic diversity, prompting Aburish to comment that "Prime Minister Clemenceau must have thought he was facing a collection of circus performers".

Aburish incisively queries received wisdom. For instance, King Hussein's historic peace "breakthrough" with Israel in 1994 merely concluded a process which began in secret decades earlier. Britain and the US may bewail the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, but it was they who nurtured the zealots in order to undermine Nasser's nationalists and his Soviet ally. And, in noting that Egypt's 1967 war against Israel coincided with her sponsorship of rebels in Saudi-backed Yemen, Aburish deduces: "Fighting Israel and Islam at the same time defeated Nasser and broke the back of the Arab nationalist movement."

Too often, though, Aburish tries to shoehorn the facts to fit his thesis. He maintains that Maronites still run Lebanon - despite intracommunal murders, the disarmed militias and boycotted elections, the erosion of Christian presidential powers, and Syria's displacement of France as Lebanon's mentor. Likewise, Aburish wants to portray Arafat and King Hussein as archetypal Arab dictators. But what of Arafat's convincing electoral mandate in January 1996, or Hussein's own attempts, albeit halting, to introduce multi-party democracy in his kingdom?

Two nagging questions remain. Are Arab governments illegitimate because they are in cahoots with a corrupting West; or is the West corrupt because it is in cahoots with illegitimate governments? Aburish's answer seems to be: guilty on both counts.

Accepting that A Brutal Friendship is polemic, we can learn much about the Middle East from it - and enjoy a good read. Aburish is either brave or foolhardy (perhaps a bit of both). Yet if his book merely pricks the conscience of a complacent West and a supine Arab world, it will have achieved its aim.