Listening to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, trying to explain this week why it was better not to criticise the Saudis in public for their treatment of British businessman jailed in the country, I was reminded of nothing so much as the weaselly view of the Foreign Office when the journalist Farzad Bazoft was arrested by Saddam Hussein's men 12 years ago.
The same argument, the same suggestion of "best not to make waves, it only gets their back up". In the end, neither behind-the-scenes diplomacy nor public protest did any good. Farzad was hanged on Saddam's orders, and I doubt if anything would have moved the butcher of Baghdad. But the one clear result of the Foreign Office policy of currying favour with a tyrant was that, six months later when Saddam decided to invade Kuwait, he felt that Britain and America would not object. Given the way that the West had gone along with everything else Saddam had done, his assumption was understandable.
However it ends up, however much we betray our own principles and the wishes of those in other countries who want the same kind of freedoms that we enjoy and might look to us to help them, we go on treating with tyrants and with corrupt regimes. And the reason we do so is always the same. Somehow we convince ourselves that this is the way to riches, that by holding our noses while bending our knee we can gain contracts for oil, weaponry and construction.
Now Saudi Arabia is not the same as Iraq, and it makes no sense to bandy around such terms as "dictatorship" and "suppression' as if it were. At the most basic level, Saddam Hussein controlled his country through the most brutal methods of force and political control at every level. The Saudi royal family has done it largely through bribery. It buys off opposition by distributing huge sums to the minor princes, the tribal chiefs and the imams of the mosques. The sands of Saudi Arabia are not full of the unmarked graves of executed and tortured civilians, however miserable the country's prisons.
It doesn't make it a nice regime. Far from it. The House of Saud is riddled with corruption and self-regard. Open dissent is stamped on and individual rights suppressed. The oil revenues have been frittered away on lavish living and ridiculously inflated defence spending. Right across the Muslim world, from Northern Cyprus to the Philippines, religion has been corrupted and radicalised by the vast subventions of the Wahabi religious foundations.
If it had not been for the invasion of Iraq, I believe that there would have been internal upheaval, if not revolution, brought about not by religious extremists but by the number of people, particularly of the lower middle class, excluded from the benefits of oil wealth.
But there has been an invasion, and now there has been a bloody bomb attack on Western targets in Riyadh. And, according to some members of the Washington administration, Saudi Arabia is now in the frame for another application of regime change. But change to what? If excessive oil wealth is the glue that has held the society together, remove it and what do you get? A religious state controlled by the Wahabbis? A fragmented country in which the Shia split with the oil from the Sunnis who control the holy places? Or the nice middle-class democratic state that the Pentagon dreams of?
It's actually not for us to decide. The weakness of the agenda of the Washington neo-cons to remake the Middle East in America's own image is not that people throughout the region don't want many of the things that the West treasures. They do, in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere. It is simply that self-determination means just that. It's ultimately up to them.
The real problem that we won't face up to is our own complicity in the sorry state of the Middle East. Much of the corruption and even more of the wasteful expenditure on armaments and on prestige projects has been actively encouraged by the West as a means of recouping the cost of oil.
The real conflict at present in Saudi Arabia is not between monarchy and democrats but between those within the system led by Prince Sultan who believe in Westernisation and openness and those, nearer to Crown Prince Abdullah, who believe that the overheated vehicle needs to be cooled down and the occupants need to learn to live more frugally. It is their hand that will be strengthened by the terrorist acts. If the regime is to clamp down on the fundamentalists it needs to be a lot less Western and lot more inward-looking.
No doubt it would be nice to think that 11 September had cancelled old habits in the Middle East and opened new avenues to a different relationship between the West and the region, based on support of democracy and self-determination. But, instead, we're demanding that the Saudis pour out the oil, whatever the internal consequences, or be dumped as a failed state.
You can see the same about to happen in Iraq. The first task of the US military is to secure the oilfields. Then will come the politicking and the contracts and the corruption as the oil industry is cranked up and the local leaders jostle (or battle) for positions with the occupying forces to get their hands on the cash flow. And the whole cycle that we have seen time and again in the Middle East will repeat itself.Reuse content