What does the Middle East think of Brexit? A lot more than you'd assume

One Saudi businessman noted that the kingdom’s imports would be cheaper; so would purchases in London’s property market, the super-wealthy Arab bolt-hole for immensely rich Gulfies 

Robert Fisk
Sunday 26 June 2016 16:29 BST
Calls are being made for Saudi Arabia to be expelled from the UN Human Rights Council
Calls are being made for Saudi Arabia to be expelled from the UN Human Rights Council

It’s disconcerting to live in the Middle East at a time when Arabs die in their thousands to reach the EU and Britain commits monetary suicide to leave it. The continent of plenty – and safety – for millions of Muslims seeking refuge from dictators, torturers and wars, has been rejected by a nation which fought for almost six years to destroy dictators, torturers and future wars.

No wonder the Arabs don’t know what to make of Brexit – or “breekseet” as it appears in Arabic transcription – and fall back on history to explain the “justice” of the EU crisis. Having decided in 1916 to break up the Ottoman Empire into Arab statelets to be occupied by Anglo-French forces, Sir Mark Sykes’ descendants would now face the music or, in the words of a Saudi tweeter, “Britain which divided up the Arab countries 100 years ago into incompatible parts will soon taste the bitterness of division and be broken up.” Well, up to a point…

Gulf governments to whom Britain and especially David Cameron have traditionally grovelled took a predictably rosy view of Britain’s potential catastrophe. One Saudi businessman noted that the kingdom’s imports would be cheaper; so would purchases in London’s property market, the super-wealthy Arab bolt-hole for immensely rich Gulfies – which was not quite what Boris, Mike and Nigel had in mind as Brexit benefits. Bahrain, which has just crushed its majority Shia opposition party and deprived its most prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassem, of his nationality, praised Britain’s “brave and historic decision to leave”, a reaction, no doubt, to the EU’s complaints that tiny Bahrain and its equally miniature king have not exactly lived up to the finest democratic ideals these past few years.

A few Saudis were more cynically level-headed. Jamal Kashoggi, one of the country’s best-known journalists – and the man, incidentally, who first introduced me to Osama bin Laden in Sudan – said that Vladimir Putin was happy to have “succeeded in breaking up the European Union with the refugee crisis created in Syria.” Syrian-Druze journalist Faisal al-Kassim noted with equal cynicism on Qatar’s al-Jazeera channel that “in Britain, when people said ‘no’, Cameron left immediately. In Syria, when people said ‘no’, it was the people who left and al-Assad who stayed.” An interesting point – slightly marred by the fact that David Cameron is not leaving “immediately”, and by the number of UK citizens seeking Irish passports.

But the underlying problem for almost all Arabs, only partially hinted at since Brexit, is that Arab elections are so preposterous, their results so fantastical, their majorities so mythical, that the UK referendum is itself a dream of democracy, however awful, unfair and divisive its results. I’m not talking about the total crackpots – Saddam’s 100 per cent victory in the 2002 Iraqi elections, for instance – but about poor old Egypt which has voted in chains for many years. Just look at that 98.1 per cent for a 2014 constitution which allowed Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah Sisi to stand for president after he had overthrown the elected government of Mohamed Morsi. And then we had Sisi’s own 2014 presidential election victory of 96.1 per cent – now that, surely would have Boris and Mike and Nigel slavering with joy if only we Brits had the same patriotic unity as the Egyptian people.

Brexit, tweeted one Egyptian, “reminds me of the situation here in Egypt: the old deciding the future of the young”. Ahmed Salem was equally droll. “So, just for one day, Egypt won’t be the world’s laughingstock.” Now, said another tweet, “Minoufia is demanding a referendum to join the EU in place of the UK.” The province of Minoufia – a fact which Twitter doesn’t allow enough space to explain – was the birthplace of dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, both referred to during their reigns, of course, as leaders of “moderate, pro-western regimes”.

Leave MP Nigel Evans says Brexit can't promise immigration will drop

Perhaps the most moving and extraordinary personal exchange to have been provoked by Brexit in the Middle East, however, was that between Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the 92-year old Israeli philosopher, left-wing activist and ex-soldier in the Israeli army (in Israel’s 1948 war of independence – the Palestinians’ “Nakba” or catastrophe), Uri Avnery. Jumblatt is the world’s biggest nihilist, as I’ve often told him, and Avnery, who left Nazi Germany in 1933, is now one of Israel’s beacons of enlightenment and foremost advocates of Palestinian freedom within a Palestinian state - which is why he has endured such calumny from his fellow citizens. The two men have formed an enduring friendship.

Jumblatt recalled the Sykes-Picot and Balfour agreements of the First World War and the 1948 declaration of the state of Israel which caused such suffering to the Arabs, and he continued: “The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be separated from modern European history and its implications during the 20th century… Knowing that you are in a way a memory of most of the last century, of the Jewish people of that century and the terrible ordeal they went through, I reached this conclusion after [the] vote in Britain: a hundred years after the First World War, it is as if Europe is headed again towards tremendous turmoils, that start with the economy but develop later on [into] national issues, the European…identity being too weak to confront the devils of nationalism.”

A century after the 1914-18 Great War, Jumblatt concluded, “the right-wing parties and the xenophobic ones all over Europe are on the rise, today against foreign immigration – mainly Arabs and Muslims – tomorrow [against] Jews as history tells us…What a pity to have lived…so many events and to be obliged to witness what is left of life, this sad end of history. Somebody said history repeats itself.” The Druze leader signed himself off with a sentiment of “deep regards” to Avneri.

The Israeli intellectual replied within hours: “Dear Walid, History repeats itself, but it also changes all the time. The Brexit is a large step backwards, but I hope Europe will march forwards nonetheless. Let’s continue to hope! Salamaat, Uri.” Salamaat is “greetings” in Arabic (or “good health”).

I guess there are not many Brits on the Leave or Remain side saying that to each other today.

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