Since the disappearance and alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey this month, the spotlight has been firmly on the Saudi Arabian regime.
While the details of Khashoggi's death are still unclear, western government and business support for the regime is dropping off rapidly. The "reform agenda" mask Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS) has been wearing in a bid to diversify the country's economy away from oil is slowly slipping.
That reform agenda included a visit by Bin Salman to the UK in March, when he had lunch with the Queen; dinner with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge; a day at the prime minister's rural retreat, Chequers; and attendance at a meeting of the UK national security council. During the visit, British newspapers ran Saudi adverts with progressive messages about the Crown Prince, such as, "He is empowering Saudi Arabian women." The attempt at reform also includes working with a number of British media and PR organisations, including VICE, which is producing films with SRMG, a Saudi publishing group with ties to the Saudi ministry of information.
David Wearing is an academic at Royal Holloway university and a specialist on the link between Gulf wealth and the British economy. I talked to him about the war in Yemen, the soft power the Saudis exercise through football clubs and newspapers in the UK, and why the Khashoggi scandal has gained so much traction in the west.
VICE: You’ve just published a book, Anglo-Arabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. What is the relationship between Saudi and the Gulf states, and the UK?
David Wearing: So our relationships with these states is the product of the historical process through empire, and it's a product of a relationship that was built up during empire. Britain was the hegemonic power in the region from the earlier 1800s up until 1971, and since then has still had a close relationship. So most of the time we’ve been involved in the Gulf it’s been as an empire, and this is the aftermath.
Today, it's about the money these states generate through the sale of oil and gas, and how British capitalism and British state power attracts that money to it and makes use of it. And the main conclusion is that Gulf wealth isn't important to Britain generally but to a specific kind of Britain. It helps us to maintain a neoliberal economic model.
Neoliberalism decimated our export industry and strengthened our financial services, giving us a trade deficit: Gulf capital inflows help to negate that. The other thing they do is buy out arms sales, which aren't important to the British economy overall but help to sustain the arms industry. And the arms industry is something you need if you want to be a global military superpower, which Britain has been trying to hold on to since the end of empire.
Their ties with the UK go further than this, don't they. They own football clubs like Man City, they own shares in newspapers...
Yes. They exercise a lot of soft power. The whole Vision 2030 thing that Crown Prince Bin Salman was doing was about rebranding Saudi Arabia as a place which is less politically costly for his western allies to support, and also more attractive to western investors. And so they’ve tried to associate themselves with enlightened rule – "we support your football clubs, we support your cultural institutions" – building deep, soft power among western publics and especially among western elites.
The difficult is that people aren't stupid. People are fairly au fait with the concept of branding and publicity. And au fait with the idea that what goes on behind that might be quite different. And if you'd know a country is saying it's reforming but it's also allegedly killing journalists and chopping them up into bits while they're still alive, or pulverising an impoverished country until 14 million people are on the brink of famine, you can see what's going on. That's their problem.
Even western elites who want you to maintain this pretence for their interest can only go along with this for so long. You need to actually maintain the pretence. And what's behind it is so ugly that people are going to see it eventually. So the reforms they need to maintain their alliances are going to have to go much much deeper, and probably much deeper than these monarchies are prepared to go.
When did the war in Yemen begin? What role do the Saudis have in all of this?
So, the short background is we have the uprisings everywhere in the Middle East for virtually the same reasons: corruption, joblessness, authoritarianism, etc. In Yemen, the way it played out was that once the president had come under a certain amount of pressure, his foreign backers – that is to say, the Saudis, the UAE, the British, the Americans and the French – decided that he had to go if they were going to maintain the system underneath him. So they toppled the guy and tried to maintain the system. But because the underlying issues weren’t addressed, the system underneath him collapsed when a group of rebels from the north toppled the interim president and then took control of the country. This group are called the Houthis. They were backed by the Iranians but frankly were an indigenous force, not an Iranian creation by any stretch of the imagination.
At that point, the Saudis and the UAE come in to restore their guy: the former interim leader, who they say is the "internationally recognised president". The British and Americans also support him: the war's only supposed to last a few months. The idea is just to pulverise these people into submission, but it doesn’t work. And here we are three-and-a-half years later.
It's the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe, not just because the war has destroyed the economy, but also because the blockade has destroyed the economy. It’s an import-dependent country, it’s the poorest country in the Middle East, being blockaded by the richest countries in the Middle East, assisted by the richest countries in the world. It’s driven the country to the brink of what the UN say will be, in the next few months, the worst famine in the world in the last 100 years. That’s 14 million people now on the brink of starvation. That’s a deliberate policy; it's man-made. The Houthis are to blame as well. But the leading culprit is the Saudi-led coalition and their British, American and French backers.
The key point here in terms of the Saudi bombing campaign, which is responsible for most civilian casualties, is that they’re carrying out that bombing with Britain and American planes dropping British and American-supplied missiles, flown by British and American-trained pilots with British and American technicians supplying technical support for the fighter jets. In other words, they could not sustain that bombing campaign for any length of time without their support, which could have been withdrawn at any time. So a British audience and an American audience needs to understand the culpability of our government in these horrors that are now unfolding.
Why has the death of Khashoggi caused so much uproar?
It’s because of his connections. The Saudi-led coalition dropped a 500 pound bomb on a school bus in August, killing 40 primary school aged children, and the mistake those kids made was they didn’t spend a lot of time networking in Washington. None of them had columns in the Washington Post, or had any friends in western media. Because if they had, then that story wouldn’t have fallen off the front pages after a day, it would have been a long scandal that shows no sign of going away. This guy was well connected, so all his friends in the political and the media class have made a huge noise about it.
But what the scandal has done is crystallise everything else. So all the concerns about MbS in terms of Yemen, in terms of the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, all these terrible misjudgments borne of naivety, incompetence, which he got away with up until now – this is now seen as the final straw. And it’s been treated as the final straw because it’s been brought to public attention because of this guy’s connections. And it’s changed the cost-benefit analysis for so many businesses who, before, were quite happy to do business with the Saudis, go to their investment conferences regardless of what was happening in Yemen, what was happening in Saudi Arabia itself. Now they’re like, 'OK, this is a big story, the Saudi brand is toxic, and it'll toxify our brand.'
What do you think will happen next?
In the short term, governments who are deeply committed to the relationship will try to gloss this, and they'll encourage the Turks and the Saudis to try to gloss it. The Turks have an incentive to. If the Turks can find a way to muddy the waters, there might be money in it for them from the Saudis, which helps them in their currency crisis, for example.
That being said, this is an incredibly hard thing to gloss. Someone went into your embassy and didn't come out. That can only mean a limited number of things, all of them terrible. But they will try and gloss it, try and hope it’ll blow over. Part of a way to finesse it might be for the Crown Prince to be demoted or dismissed, have responsibilities taken off him. It’s clear now there are open concerns in Washington and London over whether this guy is competent enough, whether he’s undermining a relationship that they value.
Longer term: the toxicity of the Saudi regime within global public opinion, Western public opinion, could start feeding through. If Western businesses don’t want to invest in Saudi Arabia, they will face big problems in their attempts to transition economically. If the Western public won’t tolerate [it], are loud and angry about the relationship – not just pissed off and quiet about it – that becomes politically unsustainable. Perhaps not for right-wing governments whose voters don’t care so much, but for progressive governments it’s a problem. You have to maintain that constituency – so you see Bernie Sanders and Corbyn going in very hard on the Saudis. It may be that, although the relationship isn’t threatened in the short term, in the longer term, when those guys come through, you could see more important changes, and that’s partially driven from below.