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  • Published in Analysis
David Cameron and King Salman of Saudi Arabia meet for talks at the G20 Summit in Turkey. Photo: Crown Copyright / Georgina Coupe

David Cameron and King Salman of Saudi Arabia meet for talks at the G20 Summit in Turkey. Photo: Crown Copyright / Georgina Coupe

As the west pushes on with the 'war on terror' Saudi Arabia moves centre stage, writes Kevin Ovenden

Saudi Arabia has launched a 34-member "antiterrorism coalition". The absurdity is almost at the level of David Cameron's 70,000 strong "moderate army" in Syria.

This is the same Saudi Arabia which has just held a conference of various armed Syrian Islamist groups to try to create a bloc in the Vienna talks on carving up influence in the broken country.

It is the same Saudi Arabia which has just secured another huge tranche of arms deals with the US and Britain.

It is the same Saudi Arabia which is laying waste to Yemen, but which just lost scores of troops in Yemen in a counter-attack by Houthi rebel forces.

And it is the Saudi Arabia which Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War coalition have systematically targeted for its human rights abuses and its pivotal role in the counter-revolution throughout the Arab region. That pressure on Cameron over the corrupt links to the House of Saud should continue in the new year.

From mid-2011 onwards a key pillar in the strategy to contain, corrupt and crush the Arab Spring was Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, it was instrumental in the coup against President Morsi. The first call General Sisi made on taking power was to Riyadh. In Yemen, it first manoeuvred to install a counter-revolutionary regime and then invaded, as it did in Bahrain.

In Syria, it worked systematically to derail progressive opponents of the Damascus regime and to sectarianise the conflict – turning it into the multifaceted civil war we see today. It is out of the sectarianism and counter-revolution (the main – but not the only – drivers of which are the West’s allies in the region and the Nato powers themselves) that ISIS emerged both as a force born under the US occupation of Iraq and with an opportunity to establish itself in Syria.

It is no secret at all that the Kingdom’s Wahhabi sectarian ideology and its place in the region’s pecking order – through arms, money, and the military-intelligence complex – are prime sources of the takfiri brand of terrorism and sectarian armed groups of which ISIS is one expression.

But, as one Western diplomat puts it: “Saudi Arabia is a source of the problem, but it is also part of the solution.” That is a solution based upon extinguishing the aspirations lit up throughout the region with the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly five years ago.

It is the imposition of that kind of solution which generates both ISIS and its like, and the dictatorship of General Sisi, which is torturing and repressing opposition activists – from the Muslim Brotherhood and the left.

The latest grand gamble by the West in the Middle East pivots on an expanded role for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as its state and economy begin to creak through the impact of accumulated huge corruption and of falling oil prices.

Former British foreign secretary William Hague, speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Dubai on 15 December, welcomed the new Saudi-led, ramshackle alliance of 34 states, saying, “The important thing is to give it real effect – to make sure that, like Nato, it really means protecting each others’ security and integrating some of their military forces, and not just a headquarters.”

To imagine that this – or anything which comes out of this – has anything to do with furthering democracy and peace in Syria or the goals of the Arab revolutions which began in 2011 is laughable. There is no “temporary alliance” through which, miraculously, forces in Syria might advance a progressive cause by tactically siding with the Saudis.

The only positive feature is that the Kingdom is experiencing internally the same kind of deep-seated and long term social and political processes which led to the Arab Spring in the first place and which are continuing despite bloody reaction.

The paltry reforms Riyadh is embarking on now are nothing to do with democracy but rather to try to head off an explosion of opposition by incorporating a wider section of the middle class into the regime of the vast royal family.

The Saudi-centred military and political intervention in the Middle East does not bring bloodshed and counter-revolution in only one country. In that respect it is unlike the Damascus regime in response to the uprising in 2011. Saudi Arabia is central to reaction across the entire region – and that includes Palestine where Riyadh has moved ever closer to Tel Aviv in the course of the beginnings of what is now a Third Intifada.

There is every reason for Obama and Cameron to be uncomfortable and to avoid talking about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The same is true of the bulk of the British media. And even the US Muslim-basher Donald Trump.

It is, conversely, absolutely right for Jeremy Corbyn, and the anti-war and pro-Palestine movements in Britain, to focus sharply on the barbaric Kingdom and its role.

The rationale for that is not just opposition to imperialism. It is a commitment to the Arab revolutionary process which began four years ago.

By the same token, anyone who aligns with, takes the funding of, or plays with the idea of an alliance of convenience with Saudi royals is firmly on the side of reaction against genuine revolution.

As well as stopping Britain’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the anti-war movement has from the beginning called on the British government to break its relationship with and arms sales to the Saudis.

In the coming weeks and months that is likely to become more widely understood in public opinion. As Cameron’s bombing and war policy unravel further, it is something also to press on again and again, against the government and the pro-war MPs.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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