The Gulf Bargain

  • AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing
    Polity, 275 pp, £15.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 5095 3203 2

It is a cliché that the United States and Britain are obsessed with Middle East oil, but the reason for the obsession is often misdiagnosed. Anglo-American interest in the enormous hydrocarbon reserves of the Persian Gulf does not derive from a need to fuel Western consumption. Britain used to import considerable quantities of Saudi oil, but currently gets most of what it needs from the North Sea and hasn’t imported much from the Gulf since the 1980s; Saudi oil currently represents around 3 per cent of UK imports. The US has never imported more than a token amount from the Gulf and for much of the postwar period has been a net oil exporter. Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East has always been principally about the strategic advantage gained from controlling Persian Gulf hydrocarbons, not Western oil needs. In 1945, Gordon Merriam, the head of the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs division, made this clear: the Saudi oilfields, he said, were first and foremost ‘a stupendous source of strategic power’. The assistant secretary of state, Adolf Berle, sketched out what remains US strategy: the US and Britain would provide Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf monarchies with ‘sufficient military supplies to preserve internal security’ and ensure that they were permanently guarded by Western navies.

May 9


The finer points of murder

Kwame Nkrumah survived at least five assassination attempts. The first three were bombings targeting his car or house. A grenade was thrown at him, causing minor injuries. In January 1964 an assailant entered the Ghanaian presidential residence, Flagstaff House, and fired five shots from close range. A security guard was killed but Nkrumah was unscathed. “Business went on as usual in Accra”, the New York Times reported. The trouble with many attempted assassinations is that the subject refuses to die. A more recent example was the attack on the then presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, in September 2018. Adélio Bispo de Oliveira stabbed Bolsonaro at a rally, piercing his liver and lungs, but Bolsonaro was up and campaigning again within a couple of weeks and went on to win Brazil’s presidency in October. Would-be assassins consistently overestimate the lethality of their chosen tools, believing it easier to kill a man than it really is.

January 8

The Khashoggi Affair

Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.

The Turkish authorities are not to be trusted in such matters, but it is overwhelmingly likely that Khashoggi has been either killed or abducted by the Saudi state. He left Saudi Arabia because he feared arrest. A detachment of Saudi state security officers arrived in Turkey immediately before his disappearance and left shortly afterwards. The consulate’s cameras were either switched off or the tapes removed. He may have been killed in the consulate, or drugged and flown to Riyadh, to be either executed or held incommunicado.

October 8

Place of Perfect Darkness

The road out of Diyarbakır follows the Tigris before heading south across the plateau. For the scattered villages that still exist impossibly out there on the flat, little breaks the horizon. Atop the few hills that dot the grassland are strange rock formations that look like citadels, or at least as if they were built by human hands. The road goes on to Çinar and the medieval Artuqid city of Mardin and then down to the Syrian border. From there it passes east across the plain, following the recently constructed concrete border wall. At Nusaybin the wall bisects a city. The Syrian side, which is called Qamishlo, looks indistinguishable from its severed twin; wedding parties are still held in concert on both sides of the wall, with music signalling when lovers and revellers occluded from one another should begin to dance.

September 18

Turkey: No country for Kurdish newspapers

The newspaper formerly known as Welat may hold a record for the number of names under which it has published. Welat, Hawar, Welatê Me, Dengê, and Azadiya Welat are just a few of the titles the paper has held since its founding more than 25 years ago.

As the only nationally distributed newspaper in Turkey to be printed in the Kurdish language, the paper was subject to many bans, but its staff always found a way to evade the censors and refound the paper under a new name. Until now.

August 23

‘Lessons in Democracy’

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election as President of Turkey on June 24 came as no surprise. Erdoğan has now ruled Turkey as either president or prime minister for more than fifteen years and had called snap presidential and parliamentary elections because he believed the opposition was in a disoriented state. The only innovation was that the presidential poll was held with one of the main candidates, Selahattin Demirtaş, who came third, confined in a high-security prison.

July 6

Prisoners of a vision

ON JANUARY 31, 2017, four lawyers arrived at the steps of Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court on the west bank of the Nile in central Cairo. Led by Negad El Borei, one of the best-known lawyers in the country, they entered the court to file the forms needed to open a case against the Egyptian government. The petition they carried contained a remarkable finding: one of the main laws the Egyptian military government has used to imprison thousands of political opponents — most of whom are still in jail — does not exist.

June 27