Middle East Goes West: The British help the poor, the democratic, and the same old state of things

Posted on May 29, 2011


On Friday, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested the G8 countries should provide a $40 billion fund to Egypt and Tunisia “in support of suitable reform efforts”. This figure includes money from the World Bank, the African Development Bank as well as a $2.5 billion amount from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

On the same day David Cameron made a heartfelt and bold speech at the Summit. He was going to continue sending aid to Africa. The Independent seemed moved enough to report: 

David Cameron took on his right-wing critics yesterday as he mounted a passionate defence of his determination to increase foreign aid despite the extent of the austerity measures facing Britain.

His comments will put him on a collision course with Tory-supporting newspapers – as well as many Conservative MPs and activists.

Cameron standing up for what he believes in! The humanitarianism he has demonstrated time and again since taking power last year is finally being taken to the world stage. When the Tories say “No mercy!” to the NHS, they actually mean no mercy to inefficiency. They just want to see everyone getting along with the god-given rights of free market economics, competition and choice. Is it so hard for you to see that?

Fair enough, aid is a conditionally good thing. Cameron cited “preventable diseases” and “trying to save lives in terms of the poorest people in the poorest conditions” as reasons to up the ante, increasing British aid from 0.56 % of gross national income (GNI) to 0.7% in 2013, and enshrining that in law. See where the money goes, but it’s a step, I suppose.

If we don’t support the world’s poor like this, Cameron claimed, “We end up paying the price of the terrorism, of the crime, of the mass migration, of the environmental devastation”. Here unfortunately, the logic begins to break down. The West “pays the price” – poor us – for all those suffering in the world. When Cameron recounts Live Aid in 1985 as an inspiration for his policy, did he sit in front of the television and bemoan how those poor Ethiopian chaps were going to make it awful difficult for Mother Margaret over the next few years? He remembers where he was when it happened apparently. Someone should ask him.

But back to it. Is it really foreign aid (or lack of) that causes world terrorism? After all, the Taliban threatened to kill those who collaborated with foreign aid companies and charities after the Pakistan floods last year.

Surely it’s more likely that the aid is the shell to a much heavier kernel. The history of the Taliban itself hy was the Taliban established in the first place? An Islamic freedom-fighter group that emerged after the fall of the Soviet-backed communist government under Mohammed Najibullah in 1992, the Taliban were one of the showpieces of Cold War neo-imperialism. The West armed them against the Soviets, the Soviets left. After that they mujahideen Taliban could concentrate on more important things; Islamic fundamentalism, hanging naughty women off football posts in Kabul’s Ghazi Sports Stadium, rape, stoning, climate of fear, all that. And all facilitated by the freedom-loving West. The rest, lest we forget, is history.

Maybe then, the price the West so stoically pays does not stem from anything to do with aid. The West destroys itself by creating these terrorist groups for its own temporary needs, and then deals with it later. All through the pervasive hypocrisy with which Western democracies extol the virtues of humanism, free and fair government across the world, packaging it off to the Middle East and Arab States with a shiny neo-liberal sheen. Meanwhile they send the arms and dirty money in over the mountain pass.

Elsewhere good work is being done. However these ostentatious acts of international philanthropy are a means of control by which the West extends its neo-liberal sphere of influence into the “developing world”. Aid creates dependency. It will only ever be the temporary alleviation (at best) of a permanent situation. If Cameron wants to solve the plight of the world’s poor, as he so passionately describes, then the only option is a wholesale rethinking of the way international economics is governed. And the Establishment are never going to offer that.

One thing the Establishment will do though is say one thing and do the other. The news the next day demonstrated exactly that.

One day after the G8 was talking about honouring the brave new democracies of the Arab Spring with billions of dollars, The Guardian publishes a report showing how British military men are training the Saudi National Guard, responsible for firing into the crowds protesting for democracy in Bahrain. Coincidence of timing, but the paradox shouldn’t be lost.

The Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG, doo-wop) were originally set up to protect the royal family from popular uprising or military coup. You can read about the organisation’s history on their website, though it does ask for a username and password on each page you look at; and on the right-hand-side there’s a interesting web-vote: “How do you find new SANG website? – Excellent? – Very Good? – Good?” What about terrifying, Democrat?

The Ministry of Defence revealed details of UK involvement in the Middle East after a Freedom of Information request by The Observer. Regular dispatches consisting of 11 British servicemen under one brigadier have been training SANG in “weapons, fieldcraft and general military skills training, as well as incident handling, bomb disposal, search, public order and sniper training”.

Harmless enough, except for the fact these “general military skills” are being used against 1. Civilians and 2. Civilians protesting against corrupt and unrepresentative government in the name of democracy. 1200 Saudi troops were used to quash popular uprisings in the country in March, a nurse was also shot dead by a Saudi sniper.

The Guardian quoted one MOD official’s view of things:

An MoD spokesman described the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, as “key partners” in the fight against terrorism. “By providing training for countries to the same high standards used by UK armed forces we help to save lives and raise awareness of human rights,” said the spokesman.

I don’t imagine the people of Bahrain see these UK-trained SANG-men as saving lives.

SAS and ex-Falklands servicemen were also used in Cambodia to train Khmer Rouge after the removal of Pol Pot. Simon O’Dwyer-Russell broke details of the SAS involvement in The Sunday Telegraph in 1989, whom – he quoted – were “all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain”. SAS-men trained the Khmer Rouge in similar methods, and with similar structures, to those the Saudis gratefully receive now.

John Pilger, a significant journalistic voice throughout Cambodia’s twisted history during and after the Vietnam War, chronicled the US and UK’s involvement in supporting the Khmer Rouge. It all sounds rather like history is repeating itself in Bahrain now, albeit it a less severe – but morally analogous – way.

This is further raw evidence of the true nature of Western democracy abroad. “Democratisation” in the Middle East (and beyond) is not in the name of all those Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty, fellow Mankind, light in darkness, etc.

It is for money, and all the expediency it brings.

Posted in: Politics