The gulf monarchies are the main facilitators of Britain’s support for sectarian death squads in the Middle East. This should be no surprise because Britain brought them to power precisely because of their sectarianism. Part two of Sukant Chandan and Dan Glazebrook’s series on British collusion with sectarian violence.
“What we want is not a united Arabia: but a weak and disunited Arabia split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty, but incapable of coordinated action against us” – so claimed a memorandum written by the Foreign Department of the British Government of India in 1915. A more succinct summary of British policy towards the Arab world – both then and now – would be hard to find.
As we outlined in the first piece in this series, Britain’s weapon of choice in its attempt to destroy the independent regional powers of West Asia and North Africa in recent years has been its sponsorship of violent sectarianism. Its support for racist death squads in Libya not only achieved the destruction of the Libyan state, but also brought terrorism to every country in the region from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria to Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon; whilst its training and equipping of death squads in Syria has been directly responsible for the rise of ISIS. These forces, by setting Sunni against Shia, Muslim against Christian, and Arab against Black, are helping to bring about precisely that “weak and disunited Arabia” that the British officials in India dreamed of one hundred years ago.
Alongside the direct support and recruitment provided by British intelligence and the British government, one of the main conduits for arms and fighters has been the gulf monarchies: Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular. That the Gulf States should play this role should, of course, be no surprise – as they were very largely the creations of the same British Government of India that wrote that memo in the first place.
In 1857, British colonial rule of India was challenged as never before, as what started as a mutiny rapidly spread across the country to become a mass insurgency, the first war of Indian independence. One of the reasons it was so potent is that Hindus and Muslims had joined forces – leading to what became the biggest anti-colonial uprising of the nineteenth century. Britain learned the lessons – and began to cultivate sectarian divisions more assiduously than ever before. As Mark Curtis notes in Secret Affairs: “After 1857 the British promoted communalism, creating separate electorates and job and educational reservations for Muslims. “’Divide et imperia [divide and rule]’ was the old Roman motto,’ declared William Elphinstone, the early nineteenth-century governor of Bombay, ‘and it should be ours’. This view pervaded and became a cornerstone of British rule in India”. Curtis quotes one document after another to demonstrate just how pervasive this view became: one Secretary of State advising the governor general that “we have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling”; another informing the Viceroy that “this division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage”; a senior civil servant writing that “the truth plainly is that the existence side by side of these hostile creeds is one of the strong points in our political position in India. The better clashes of Mohammedans are already a source to us of strength and not of weakness”, and so on, ad nauseam. Yet, Curtis notes, it was not in India but in the Middle East that this divide and rule strategy “reached its apogee”.
The British Government of India began cultivating alliances with family clans in the Arabian peninsula from around the late eighteenth century, formalizing these relationships through official treaties over the course of the next hundred and fifty years. Even before the discovery of oil, the region was deemed strategically important as part of the land route from India, as well for its surrounding sea routes, and the Indian government took steps to ensure that it be placed firmly under British control. By the nineteenth century, Britain was already the pre-eminent naval power in the region, and had become powerful enough to make or break the fortunes of those to whom it lent (or withdrew) its ‘protection’. So it is interesting to note that those families which Britain did choose to turn into ruling classes of the new states that were being carved out – the Al Saud, the Al Thani, the Al Khalifa and others – all seemed to have two things in common: a history of regular warring with their neighbours; and an, at best, shaky control of the territories they claimed to rule. These factors were not coincidental – for what they produced was a dependence on British protection that effectively turned them into little more than vassals of Empire.
The al-Khalifa clan, for example, today’s rulers of Bahrain, originally hailed from Umm Qasr in Iraq, from where they were expelled by the Ottomans due to their regular attacks on trade caravans. They first seized control of Bahrain in 1783 after Persian rule began to crumble, but lost control two decades later falling out with the Wahhabis with whom they were briefly allied. It was only after signing a treaty with the British in 1820 that their rule was consolidated. This treaty, and the others that followed, effectively placed foreign policy in the hands of the British in exchange for Britain propping up the al Khalifa’s rule of the country – an arrangement that has continued, to all intents and purposes, right up to the present day.
Being effectively an alien force in the country, the al Khalifa were permanently at risk from the population they sought to rule, especially given their persecution of the Shia majority. This made British protection that much more important, and increased British leverage accordingly; whenever any particular Khalifa emir began to act too independently, the British would simply replace them. Lieutenant Colonel Trevor, the Deputy Political Agent in Bahrain after the First World War, put it bluntly when, after receiving a series of demands from the new crown prince he noted that ‘The Shaikh forgets that he and his father were made Shaikhs by the British government.” Shortly afterwards, the British sent warships to the gulf to force the Shaikh to sign an agreement ceding all powers to his other son – a British protégé.
Formal independence was granted in 1971, but given that power was being handed over to the same family that had ruled Bahrain on Britain’s behalf for the past century and a half, this changed little. The most notable difference was perhaps the flags on the foreign warships at the country’s naval base, which changed from British to US.
Fast forward to the present day, and it is clear that the essence of the 1820 treaty – Al Khalifa rule propped up by Western armaments, with foreign policy in the hands of the West – is still very much in place. Whilst David Cameron was proclaiming democracy (a euphemism for state collapse) for Libya and Syria, he was in Bahrain selling weapons to the Khalifas to suppress their own ‘Arab Spring’; whilst three years later the US fifth fleet would be firing hellfire missiles into Syria from its Bahraini base.
But British support for the al Khalifas has never been absolute; rather they built up the al-Thani clan as a ‘counterweight’ to the Khalifa in order to guarantee their continued dependence on the British. Up until 1867, Qatar had been essentially a semi-autonomous province of Bahrain, its government effectively ‘sub-contracted’ to the Al Thanis. In that year, however, a war between the Al Thanis and the Al Khalifas broke out; Britain intervened on the side of the Al Thanis, carving out Qatar out as a separate political entity and recognising the Al Thanis as its rulers. The border between the two countries was left devilishly ambiguous, and remained a running sore in Qatari-Bahraini relations right up until 2001; a “weak and disunited Arabia” indeed.
Further agreements were signed with the Al Thanis in 1935, offering them protection against internal and external threats in exchange for oil concessions. Qatar too gained formal independence in 1971, but the deep links forged during the period of the protectorate remain; indeed both the Emirs that have ruled since then were educated at Sandhurst Military Academy, with the current Sheikh educated at elite English private school Sherborne before that.
The relationship between Britain and the ruling families of Bahrain and Qatar continues to follow that same basic principle forged centuries ago, and now also extended to the US: whilst the ruling families act as regional agents of Western imperial policy, their rule is maintained by Western weaponry. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the events of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The protests breaking out across the Arab world in early 2011 soon spread to Bahrain, where angry crowds demanded an end to the monarchy’s policies of discrimination and exclusion against the Shia majority. Cameron’s immediate response was to head to the region to sell the embattled regime the weapons it needed to crush the movement. The following year, the country’s interior minister, Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, visited the Foreign Office to gather “lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland”, according to a British government statement. This experience was particularly relevant; the problem faced by the British in the North of Ireland was, after all, broadly analogous to that faced by the Bahraini monarchy: how to maintain an oppressive sectarian rule and crush movements calling for equality. The sight of British APCs in the street shooting down demonstrators, now common in the Bahraini capital, will be familiar to Belfast’s nationalist communities; and so too will the latest human rights reports coming out of Bahrain describing “detainees being beaten, deprived of sleep, burned with cigarettes, sexually assaulted, subjected to electric shocks and burnt with an iron”, all common practices in British army barracks in 1970s Ireland. Britain’s Bahraini students are quick learners. The US fifth fleet, based in Bahrain and used to fire missiles into Syria and Libya, is in safe hands.
Qatar, meanwhile, was a lynchpin in not only the militarisation of the ‘Arab Spring’ and its capture by violent sectarian forces, but also its ideological whitewashing. The Al Jazeera TV channel was established by the Qatari government in 1996, effecting to what amounted to a ‘brown-facing’ of the BBC Arabic channel, which was closed down the same year before transferring a large chunk of its staff to the ‘new’ station. Al Jazeera built its credibility across the region – and, indeed, the world – with its critical coverage of Western and Israeli attacks on Iraq and Gaza. But in 2011 it would use this credibility to serve as NATO’s propagandist-in-chief, amplifying and disseminating every lie it could get its hands on – from African mercenaries, to mass rape, to ‘bombing his own people’, to ‘impending massacre’ – in order to demonise Gaddafi and sell the case for war. It would be a war in which Qatar would play a major role.
In the early days of the West’s attack on Libya, anti-Gaddafi rebel forces (led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Al Qaeda’s Libyan franchise), even with NATO air support, proved spectacularly ineffective at capturing and holding territory from the Libyan government. For the first few months, most of the towns they ‘captured’ thanks to NATO incineration of government soldiers would simply be retaken by the Libyan army days later. But NATO countries were wary of risking a domestic political backlash by openly committing too many of their own troops or resources to tip the balance. The solution found was to let Qatar and the Gulf states carry out its dirty work. They played a leading role in training and equipping rebel fighters, allowing NATO to be pretending to observe the arms embargo to which UN resolutions committed them. As the Royal United Services Institute noted, “the UAE established a Special Forces presences in the Zawiyah district and started to supply rebel forces in that area with equipment and provisions by air. Qatar also assumed a very large role; it established training facilities in both Benghazi, and, particularly the Nafusa Mountains on May 9 and acted as a supply route and conduit for French weapons and ammunition supplies to the rebels (notably in June), including by establishing an airstrip at Zintan.” They added that, “Western special forces could have confidence in the training roles undertaken by Qatar and the UAE, because the special forces in those countries have in turn been trained by the UK and France over many years”. In addition to this major training and arming role, Qatari jets also joined NATO in pounding Libya, and the country issued $100million of loans to the rebel groups. But most important was the Qatari ground invasion of Tripoli.
As Horace Campbell has documented in his book “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya”, by the summer of 2011, NATO were nearing a crisis-point: the 60-day period in which the US president could engage in hostilities without Congressional support was over, and the UN mandate for military intervention was to expire in September. Calls were growing within the AU and the UN for a negotiated settlement, and rivalry between militias continued to dog the rebels’ progress. NATO needed to take Tripoli quickly if their regime change operation was not to be stalled in its tracks. So in mid-August, NATO massively stepped up its bombing of Tripoli. Checkpoints, manned by citizens pledged to defend the capital were repeatedly targeted, and Obama sent the last two training drones left in the US to the Libyan frontline. That paved the way for what Campbell called “NATO’s triple assault – by air, land and sea”; not a ‘people’s uprising’ but rather a ground invasion to crush the people who had risen to defend their city. Troops were shipped in and disguised as ‘rebel fighters’, with, according to Le Figaro, five thousand Qatari troops chief amongst them. It was they who, finally, captured Tripoli for NATO, installing Abdul Hakim Bel Haj, now suspected leader of ISIS in Libya, as the new military chief of the conquered city.
Bahrain and Qatar are just two examples of the enduring alliances that the British government has cultivated over centuries as it groomed handpicked ruling families for their anointed role as agents of imperial policy. In exchange for a British guarantee of their absolute power domestically, they have provided military bases and have acted as willing agents for those tasks their patron was either unwilling or unable to carry out itself. Today, that means acting as an ‘arms-length’ distributor of both BBC propaganda and British violence, in far more ways than have been possible to articulate here (Qatar’s role in managing the various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots that have been destabilising Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, for example, would need a full article in its own right). But even more significant than the British alliance with the al Khalifas and al Thanis is that that was established with the al-Saud family, the subject of our next piece. For it is this relationship, forged during the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, that ultimately created a new multinational fighting force of fighters in the 1980s – the ‘database’ – that has been doing Britain’s bidding in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria ever since.
This piece was originally published by RT