Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021
The first article in this series looked at the ‘domestic’ role of the British monarchy, suggesting that they served as a ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’, a feudal remnant kept artificially alive in order to prop up bourgeois rule through the bypassing of parliament and the establishment of rule by decree in the event of serious popular unrest and revolt. In a nation as deeply saturated with colonial wealth and outlook as Britain, however, this is more of an ‘insurance policy’ than an active and ongoing role. In the realm of foreign policy, however – where the revolutionary overthrow of Britain’s colonial proxies is a real and ever-present danger – their role is much more active and visible. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Arab world.
Following the taxonomy deployed by the legendary Ghanaian revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah, the Arab states can be divided into two main camps: those which are under the effective control of the former colonial powers and their allies (which he termed ‘neocolonial’ states), and those which are not. In the former camp are states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, all of them creations of the British empire and to this day still controlled by the ruling families handpicked by Britain at the height of empire. The consolidation and reinforcement of the relationships between Britain and these families, and the shoring up of their power, is a core part of the role of the British royal family, and much of their time is taken up with hosting and visiting these families. This is especially important at times when their rule is under threat, providing an expression of solidarity at the highest level, an assurance that the British state will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with whatever repression is deemed necessary to hold onto power.
Whilst this symbolic royal solidarity is offered to leaders of Britain’s neocolonial proxy states the world over, it is the relationships with the ruling families of the Arab world specifically that are considered to be paramount. To understand why this is so, it is essential to appreciate the fundamental importance of Arabia both to the neocolonial system – the channelling of wealth generated in the global South to the western states – in general, and to British economic and political power in particular.
The Gulf region’s importance to the neocolonial world system derives primarily from its strategic location and its energy resources. Even before the discovery of oil, the region was particularly coveted by the British state due to its proximity to India. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 sent British officials scurrying for control of the Arabian peninsula in order to close the Gulf to the French navy; to this end, the first Anglo-Arabian treaty was signed that year, with the Sultan of Muscat. Others followed soon after, such that the British were virtual hegemons in the region by the middle of the nineteenth century. The thrust of these treaties was always the same – British security guarantees for the ruling families in exchange for British control of their foreign policy, with securing the trade and military route to India the fundamental objective. Urgency was added to this aim in 1911, when Winston Churchill decreed that the navy would switch from coal to oil, meaning that not only British economic strength, but British naval power too, was now dependent on imports from the East (which, since the opening of the Suez canal in 1882, could now make their journey to Europe purely by way of cargo ship through the Red Sea).
This geostrategic imperative for British control of the Gulf region remains operational today. Three of the world’s eight ‘transit chokepoints’ – narrow waterways through which a large proportion of global trade passes daily – surround the Arabian peninsula – the Suez canal to the Northwest, the Strait of Hormuz to the east, between Arabia and Iran, and the Bab el-Mandab Strait to the west, linking Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti. Control of these chokepoints is considered crucial, therefore, not so much to British energy security (as the Gulf region supplies less than 4% of Britain’s oil and only 13% of its gas), but to Anglo-America’s ability to control the flow of energy to other countries – in other words, to the leverage provided by such control. The ability to cut off energy supply to whoever it chooses is a key element of western global power. As Bush advisor Zalmay Khalilzad put it back in 1995, “the US position in the Gulf…helps the United States to prevent the rise of another global rival. And should one arise, Washington’s position in the Gulf would be a great advantage.” With East Asia, in particular, increasingly dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, it is easy to see how control of these chokepoints could be used as another weapon in the West’s escalating economic war against China.
Yet the strategic location of the Arab world is only part of the story. The other key element is oil, and in particular, the link between oil, currency and global power. In his book The City, Tony Norfield identifies the international status of a country’s currency as one of four factors essential to global power, with the status of sterling thus crucial to Britain’s continued imperial role. And the value of sterling fundamentally depends on Gulf oil wealth.
This was already true in the immediate postwar era when “maintaining the strength of the pound sterling was an absolute strategic priority for British policymakers… and Britain’s interests in Gulf oil were crucial to London’s success in this regard.” (David Wearing, paraphrasing Steven Galpern.) Back then, taxes paid by British-owned oil companies like BP and Shell in Iran and Kuwait helped finance the government’s domestic spending, whilst the foreign currency they earnt allowed Britain to finance imports without building up a trade deficit, as well as building up reserves which could be used to defend the pound when necessary. They also, of course, allowed Britain to import oil without using up precious foreign reserves; all of which helped keep sterling’s value from collapse.
Following the oil crisis of 1973, when oil producing states turned to western banks to house their newly acquired petrodollars, however, a new role began to emerge for Gulf wealth. Says Wearing, “As well as direct investment in the British economy and investment opportunities for British industry in the Gulf, Whitehall sought a wider influx of surplus oil revenues into the financial system, whereby recycled petrodollars would play a similar stabilising function to the recently expired Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates.” By the end of the decade, those banks were the repositories for $154billion of petrodollars. This new source of capital allowed for a fundamental transformation in the structure of the British economy, and a new type of imperialism – neoliberalism. Whereas the imperialism of Lenin’s day had been predicated on the export of capital by imperial states based on a manufacturing economy, this new type came to rely on the import of capital, in turn facilitating the ‘offshoring’ of production to the global South.
In an excellent article on the blog paradigmchange.net, neoliberalism is described as an economic model that is predicated on a shift “from production to finance” and “based on consumption not accompanied by an adequate level of production…The resulting shortfall in income needed to sustain consumption is then replaced with debt, and the trade deficits are paid for by attracting capital into the City.” Imperialism has always been parasitic, but neoliberalism, based on the influx of consumer goods without any corresponding production of exports, is openly and brazenly so – and Arab wealth is essential to the financing of this parasitism. Whilst the capital imports which finance the debt on which neoliberal consumerism is based comes from all over the world, a significant amount comes from the Gulf. In 2012, UK Foreign Office minister Lord Howell claimed that the (Qatari owned) Shard was “the tip…of a very large iceberg” with “ a significant proportion” of GCC capital inflows “channeled into financial assets.” Kuwait and Saudi Arabia each have around £100billion invested through the City of London, with another £30billion from Qatar. It recently emerged that Gulf wealth is considered so important for Britain’s financial health that the UK government had established a secret Whitehall unit – Project Falcon – to attract investment from the UAE alone. Tony Blair was a lobbyist for the group. Says David Wearing, “on the status of the pound sterling, it is clear that Gulf capital inflows make an important indirect contribution by helping to maintain the strength of the pound, and thus its attractiveness as an international currency. This is because, on the balance of payments, the GCC region plays a very significant role indeed… on these key measures, the Gulf region is not merely important to the UK compared to other leading economies (such as the BRICS) but important even compared to major economies in the global North.” Put simply, Gulf capital shores up the pound enough to offset the potentially destabilising impact of ever growing mountains of household debt. Keeping Gulf wealth flowing into the counting houses of the City of London, then, is an essential prop for Britain’s ailing imperial economy. It is also a key mechanism by which the wealth and labour of the global South continues to be extorted by the West, both through the horrifically exploited and abused South Asian migrant workforce on which all the Gulf economies depend, and through the money paid for Gulf oil from the world’s – and particularly Asia’s – heavily import-dependent energy infrastructure. In other words, the US and Britain’s ability to consume more than they produce is dependent on the threefold process of, firstly, the super-exploitation of Asian migrant labour in the Gulf economies; secondly, the channelling of global South wealth into the Gulf states through oil sales in western denominated currencies; and thirdly, the investment of the income thus gathered into US and British banks.
Ensuring this wealth continues to flow depends on two things: firstly, ensuring that the ruling families of the Gulf states continue to direct their Sovereign Wealth Funds to invest in the US and Britain, and, secondly, and more fundamentally, ensuring that those families are not overthrown. These two tasks are linked, for, alongside the economic incentives for Gulf investment in London (the Treasury and Bank of England’s commitment to guaranteeing ever rising asset prices through QE and house price manipulation) are the political incentives: bolstering the political and military alliance with the UK to ensure regime survival. And when the economic incentives are waning, as they seem to be daily, it becomes ever more imperative for the UK to ensure that those political incentives – securing the family dictatorships – are made very clear. This is where the Windsors come in.
One of the problems of the neocolonial era is that those charged with securing British interests abroad – the rulers of comprador global South states – must become masters at decoding the contradictory diktats of the western powers. One day, these gentlemen will proclaim themselves champions of liberal freedoms, willing to slaughter millions of people and burn trillions of dollars at its altar; the next, they will declare themselves as standing shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism with the most illiberal states the mind can concievably imagine. How is an Arab ruler to know, the next time he feels the need to crush an emerging dissident movement, whether to expect a shower of hellfire missiles for his troubles, or a hearty slap on the back?
This is when a red carpet at Windsor Palace can be very reassuring, and it is no coincidence that the most frenetic hosting of high level state visits seems to occur at precisely those moments when Gulf autocracies are facing the most resistance from their own people. Over the past ten years, for example, when the Arab monarchies have confronted perhaps the biggest popular threat to their rule since the height of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s (when British-created monarchs were overthrown in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Libya), they have met with leading members of the British royal family over two hundred times, with Charles alone undertaking ninety-five such visits. Bahrain, home to the most important British and US naval bases in the region, is a case in point.
The al-Khalifas, the ruling clan in Bahrain for the past 200 years, originally hailed from Iraq, but were expelled by the Ottomans due to the disruption to trade caused by their frequent banditry. They briefly seized control of Bahrain in 1783 as Persian control began to crumble, but their falling out with the Wahhabi sect, on whom their power had relied, ended their rule twenty years later. It was only the treaty they signed with the British in 1820 – in which Britain guaranteed the family’s reign in return for their obedience to imperial designs – which restored them to power, and has kept them there – latterly with the addition of US support – until this day. Only gaining formal independence from Britain in 1971, the director-general of its state security directorate was a Brit – Ian Henderson, a former colonial official in Kenya – right up until 1998. Like the other Gulf states, their military and security apparatuses remain utterly dependent on US and British support.
Yet the al-Khalifas’ position has been permanently unstable, due to both their obvious role as a facilitator of subordination to foreign domination and their persecution of the majority Shia population. A major workers’ revolt was crushed by the British in 1965, whilst the newly-elected national assembly was closed down by the Emir after just two years in operation in 1975 due to its demands for women’s votes, the nationalisation of oil resources, and the expulsion of foreign bases. “Since then”, says the author of a recent academic piece on the country, “the rule of the Khalifa family has become increasingly authoritarian.” This growing anti-democratic trend has coincided with an increase in the visible support of the British royal family. In 1979, there was particular anxiety in Britain that the revolutionary wave sweeping Iran would extend to the Gulf Arab states. Thus, within weeks of the Shah’s departure, the Queen was duly dispatched on her first official tour of the region in a clear expression of British solidarity with the Gulf rulers against their people. Bahrain was a particular concern, but the schedule of cosy engagements with the Emir, including horse racing, a banquet at the palace, and a return dinner on the royal Yacht Britannia, would have done much to reassure the Emir that British support for his “increasingly authoritarian” regime was unwavering. In 1984, a “glittering banquet” was organised by the Lord Mayor of the City of London in honour of the Emir of Bahrain, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent on the Queen’s behalf; whilst Prince Charles and his wife visited Bahrain two years later to attend a banquet in the Emir’s royal palace in Manama. Here they presented the Emir with the Order of St Michael and St George, the highest honour that can be bestowed for services to British imperialism, neatly symbolised by its insignia of a white child standing on the head of a prostrate Black man.
But it was in 2011, when mass protests against the Khalifa dictatorship threatened to overwhelm the regime, that British royal support really went into overdrive. The mass movement that had been bubbling away since the mid-eighties broke out onto the streets in an unprecedented show of strength, involving at its height an estimated one third of the population, demanding the most basic political freedoms. The Khalifas brutally crushed the demonstrations, their weakness demonstrated by their dependence on Saudi armed forces to do so. The British government’s response was not only to step up the arms exports needed to shore up the regime, and to invite the country’s interior minister to the British foreign office to gather “lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland,” but also to use the royal family to consolidate the Anglo-Bahraini alliance. In May 2012, King Hamad was a guest of honour at the Queen’s jubilee dinner at Windsor castle, and institutional links between the two families have been cemented by the Windsor and Khalifas’ joint sponsorship of the Windsor Horse Show. This event has become an occasion for an annual hobnobbing between the two heads of state, sharing the royal box and jointly hosting the awards ceremony. Commented the human rights group Reprieve during the 2017 event, shortly after the Khalifas began executing dissidents following a six-month hiatus, “Make no mistake, visits like [the Windsor Horse Show] gift the Bahraini government a royal cloak of acceptability, while the Kingdom mercilessly executes political prisoners and uses torture to extract ‘confessions.” It is a gift which is intentional, and clearly appreciated by the Khalifas; indeed, Hamad skipped a meeting with US President Obama in order to attend the show in 2015. In 2016, Hamad was given the most prestigious seat possible at the Queen’s ninetieth birthday dinner, right by her side. Yet even with the full might of British and US imperialism behind them, the Khalifas have still not been able to stop the Bahrainis’ courageous struggle.
Bahrain is not an exception; the wheeling out of the royals to bolster British-sponsored regimes threatened by popular movements has a long history. In 1952, as the ousting of the British-imposed King Farouk by Colonel Nasser in Egypt ignited republican sentiment across the region, King Faisal of Iraq was invited to Balmoral, the Queen’s private estate in Scotland, in a demonstration that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder against these anti-monarchical currents wherever they emerged. It wasn’t enough to shore up Faisal’s rule, however; he too was ousted six years later. 1997 saw the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, the biggest uprising in the West Bank and Gaza since they were first occupied thirty years earlier. The Israelis responded with massive violence, including a policy of breaking the bones of child protesters; the royals showed their support for the repression with an official state visit for the Israeli President Weizman. In 2007, when the Saudi criminal justice system was under unprecedented international scrutiny following the sentencing of two gang rape victims to imprisonment and 90 lashes the previous year, British approval for the regime was signalled by the King Abdullah’s invitation to a state banquet with the queen. “Contacts between our two families have been regular and close,” noted Elizabeth Windsor in her speech welcoming the king, adding that “Many British people have benefited from Saudi hospitality over the years as traders, experts and advisors,” a reference to the British military officers, arms traders, oil men and bureaucrats with whom the Saudi state is riddled. As the Arab Spring began to get under way in late 2010 – and with it, Britain’s twofold policy of using the protests as cover to launch wars against the region’s republican socialist states (Libya and Syria) whilst drowning in blood the peninsula’s anti-monarchical movements, all the region’s Arab collaborators were treated to the royal red carpet treatment: the Al Thanis of Qatar at Windsor castle in October 2010; the Queen in Abu Dhabi the following month; the Emir of Kuwait at Windsor castle in November 2012 and of the Emirates the following year, to name just the visits made by the Queen herself. The relationship with the al-Sauds was and is especially important given the Saudis leading role in facilitating Britain’s genocidal war against the Yemeni revolution.
What I am not saying here, it should be made clear, is that the British royals are somehow sullying themselves by association with these Arab ‘dictators.’ This is all-too-often the implicit line of the British colonial left when, for example, it protests such visits as those outlined above. If anything, the criticism is the other way round – that the real crime of the al-Khalifas, the al-Thanis and the Al-Sauds is their willingness to prostitute themselves and their countrymen to the diktat of the genocidal British state, to do the dirty work of empire. As for the British royal family, they are no different from their counterparts in the Gulf: an artificial creation of the imperialist bourgeoisie, made up of reactionary feudal remnants on life support whose role is the suppression of democratic freedoms wherever the masses threaten property relations. And yet, as the Yemenis, Bahrainis and Palestinians are proving daily, and as the Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and Iranians have long since shown, their days are numbered, all of them, and these childish institutional fantasies will soon reveal themselves as but castles in the sand. Godspeed the day.