From Libya to Gulf states,
London pushes war and exports
to shore up faded power
BY PAMELA HOLMES
LONDON—British defense minister Liam Fox toured the Gulf states to hold talks on joint military operations in Libya in early April. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have sent aircraft to join the war. The Financial Times reported April 2 that Fox is visiting the Gulf to “thank these states for helping the operation against the Libyan regime.”
The defense minister’s trip is the latest in a string of visits by UK ruling-class figures as the British capitalists try to shore up their interests in the region.
Following the 2010 UK general election, which resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Foreign Minister William Hague set improving relations with the Gulf states (and India) as top policy goals. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Fox visited Abu Dhabi within a month of taking office. Hague visited the region early this year.
Reporting on a trip to the Gulf last November by Queen Elizabeth Windsor, the head of the UK state, the Telegraph said that the visit was “intended to strengthen ties with key military and economic allies.”
Cameron was the first foreign leader to go to Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as president following sustained protests by working people and youth. Described as a “diplomatic coup de théatre,” the visit was added to a long-scheduled trade visit to a number of Gulf states.
Britain dominated Egypt for seven decades from 1882, when it invaded the country and brutally suppressed resistance. By 1951 tens of thousands of British troops were occupying the country. Egypt was located en route to India, British imperialism’s “jewel in the crown,” and was home to the economically and militarily decisive Suez Canal. A British protectorate and de facto colony, the country kept a façade of independence under the regime of a monarch who ruled at London’s pleasure.
On July 23, 1952, young officers in the Egyptian army organized in the Free Officers Movement staged a coup, abolishing the monarchy and banning political parties. The officers’ main leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, became president in 1956.
Nasser’s bourgeois nationalist regime sought capitalist development, with regional ambitions.
In 1956 Cairo took over the Suez Canal, until then in the hands of British and French capital. Reinforcing the post-World War II shift of power in the region from British to U.S. imperialism, Washington publicly condemned an attempted invasion by London, Paris, and Tel Aviv to retake the canal, dooming the assault to end in fiasco.
In the opening decades of the 20th century, Britain had been the strongest imperialist power in the Mideast. It considered the Gulf region the western flank of its colony in India. At the opening of World War II, British companies controlled an estimated 72 percent of oil reserves in the region, as compared to 9.5 percent for U.S. firms. By 1967 U.S. corporations controlled nearly 60 percent of reserves, while British capital was reduced to under 30 percent.
To cite another example, Bahrain—where massive protests have recently met with murderous repression by the Khalifah family dynasty—was a British protectorate from 1861 until independence in 1971. Today the small kingdom is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Cameron traveled to the Gulf with a trade delegation, including top executives of arms firms such as BAe Systems, Thales UK, and others. Last year, the Gulf states reportedly bought £15 billion of British exports, roughly the same as China and India combined. Military export licenses alone over the first nine months of 2010 totaled £64.3 million to Saudi Arabia, £4 million to Egypt, £270 million to Algeria, and £15.9 million to the UAE (£1=US$1.64).
The BBC reports that “what makes Bahrain stand out for both Britain and the US is its geographical position and its value as a defence and security hub,” especially with regard to Iran. Democracy in the Middle East “may in theory sound like a good idea,” the BBC dispatch continues, “but when it comes to security arrangements, it is not always optimal.”
An opinion piece in the Telegraph about Cameron’s February visit put it bluntly, “When Britannia ruled the waves and half the world was coloured pink on the map, the world knew who we were and what we did. Now even the echoes of our imperial past are fading… .
“Selling our guns, our companies and our services to foreigners: this is what we do now. A British Prime Minister visits the Gulf not as the wielder of imperial power but as a commercial traveller,” the Telegraph said. “Western democracy is only one of the products he offers, and not always the most important one.”