Middle East — 29 May 2011
Obama-Cameron: “Essential” Interests Trump Empty Values in Bahrain

The latest “revelation” in the Guardian that Britain has been training Saudi Arabia’s National Guard is yet another nail in the coffin of Western credibility and consistency in their dealings in the Middle East.

Just a few days ago in an op-ed written jointly for the Times on May 24th, David Cameron and Barack Obama praised their own actions in regards to military intervention in Libya with the statement that they could “not stand by while as [the protesters’] aspirations get crushed” and that “when our interests and values come together, we know we have a responsibility to act”. Their “essential” relationship was “a perfect alignment of what we both need and what we both believe”.

Such crass sentiments openly highlighted the cynical nature of the “essential” Anglo-American relationship and the realist approach adopted by both governments in their foreign policy. The real quality of any individual, nation or civilization is not whether they act when their interests and values happen to meet, since anyone who had the capability to achieve them both together would naturally always do so.

Rather, the mark of any civilization and the sincerity to their normative values can only be recognized by the path taken when their interests and values clash. When interests are prioritized ahead of values, then any mention of “values” is actually immaterial, since it would be the shared interest that informed the policy, with the values merely supplementary.

If anyone wants to know what it looks like when interests and values clash – they don’t need to go any further than the British and American attitude towards their Gulf allies such as the absolutist monarchies of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The training being given to the Saudi National Guard is in public order enforcement measures and the use of sniper rifles. The National Guard is part of the “Peninsula Shield Force” currently operating in Bahrain under invitation from the al-Khalifa ruling family, being used to help crush popular dissent there. Up until today these actions have earned the Bahraini regime nothing more than a few mild rebukes from both Britain and the United States. Details of British involvement in training the Saudi’s further highlights, just in case anyone was in any doubt (highly unlikely after extraordinary renditions, extra-judicial killings, Guantanamo Bay etc. etc.) – interests trump values (unless what is meant by values is naked greed).

You would think that after all the talk about values that has arisen as a result of the Arab uprisings, there would at least be some reticence in publicly meeting with such “friends”. Not so for William Hague back in March when he embraced of the Saudi Foreign Minister in the midst of the putdown of the Bahraini protests. Nor the follow up as seen in Cameron’s cordial meeting with the Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hammed Al Khalifa just a few days before Obama’s visit. In between the two meetings Bahraini protestors have witnessed their demonstrations ruthlessly suppressed, hospitals being placed under siege with medical staff attacked and arrested, and dissidents arbitrarily detained and tortured leading to deaths while in custody.

The obvious contradiction between words and action has been plainly on display since the beginning of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  Back at the end of February shortly after the deposition of Egyptian President Mubarak, Cameron embarked on a trip to the Middle East stopping off to praise the Egyptian revolution (by meeting with the military junta then in control) before jetting off to Kuwait to promote British Trade, with a third of the trade delegation made up from the defense and aerospace industry. When confronted with accusations of double standards of promoting democracy in the region while simultaneously promoting arms deals to erstwhile Gulf allies, Cameron stated “Democracies have a right to defend themselves”. The description of any of the Gulf States, including Kuwait, as a democracy is enough to highlight the emptiness of the ridiculous self-serving rhetoric which came from Cameron at the time.

The fact that today it is clear that the most recent use of weapons by any of the Gulf States has not been to defend themselves, but to brutally crack down on protesters in Bahrain utilizing training provided by Britain only adds insult to injury. The ugly situation is that one of the West’s client allies (as represented by the al-Khalifa family) is using another ally’s army (Saudi) to suppress protests using weapons and techniques provided by the British. Cameron hasn’t been standing by while the aspirations of the people of the region are being crushed – the British government has been aiding and abetting it. While Obama and Cameron are free to write op-ed’s across Western newspapers extolling their imagined “shared values”, much of the Arab street will see that the hands of the authors’ remain covered in their blood.


Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.

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