Michael Gove’s book, Celsius 7/7, an exploration of the roots of and potential answers to Islamist extremism, was published nine years ago. As well as charting the internal progress of Islamism, it also picks out various states in the Middle East who were complicit in its rise – and lambasts Western governments whose support for these states further contributed to the growth of the threat. As a result, the book is shot through with criticism of Saudi Arabia, and hard questions for Britain about her relationship with the House of Saud:
“Those nations that have tried to suppress Islamism by remaining tyrannies themselves, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, have ended up either paying Islamists off, subsidizing their work abroad, or watching impotently as the Islamists continue their advance. As we have seen across the Middle East, from Palestine to Riyadh, Islamists have exploited the backwardness, corruption and cynicism of past generations of Arab leaders to make themselves the principal, and apparently principled, opposition…Given the massive and spectacular corruption of the Saudis and the House of Mubarak, it is perhaps a wonder that more are not tempted by the Islamist promise.”
A lot has changed since 2006. Gove is no longer a newly-minted MP, but an experienced Cabinet minister. Bin Laden is dead, and Al Qaeda are no longer seen as the leading Islamist threat. The Arab Spring has come and gone, and its blossoms are long since burned to ash in most places where they briefly flourished. Syria is wracked by civil war, and ISIS are eagerly pursuing full implementation of their trademark hell on earth. Television characters on Homeland provide more concise summaries of the West’s strategic failings than the actual politicians who are meant to oversee the strategy.
What seemed like complexity in the Middle East nine years ago now seems refreshingly simple compared to the far more complex patchwork alliances forming and disintegrating between different combinations of Assad, ISIS, Putin, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain, Israel, Al Qaeda, the remnants of the FSA and goodness knows how many others.
But the nature of the Saudi tyranny remains essentially the same. The regime continues to indulge in a mixture of “paying Islamists off, subsidizing their work abroad, or watching impotently as the Islamists continue their advance”, as Gove originally charged. Its brutality continues to act as a recruiting sergeant for those very militants, its export of hateful ideology and poisonous religious dogma continues unabated, and there are more than a few suspicions that it has been the source of money and weapons to a disturbingly wide variety of militant groups in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
As the House of Saud has maintained its essential character and outlook, so has the Justice Secretary. The news that he has won his reported battle with Philip Hammond over the proposed £5.9 million agreement for Britain to work with the Saudi prison service, resulting in the bid being scrapped, is demonstration of both his deeply held beliefs on the topic and his enduring political clout.
Gove’s case on the issue itself was clear-cut – Britain should not be aiding the work of a penal system which chops heads and hands, stones people to death, crucifies and flogs, including for the supposed “crimes” of being gay, committing adultery or writing a blog. But his opposition is also a symptom of that wider view on the flaws of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. As Celsius 7/7 argued, the regime may oppose some Islamists some of the time but its actions make the threat worse, not better. Its support for the export of Salafism around the world has contributed to the home grown terrorist threat with which we now struggle, and our alliance with it ensures that the blame for its behaviour is easily transferred to Britain and the wider West.
Those charges – both moral and practical – are impossible to deny. Saudi Arabia is not only one of its own worst enemies, it is one of ours, too. The sight of the Union Flag dipped to half mast to honour the passing of a tyrant earlier this year was sickening, and symbolised the way the relationship has undermined both our principles and our interests.
Voicing the case for the defence, though, is a familiar realpolitik. If Britain was to encourage the fall of this set of tyrannical rulers, the argument goes, their only replacement would be another set, likely even more tyrannical and more directly arrayed against Britain. Whether the new rulers of the Arabian peninsular were aligned to ISIS or to Iran, the alternative would be even worse for our interests than the status quo.
That may well be true. But just because unseating the House of Saud would be bad for us, that does not mean we should go out of our way to aid it in its torturous, murderous work. We only lose by becoming complicit in running its jails – or, for that matter, in selling it the weapons used in the slaughter in Yemen. Thank goodness Gove won today; if Britain cannot do right in this situation, it should at least not do further wrong.