For more than a decade, I have been a public critic of Saudi Arabia. I should, therefore, be applauding recent global efforts to cast the Kingdom into pariah status and punish the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). But I fear that such calculations are flawed, short sighted and will weaken the West. Instead, Britain should be the voice of sanity and take a longer view. Such a move would be warmly welcomed by our Arab allies.
Across the Middle East, there are daily skirmishes and battles, but there is a much larger war underway for the future of Islam and the type of region that will emerge in three or four decades. A regional war of ideas is being fought now and the winners will shape the lives and attitudes of 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. The stakes could not be higher.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, it was clear who had the upper hand in the Middle East: extremists of all hues. The Saudis were funding the spread of Wahhabism; and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was thriving. Yet today, for the first time since the 1960s, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Wahhabism can rely on Saudi financial support. Both are on the defensive, struggling for long-term survival, and have been forced to change. But there are other, more entrenched enemies. Iran champions the forces of theocracy, imposing a hard-line religious interpretation through use of government force. Isis might have lost territory yet Iran is a much more sophisticated operator. The revolutionary ideology of wilayat al-faqih – the occupation of government by clerics until the return of the long-awaited Mehdi, a mythical end-of-days figure, who will wage war with the West – might sound like gobbledegook, but it is deeply held religious creed to Tehran. Unlike anytime since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when wilayat al-faqih was imposed on Iranians, today the clerics have command over multiple Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana’a, Baghdad. They also provide financial and logistical support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and a range of others who fought in Syria against Sunni Arabs. There is now a firm Iranian crescent in the Middle East surrounding Israel and Sunni Arabs.
This threat makes it vital that we don’t turn our backs on the Saudis. So if we felt wronged when watching MBS high-five Putin at the G20 summit earlier this month, worse is yet to come if we lose the trust of our Gulf Arab allies.
A hundred years ago, Lawrence of Arabia understood strategic objectives instinctively. In the desert during the First World War, he witnessed Prince Faisal kill an innocent Bedouin beside the well for encroaching on a rival’s territory and drinking water. That skirmish did not make Lawrence turn away from the need to strengthen ties with the Arab tribes to win the war for the West. He reprimanded Faisal in private. Then, working with Arab tribes, he blew up 79 locations that the Central Powers – including the Ottoman Empire – could have used. Such was the focus of a winner.
Today’s Arab tribes remember Lawrence, but they also see Britain differently to any other nation. We have characteristics that make us deeply distinctive. Too often, we forget that Britain’s monarchy is a source of pride for the Gulf and other Arab monarchs. Prince Charles’ warm relationship with Gulf monarchs gives Great Britain privileged status that no American, German, or French president can rival. It is because of Britain’s special place and attraction that Sandhurst and our private schools have had more future Arab leaders in training for a century than any other institution. Our education system is still the envy of the Arab world; tens of thousands of Saudi students study in the English-speaking world. Our laws and liberties reflect the natural law tradition of moderate Islam, the spirit of the sharia in its higher objectives of preserving life, property, family, providing security and religious freedom. These are known as maqasid al-sharia.
The billions of pounds that have been invested in Britain by the sovereign wealth funds of every Gulf government, the popularity of Dubai as a premier British holiday location, the Emirates football stadium, Ascot, and much more point to a relationship that is deep and reciprocal. Where the Americans wobble and lose sight of the strategic objective, we in Britain must be the brains to American brawn.
We now have a once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the future of a global shift towards peace and co-existence. MBS has weakened the extra-legal religious police in his country, removed extremist clerics from many mosques, and allowed for musical concerts. Yes, he is an authoritarian reformer. Our conversations, therefore, with him in private should not be about the last skirmish, but the next reform: Where are his female advisors? When will school textbooks be revised? After religious extremism is uprooted, how can secular Saudis engage in a parliament within a constitutional monarchy? When do Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs who live and work in Saudi Arabia worship with their own, new religious institutions?
Lawrence of Arabia, few recall, was also the Arab affairs advisor to Sir Winston Churchill. Ardently pro-Jewish, both men ensued that Chaim Weizmann met with Arab leaders with a view to allowing this ancient and mistreated people a home in their ancient lands surrounding Jerusalem. MBS has been brave in recognising Jewish claim to land in Israel. We in the West should help him make peace between the children of Abraham a reality. This helps remove the recruiting sergeant of abusing the Palestinian cause by the Labour left and the Islamist right.
MBS needs the West, particularly Britain, to help win the war of ideas. By helping him triumph and reform toward modernisation, we save our country and civilisation too. Skirmishes and battles must not distract us from winning the long war.
Ed Husain is author of the House of Islam: A Global History (Bloomsbury, 2018)