From Tom Stevenson’s May 2019 LRB review of David Wearing’s Angloarabia (2018):
The Middle Eastern Tyrannies Serve to Allow Anglo-America to Control Europe and Asia
Starting in the late 18th century, Britain installed satraps in the Middle East. Installing and working primarily with the Saud family as its proxy, Britain developed these satraps into monarchical family dictatorships serving as a colonial, geographical flying buttress to the British Empire. What the Middle East primarily offers to empire is great supplies of particularly cheap and high-quality oil, which continental Europe and Asia are dependent upon. The Anglo-Americans that installed and enforce the ruling Middle East tyrannies are strategically independent of Middle Eastern oil. By installing and enforcing a proxy tyranny in Middle Eastern countries, the Anglo-America wing of the Atlantic ruling class quietly holds a knife over the throats of continental Europe and Asia. Relations between Middle East tyrants and the US and UK are secondarily girded with the re-circulation of oil wealth through arms sales and finance. Moreover, the Middle East ruling class is reproduced through the British military college Sandhurst.
The Costs of Middle Eastern Colonialism
The most terrible, primary cost of of the US and UK maintaining the Middle Eastern tyrannies is to the 400 million nonelites in the Middle East, from Palestinians to the local population and imported Egyptian and South Asian workers all forbidden democracy, enslaved, surveilled, imprisoned, tortured, and finally, continuously disrupted, traumatized, and dislocated, as the massive US military and the Saudi tyrannies that purchase US, UK, and French arms bombard these populations to maintain absolute control of that region and the leverage it confers over Asia and continental Europe. The Middle Eastern dictatorships draw in fresh supplies of hapless labor from overpopulated Asia and North Africa, which workers are maltreated and soon bombed around the Middle East and North Africa, and onto Europe and the Anglo-American settler states. 11.4 million refugees circulated within the Middle East in 2017, as the global (internally-displaced and cross-regional) refugee population soared in recent years above WWII records to over 65 million disrupted, traumatized, and displaced people (UNHCR 2019).
It is important to understand that these migrant laborers are the wretched unprotected of the Earth. As a recent study by has shown, countries that rely on migrant remittances are more tyrannical rather than less (TBD).
A second cost with far-reaching antidemocratic implications is the reverse control, beyond support, that the Saudi dictators exert over their colonial patrons, as the huge profits of oil secured by the absolute control provided courtesy of the American military sloshes around within the colonial relationship. The Middle Eastern tyrants’ piling wealth is used to prop Anglo-America financially, with anti-democratic results: 1) Chicago darling Monica Prasad tells a sweet, mendacious story of financial innocence, starring Nixon defying the French, taking the dollar off gold, and finding to his “surprise” that the financiers of the world rushed in with cash to support the US as the global financial center. The truth is that financiers had been organizing to deregulate finance from the moment FDR regulated it (Fridell & Hudson 2010), and they accomplished deregulation quickly in Britain (Blyth 2002), which served as global finance’s power base. Defying France wasn’t completely a Nixonian feat of capitalist solidarity and faith, the dollar backed by aught but heroic, immaterial financial speculation. While Nixon was being cut out of power in 1974, US treasury secretary William Simon arranged with the Sauds for the Middle Eastern tyrannies to back the US dollar with their all-too-materially-based oil revenues (Spiro, David. 1999).
Saudi support accomplished a lot, a lot on behalf of finance and military. It enabled the US to continue military expansion, and provided the additional independence to Wall Street-City of London finance it needed to maintain inflation as capital strike and liquidate and privatize the working-class accountable state in the US and UK. Backing the US dollar with Middle East oil permitted the reversal of democratic gains in the US and UK, enabling neoliberalization as the conservatization of liberalism as well as the Nightwatchman State militarization of the US and UK. Swiftly deprived of state institutions supporting working class organization and democratic citizenship, the US and UK working classes were converted from an indirect brake on finance and war into a militarized police force topped by a management class, all with no capacity for independent organization. 2) The Middle Eastern tyrants ostentatiously finance the City of London as a global elite real estate holding, an ever-more gilded hole in which to hoard rents far away from the excluded 99% of humanity. This has become a decadent urban model throughout the world, proliferating not just inequality and inegalitarianism, but housing and transportation poverty as well. 3) When the unregulated Anglo banks were self-aggrandizing, self-deluding, and profligate in the 21st century, it was the Middle Eastern tyrants that bailed them out and allowed them (including Barclays) to avoid economists’ beloved moral hazard reckoning. The Middle Eastern tyrants make Too Big to Fail work. The Middle Eastern tyrants maintain the lack of regulation over Anglo-American finance. The significant secondary costs of Middle East colonialism accrue to core capitalism’s vast smallholding class and to democracy.
Is the Middle Eastern Tyranny Indispensable?
The one flaw of Stevenson’s account is the notion that the primary, humanitarian cost (with its immigration impacts) could be reversed if only the US encouraged Britain’s satraps to behave more kindly. Stevenson lays the blame for this great, rolling imperial disaster squarely on the shoulders of the US, on account of the US’s general barbarism and ignorance. Would that the British could manage everything absolutely, surely they would restore a kinder, gentler colonialism. Though the Anglo ruling class didn’t maintain a kinder, gentler colonialism from the late 18th century up to 1943, when the US joined Britain in bankrolling the Saud’s war on the Gulf, nor up to 1971 when Britain was no longer able to cover the costs of the Gulf military protection racket and transferred the military economy over to the US. Invoking the beloved liberal political-science phantasm of socially-rational state bureaucrats (This may be the sensitive Anglo elite v. US barbarian contrast that liberals and Anglos are imagining as the norm.), perhaps Stevenson has in mind that the UK could finally volunteer to be the benevolent dictator today that it formerly failed to be, and the US fails to be, and that it’s the US that forces the UK to continue to maintain the enabling military support the Gulf States rely on to crush democracy at home and abroad. It seems the British terror of US barbarism is real and not just performative, and yet surveying history as well as contemporary imperial relations (For example, to forestall an Iran-style revolution, “Britain equips and trains the Saudi police force, has military advisors permanently attached to the internal Saudi security forces, and operates a strategic communicaions programme for the Saudi National Guard.”), it is difficult to see how the British offer a positive alternative protection racket, any more than capitalist Russia offers “multipolarity” (distinct from patronage for a handful of political scientists).
Maybe the problem is that the Anglo-American ruling class is too tight. Maybe the recursive jackboot could be eased by splitting the US and UK’s territory in the Middle East, creating a sort of Anglo-American multipolarity. Maybe that’s what a powerful state would do, if it actually valued and pursued humanitarian goals. Both the Obama and Trump administrations suggested publicly that the US has the strategic latitude to cut out the middle man. Presumably if the UK and the Middle Eastern tyrannies attempt to exert too much control over the unholy imperial alliance, the US could roll up its military and, following Nixon, treat directly with the East Asian states, what Stevenson refers to in alarm as “the Asian plot.” Curiously on the affronted Saudis behalf, Stevenson warns US strategists that with climate change, Middle Eastern tyranny affords more precious control over East Asia than ever.
So many questions open up. Does the US need the UK and its colonial satraps as much as they need the US? With this perhaps small or merely-symbolic divergence in UK and US interests in mind, it would be interesting to assess the indispensability of the Middle East tyrannies, within them distinguishing alignments with the US and UK, versus the relative strength of the US’s v. UK’s coercive ties and alliances with China. Certainly, within the British Commonwealth, Canada and Australia have been integrating with China. Why are UK partisans so keen to keep space between the US and China? How do the US and UK interests align with or diverge from China’s interests?
How do US and UK interests diverge from each other, not just in arms sales (The Middle East tyrants are the world’s largest buyer of military equipment, and the US, UK, and France compete with each other to bribe them.), but particularly in finance, as its independence is propped and wagged by the Middle East tyrants? Yes, Saudi oil wealth maintains the US’s war economy, and absolute libertine finance in both Wall Street and the City of London. It helpfully dismantles democracy in both the US and UK. Yet are the Saudi dictators necessary to controlling East Asia, putatively their primary role? The British assure us they are. But can the US exert sufficient control over East Asia in its alliance with the Israeli and Egyptian tyrannies, and by colonial dominance over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and perhaps Yemen and Iran? (Note: Check out Sunni v. Shi’a alignments.)
A League of Innocent Tyrants
I do not think that the British Empire fell quite as gracefully, in the early 20th century, as is commonly told. The story goes that the expense of WWII was the end of the British Empire, and the transfer of Atlantic ruling class leadership to the US as well as the granting of Indian independence. And it’s true that the locus of power shifted within the Atlantic ruling class family coalition, but did not completely retract from the UK. The Atlantic ruling class is a robust, inbred alliance, and it commands enough of world wealth to grease its internal conflicts. However, together with 20th century financial history, UK-US relations in the Middle East reveal fissures within that robust league of imperialists.
See my brief account UK v. US states and finance from the 1950s – the early 1970s, in “6 Pivotal Class Collective Actions in the US in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” To preserve its power, Britain deregulated finance in the 1950s. This deregulation provided US and global finance extra degrees of tactical freedom and leverage over the US state, including the power to enforce inflation as a form of capital strike. Indicative of solidarity within the UK ruling class and a lack of solidarity between the UK’s rulers and a then-fractured US ruling class, US political leaders did not grasp that the US state had been subordinated to international finance until Nixon was brought down in 1974, a couple years after he inadvertently demonstrated, with state-coordinated price control boards, that (finance-coordinated) capital was manipulating inflation to end US state accountability to the working class (See Blyth 2002: 135-6).
Contrary to much-circulated conservative theorization, inflation was not simply caused by the working class, or even the US’s imperial wars against SE Asians and the OPEC oil embargo (from which the UK was secretly exempted, see Stevenson p. 11). The results of the price-control boards clearly showed that capital was intensifying domestic US inflation, which indicates that capital had heightened coordination and strategic capacity, a capacity typically provided by deregulated finance. With Nixon serving as the publicly-flayed goat of American provincial political miscalculation, the US political class was deeply embarrassed, cowed, and fully chastened for decades, bound to faithfully serve finance and military in exchange for top-manager income and financially-advantageous marriages for their daughters, until the rise of socialists over the last couple of years.
Not only running the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and adding to US inflation panic, the Saudis were right there throughout the 1970s, supporting US imperialism, US and UK de-democratization, and a financial hegemony that turned the City of London and New York City into powerbrokers and international elite real estate enclaves populated inter alia by Middle Eastern tyrants and Russian oligarchs. The Saudis switched from the British currency, pounds sterling, to the US dollar in 1971, when Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard to defy anti-imperial runs on US gold reserves. Three years later, in 1974, while Nixon was being removed (arguably more for his presumption of state capacity than for his connivance with petty political party crimes revealed by plucky newsmen), in an agreement with the US Treasury Secretary William Simon, the Saudis infused US finance with oil revenues to again back up with material wealth the speculation-backed US dollar (Spiro 1999).
Blyth, Mark. 2002. Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge.
Fridell, Mara and Mark Hudson. 2010. “Financialization, Enabling Policy, and Elite Policy Networks.”
Schenk, Catherine R. 1998. “The Origins of the Eurodollar Market in London: 1955-1963.” Explorations in Economic History 35: 221-238.
Spiro, David. 1999. The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony.
Stevenson, Tom. 2019. “What are we there for?” LRB 11, 9 May.
Wearing, David. 2018. Angloarabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Polity.