By Peter Oborne
30 Oct 2014
Last February the Prince of Wales paid a formal visit to Saudi Arabia. It was his second in less than a year, and his 10th official trip to the Saudi kingdom.
He spent a cheerful few days. However, by no means all of it was pleasure. As often in the past, his Saudi hosts left the Prince in no doubt as to their opinions on crucial issues. In particular, I understand that the Saudis eloquently articulated their intense bafflement and dismay that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Saudi Arabia, is nevertheless permitted to operate freely in London.
When Prince Charles returned home, he repeated these frustrations to the Prime Minister, as well as Foreign Office officials. Shortly afterwards it emerged that Sir John Jenkins, British ambassador in Riyadh, had been appointed to investigate the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism.
The timing is telling. Sir John’s investigation came only a few weeks after the Saudis themselves had classified the Brotherhood as a terror group. Egypt, whose President Sisi had carried out a coup d’etat against a democratically elected Brotherhood government, had already taken this step. So Britain’s investigation gave a certain legitimacy to Saudi assertions that the Muslim Brotherhood uses violence for political ends. Sir John Jenkins, however, has done a thorough job. He has travelled widely across the Gulf and North Africa in his search for the truth. From the Saudi point of view he has been much too thorough.
By last July the report was complete. Sir John, insist Whitehall sources, had discovered no grounds for proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. In theory, that should have been that. Sir John’s report should have been published by now, gathered dust and been nearly forgotten. This has not been the fate of the Jenkins document.
The problem is that Sir John failed to reach the conclusion that the Prime Minister, Prince Charles and their vociferous Middle Eastern allies wanted. They had hoped for confirmation that the Saudis had been correct in their assessment of the Brotherhood. Sir John Jenkins’s exculpation has caused grave affront to powerful interests, and has led to a long, vicious Whitehall battle that began over the summer, persisted throughout the autumn and shows no signs of ending.
Publication of the Jenkins report as originally written would infuriate the Prime Minister’s Saudi allies – and not just them. The United Arab Emirates have long been agitating for the defenestration of the Brothers. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has the Prime Minister’s personal telephone number, and does not hesitate to use it to voice the UAE’s anxiety that Britain is not taking a firm enough line.
The former prime minister, Tony Blair, is another who has been agitating on behalf of the UAE against the Brotherhood, both in public and (I am told) in person with the Prime Minister. Then there is the £5 billion order of British Typhoon fighter jets, vital to the future of BAE Systems, and to which David Cameron has attached his personal credibility. It has been in suspense since the inquiry began, and observers are beginning to suspect it will go to France instead.
To sum up: the British Arab lobby is in full cry. The presence of this lobby at the heart of government is not widely grasped or understood. Unlike the Pro-Israel lobby (with which it is, nevertheless, very closely allied) there are few obvious institutional structures or pressure points. The British Arab lobby is inchoate. It is powerfully represented at the heart of the British military and intelligence establishments, while its connections with the oil and defence industries remain profound. Relations with the British monarchy run very deep.
The ties are longstanding. Indeed the alliance between the House of Saud and the British can be traced back to Henry St John Philby, father of the traitor Kim Philby, and for many years adviser to the Wahhabi chieftain Ibn Saud, founder of the modern Saudi state.
Britain all but created Saudi Arabia. Thereafter our alliance with the Saudis has been at the heart of our Middle Eastern policy. The Saudi alliance proved invaluable against Nasser of Egypt, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and later on Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
The results in the short term have been effective. Over the long term Saudi Arabia has played an essential role in the rise of al-Qaeda and other terror groups. In the past few years it is pretty widely accepted that Saudi financed and supported Isil, which is causing mayhem across much of Syria and Iraq. In an irony of history, Isil may well, in due course, turn its fire on Saudi Arabia itself.
This week the Emir of Qatar is in London. According to advance briefing from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister was to lecture the Emir on his alleged funding of terror. But the Emir is entitled to feel aggrieved that no such public dressing down has been dealt out to Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf States.
It should not be forgotten that Qatar is hated across the Gulf not because it finances terror, but because it has stretched out the hand of friendship to the Muslim Brothers. The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In many ways it is a spiritual movement, there to enable people to apply the principles and norms of Islam to their everyday lives, comparable in some ways to the Christian Democrats in Germany.
There seems no real question that, like other anti-colonial movements, it was involved in violence in its early days. But the organisation now credibly maintains that it has turned its back on violence for several decades. It seeks power through normal political means. In sharp contrast with the autocratic model embraced by the Gulf states, today’s Muslim Brotherhood is at heart in almost all countries an attempt to reconcile Islam and democracy.
It is detested by the Saudis and UAE for exactly this reason. Democratic Islam and the autocratic Saudi model are irreconcilable. For the past five years Saudi King Abdullah has been the Prince Metternich of the Arab spring, leader of the counter-revolution, helping to bring about the downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere.
I have often spoken to supporters of the Brotherhood about the long years of exile many of them spent in London. It is very moving to learn how profoundly they came to admire the institutions of the British state: parliament, democracy, the rule of law. They all mention their disappointment that British foreign policy has failed to live up to our values.
One of the defining features of our modern foreign policy is the alliance with extreme Sunni Islam. Again and again we overlook its often murderous refusal to tolerate even the faintest intuitions of democracy and human rights, and tolerate its links to terror.
The reason is simple: money, trade, oil, in a number of cases personal greed. The British establishment is hooked on Saudi Arabia. No wonder the rats are trying to get at Sir John Jenkins’s report. Next time Prince Charles brings news from his Saudi friends, the Prime Minister should tell him to get lost.