Monday, 12 March 2018

MBS and May: Partnerships, policy and progress

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, March 12 2018

I wonder what Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will consider the highlight of his high-profile visit to the U.K. last week. The “outline deal” with the U.K. government to buy more Eurofighter Typhoon jets? Maybe it was state-owned Saudi Aramco’s “preliminary deal” to pursue “international gas opportunities” (read shale gas) with Royal Dutch Shell?
For me it was the crown prince’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth.
Amid the splendor of the Buckingham Palace room in which the monarchs met, it was ironic, to say the least, that the queen had plugged in a cheap two-bar electric fire to provide heat for the man whose country sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves. Was the queen subtly making a point about her fears for an impoverished post-Brexit U.K.?
Certainly the $35 heater struck an incongruous note in a room that includes a $7 million Gainsborough portrait and a $2.7 million Canaletto.
The queen’s thriftiness was in stark contrast to the extravagant PR blitz that accompanied the crown prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who likes to be known as MBS. Saudi lobbyists spent millions of dollars on advertisements in U.K. newspapers and on large roadside billboards in London bearing MBS’ face and extolling both his virtues and those of “the united kingdoms.”
Ironically, the billboards reminded me of the type that the Syrian regime used to hang over parts of Beirut of Hafez and Bashar Assad before 2005.
The PR charm offensive was aimed at combating anticipated protests over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its conduct in Yemen. The 3-year-old war has claimed the lives tens of thousands of civilians – most of which can be attributed to Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign – and looks increasingly unwinnable for either side. It is of course MBS’ war. He created and presides over the coalition opposing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. But much of Saudi Arabia’s firepower is provided by U.K. defense firms, who have done around $6.5 billion of business with the kingdom since it began its bombardment of Yemen in 2015.
The U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in Parliament and demanded the government halt all arms sales to the kingdom. It is worth noting that the new German government already has a weapons embargo on Saudi Arabia written into its coalition agreement.
Mindful of the potential backlash, Saudi Arabia has increased its aid to Yemen by $2 billion and is currently propping up the beleaguered Yemeni central bank.
As it turned out, the protests were far fewer than anticipated, amounting to a few hundred people outside Downing Street during MBS’ meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May.
For this May’s Brexit-bound government was extremely grateful. The prime minister cannot afford to upset prospective trade partners as she seeks to plug economic holes left by exiting the world’s largest trading bloc.
Along with the trade deals, the London Stock Exchange is vying to handle the impending flotation of Saudi Aramco, the national oil behemoth, which could be the world’s biggest listing. It is worth noting that MBS’ delegation in London included Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih and Aramco’s Chief Executive Amin Nasser.
Saudi Arabia’s desire to list around 5 percent of Aramco’s shares on an international exchange – worth an estimated $100 billion and valuing the company at $2 trillion – has led to a beauty parade of stock markets. London is widely seen as the favorite for the listing – even though it will require a tweak of the U.K. exchange’s rules – but it could still go to New York or perhaps even Hong Kong.
China is an increasingly important customer for Saudi crude although Russia remains its main supplier.
London is favorite partly because of fears the U.S. Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, passed in 2016, could expose the kingdom to lawsuits over the role of its citizens in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2011. Saudi Arabia vigorously denies any allegations of course, but the potential legal risk cannot be ignored.
In an interview during the visit, Falih said: “I would say litigation and liability are a big concern in the U.S. Quite frankly Saudi Aramco is too big and too important for the kingdom to be subjected to that kind of risk.”
That said, the potential for a lessfriendly government in the U.K. led by Corbyn, who is perceived to be close to Iran and Hezbollah, are risks that Saudi Arabia may also deem too great to take with the kingdom’s prized jewel.
The final decision of course, lies with MBS. Hence the U.K.’s eagerness to impress, which meant MBS didn’t just get lunch with the queen, but also dinner with Prince Charles. Indeed, even the archbishop of Canterbury was on hand to press the flesh. The pair had “cordial and honest” discussion about Yemen and the ban on non-Muslim faiths practicing openly in Saudi Arabia.
The last meeting is significant, and a reminder that there is more to the U.K.’s current engagement with Saudi Arabia than just trade.
Since taking the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, MBS has taken on the ultraconservative religious establishment, most notably by removing the power of the kingdom’s religious police to arrest people, ending the ban on women driving and lifting the four-decade-long restrictions on cinemas and pop concerts in the kingdom.
MBS’ reform program is tied up with transforming the kingdom’s economy to ensure it can create jobs, beyond civil service sinecures funded by oil revenues, for young and ambitious Saudis.
At 32 years old, MBS is, as he likes to point out, older than two-thirds of his father’s subjects.
His high-profile crackdown on corruption, which last year turned Riyadh’s fivestar Ritz-Carlton hotel into the world’s most upmarket jail, also appears to have garnered tens of billions of dollars back into the kingdom’s coffers.
The reality, at long last, is that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction.
It is worth remembering that democracies do not spring up overnight. Progress is always measured in small, tentative steps before reaching the final destination.
May understands what MBS is attempting to achieve, welcomes it and wants to encourage him to go continue. Critics should ask themselves what the alternative to supporting MBS’ attempts to drag Saudi Arabia into the 21st century are – a resurgence of the ultraconservative forces within the House of Saud?
Of course the U.K. has a vested interest in all this, but post-Brexit economic fears are only part of it. If the U.K. has any hope of maintaining a global political role in the coming years, “punching above its weight,” helping the most important power in the Middle East to navigate its internal and foreign policy challenges may prove the best means to achieve it. The U.K. government was at pains to stress the close cooperation between the two governments on security matters.
Meanwhile, MBS will next head to the U.S., in his first official visit to the kingdom’s most important ally since the effective palace coup that deposed his older cousin, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef.
You can be sure President Donald Trump will have more than a two-bar electric fire to warm MBS up for his plans.
Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star print edition on March 12 2018 on page 7.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The U.S.-U.K. special relationship? It’s complicated

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, December 6 2017

It’s hard to ignore Donald Trump on Twitter. But I find it well worth the effort. Why? Because, the U.S. president uses Twitter as a highly effective way of diverting scrutiny away from what his administration is actually doing.
In case you missed it, earlier this month Trump pulled the U.S. out of the United Nations’ ambitious plan to establish a global approach to migration, on the basis that the process – which involves a very loose agreement to resettle migrants and provide access to education and jobs – interferes with “American sovereignty.”
Displaced people fleeing armed conflict and economic distress is arguably the biggest issue facing Western governments.
The failure of the West to offer a coordinated response to migration pressures has destabilized the political order across Europe, fueling support for far-right undemocratic parties.
Yet, politicians and media instead focused their attention on the erstwhile leader of the free world’s decision to retweet three inflammatory videos from a woman called Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a small fringe U.K. racist group called Britain First.
The unverified videos purported to depict Islamic violence. Trump’s apparent endorsement gave the group more publicity than it could ever have dreamed.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s deliberately timid response to Trump’s late night Twitter action – that he was “wrong” to retweet the videos – was purposely designed not to offend the thinskinned president as she came under intense political pressure to vigorously condemn his actions.
Of course, British prime ministers are obsequiously paranoid about maintaining the so-called “special relationship” with America’s presidents. But on top of the traditional paranoia, May is still desperately seeking to clinch a trade deal with the Trump administration to cushion the economic impact of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union – Brexit, the issue that is dominating U.K. politics.
Unfortunately May’s mild rebuke drew a blistering retort from the Hair Furer, who tweeted: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”
Well, as everyone now knows, Trump couldn’t even manage to sin effectively, and instead of venting his anger at the prime minister, sent his response to a house wife with the same name in the sleepy seaside town of Bognor Regis, in Sussex, and her six Twitter followers.
And this is the man with his finger on the nuclear button. Makes you think doesn’t it? The Britain First retweets mark a new low in Trump’s odious behavior. Yet is anyone really surprised? Trump’s crude pandering to his political base at home is far more important to him than any ally abroad. But is there also some other method in his madness?
It’s worth remembering Trump is unhappy with the U.K.’s opposition to his desire to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.
Speaking in Jordan at the end of her whistle-stop tour of the Middle East last week, May again, albeit gently, challenged Trump’s desire to wreck the agreement.
During a speech in Amman, she described the deal – brokered by the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany – as “a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes” and added that it was “vitally important for our shared security.”
The president’s principal allies in dismantling the deal, indeed the two countries that appear to be informing what passes for the president’s Middle East policy, are Saudi Arabia and Israel. I can’t recall any Trump tweets that have criticized Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, or Saudi Arabia’s King Salman or his son and de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
In a nod to Tehran’s regional expansion in Yemen, May also warned that more needed to be done to “strengthen our response to Iran’s ballistic missile program,” something she was no doubt made painfully aware of when she held talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad a few days earlier and discussed the war in Yemen. May, whose government no longer commands its own majority in Parliament, is under increasing pressure from opposition parties to stop U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as the humanitarian disaster the war in Yemen has caused worsens.
The U.K. has licensed over $6 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom since the war in Yemen began.
As trading partners are at a premium for the U.K. right now, the arms deals are safe, so long as May’s government remains in power. These days the U.K. isn’t in a position to dictate its views to anyone. However, May’s officials insisted she told King Salman and his son that the Arab-led coalition fighting Shiite Houthi rebels must fully lift its sea and air blockade on the port of Hudaida, which has intensified the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population.
Domestically, the twitter spat has increased pressure on May to cancel Trump’s planned state visit to the U.K. next year. The invitation, made almost immediately after Trump was sworn in as president, includes dinner with the queen, and a parade in gilded horse-drawn carriages for Trump and his wife. It was supposed to be a tool to lever favor with Trump and boost the prospect of a postBrexit free trade agreement with the U.S.
Unfortunately it now appears to have broken in May’s hand, or more accurately in Trump’s thumbs.
Yet despite May’s attempts to cozy up to him in the last year, before the Twitter row blew up, she has absolutely nothing to show for it.
For all Trump’s promises of a “very big and exciting” trade deal, and pledges from pro-Brexit U.K. politicians that a “generous” U.S. agreement would be agreed quickly, nothing has happened.
The harsh reality is the prospects of a quick and generous trade deal with the United States are zero. Firstly, there is no such thing as a fast trade deal – the average U.S. deal takes four years. Secondly, the U.S., and this president in particular, does not make generous commercial deals. Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has threatened to abandon the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico and Canada, the other countries in the deal, agree to strict limits on the number of government contracts that Mexican and Canadian companies can win in the United States.
Oddly enough, if the U.K. got a trade deal with the U.S., London would have to give in to Washington’s demands to allow American health giants access to contracts in the U.K.’s state-funded National Health Service, as well as accept lower regulatory standards for U.S. imports. That’s generous for the U.S., but a very hard sell in the U.K.
May will, of course, make up with Trump. As Brexit looms, her political future is now almost entirely dependent on the “special relationship.”
But she would do well to remember that politics for Trump is a zero-sum negotiation. He has a pathological need to win in everything. And while he needs sycophants to constantly reassure him, he despises their weakness.
Hence, I suspect our best hope for the special relationship may well lie in the impending nuptials of Prince Harry and U.S. actress Meghan Markle. Wonder if Trump will get an invitation to that?
Trump’s crude pandering to his political base at home is far more important to him The prospects of a quick and generous trade deal
Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared on page 7 of THE DAILY STAR on November 6, 2017.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Oh, Lord: The peers’ unconvincing report

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, May 8 2017

The U.K. House of Lords has been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of British politics. It’s where elderly or unwanted politicians are sent by their party leaders to disappear and be forgotten about.
For the Lords is the largely toothless second chamber of the U.K. Parliament. Its members are unelected. Around 10 percent are so-called hereditary peers, those who sit in the chamber courtesy of the historical deeds of their ancestors. The other 90 percent are political appointees; some are rich political donors, but most are former government officials, who on elevation to the House of Lords get a grand title, a robe made from rabbit fur, and a $400 a day attendance allowance (plus expenses). Nice work if you can get it.
And part of that nice work caused a minor stir last week when the House of Lords International Relations Select Committee published a report calling for an overhaul of U.K. policy in the Middle East. The gist of the peers’ report was that the U.K. must end its slavish reliance on U.S. leadership in the region.
Now you could be forgiven for thinking there hasn’t been much in the way of U.S. leadership in the region over the last decade. But it’s correct to say the U.K. has happily fallen in line with Washington’s indolence.
However, lest there be any doubt, the Lords singled out the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of current U.S. President Donald Trump, whom it warned “has the potential to destabilize further the region,” rather than the laconic foreign policy of Barack Obama.
On Iran, where Trump has vowed to rip up the deal Obama struck with Tehran over its nuclear program (although he has taken no action to do so), and the Israel-Palestine situation, where the president has effectively abandoned the long-standing, but largely meaningless, U.S. commitment to a twostate solution, the report said: “The U.S. president has taken positions that are unconstructive and could even escalate conflict.”
The committee’s chairman, Lord Howell, said: “In a world less automatically dominated by the U.S. underpinning security in the region, it is no longer right to have a stance at every stage of ‘If we just get on with the U.S. everything will be alright.’”
Fine words. However, in the post-Brexit world U.K. policy in just about every sphere, from foreign policy and especially international trade, is entirely focused on getting on with the U.S., even, as we have seen, a U.S. led by the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump.
Indeed, Howell, a former foreign policy adviser to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared blissfully oblivious to the reality of Brexit as he insisted the U.K. distance itself from Trump’s “destabilizing postures” in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He instead called on the U.K. to play an active role in European diplomacy to solve the conflict. Come again? Whatever influence the U.K. has in European diplomacy is diminishing on a daily basis. Last week Prime Minister Theresa May accused European politicians of making “threats” against the U.K. in a bid to influence the country’s general election, which takes place in June.
A few days after May’s broadside, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking in a conference in Florence. He began his speech in English but switched to French, because, he told the audience, “Slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe.” He then accused the U.K. of “abandoning the EU.”
Far from helping drive Europe’s international diplomacy, the U.K. is hurtling toward Washington at a rate of knots, regardless of Trump’s policies on NATO or anything else.
To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, it’s the economy stupid, and as the U.K. exits the largest single market in the world it is desperate to secure a trade deal with the largest economy in the world (in nominal GDP terms).
Indeed, the U.K.’s efforts to ingratiate itself with Washington are becoming ever more desperate. Kicking off the election campaign last month Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the government could join any future U.S. military action against Syria without parliamentary approval. He added it would be “very difficult to say no” if Trump asked for help.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that while the peers fired several broadsides at Trump’s “destabilizing” impact on the Middle East they studiously avoided discussing the disruptive role of some of the committee’s members in the region.
Howell himself was a cheerleader for the 2011 “intervention lite” in Libya, which failed to put boots on the ground following the overthrow of Col. Moammar Gadhafi and created the vacuum that is filled today by the bloody chaos of myriad murderous militias. Baroness Helic, another member of the committee, was also an adviser to the Cameron government during the Libyan intervention.
The most famous member of the committee though is Lord Reid of Cardowan, better known as John Reid, the combative former U.K. defense secretary under Tony Blair. At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan Reid famously opined British troops might be able to carry out their mission without actually having to fight the Taliban. Later he was a vocal cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, the event that is arguably at the root of most of what ills the Middle East today.
For Trump’s critics, his two big interventions in the region – the decision last month to drop the “Mother of All Bombs” on suspected Daesh (ISIS) fighters in eastern Afghanistan – rather than targeting the Taliban – and his missile strike against Syria, reinforces the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of the president.
It would be wonderful if Trump’s airstrike on President Bashar Assad represented the start of a proper U.S. engagement with the region, but it doesn’t. It’s simply a cheap expression of moral outrage. Assad remains free to use more conventional weapons to murder many more defenseless Syrian men, women and children.
But one can argue that Trump did at least show both the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers that there is a limit to how much barbarism the West will tolerate. Maybe it’s not worth much applause, but it hardly warrants condemnation. After a decade of Western inertia, it has not made the situation in Syria any worse.
Where the peers did hit the right notes were in their criticism of the U.K.’s policy on Syria, which the report said was characterized by “confusion and disarray.” Sadly it offered no solutions, beyond a bland statement that “lessons of intervention, or nonintervention, in Iraq, Libya and Syria must be thoroughly learnt.”
The peers’ call for the U.K. to give “serious consideration” to recognizing Palestine as a state in order to boost the Middle East peace process is laudable, but again highly unlikely in the post-Brexit political landscape.
The peers also called for the government to take a tougher line with Saudi Arabia over its actions in Yemen, including the possibility of suspending some arms exports to the kingdom. That will certainly go down well with Trump. Washington is in talks with Saudi Arabia about tens of billions of dollars worth of new arms deals as Trump seeks to honor his election pledge to boost U.S. manufacturing.
On the whole, this report is proof of the great 19th-century journalist Walter Bagehot’s maxim: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Monday May 8 2017.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A cue from Churchill on how to fight terror

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Tuesday, March 28 2017.

It has emerged that one of the four people murdered during the Westminster terror attack in London last week, 75year-old Leslie Rhodes, used to be Winston Churchill’s window cleaner. It’s a quirky footnote to the tragedy, one that for some, links the attack, and those which Islamist terrorists have unleashed in other cities, to the struggle for civilization against barbarism in the middle of the last century. We have heard this before of course. The clash of civilizations has been the battle cry of many Western leaders since 9/11.
Oddly enough, Churchill had a decidedly contrarian view of terrorism. Speaking in Parliament in January 1947, less than two years after the end of World War II, Churchill said: “No country in the world is less fit for a conflict with terrorists than Great Britain. That is not because of her weakness or cowardice: It is because of her restraint and virtues, and the way of life which we have lived so long in this sheltered island.”
Ironically he was talking about Zionist terrorists in Palestine. But his words remain relevant. Because within hours of the attack, the U.K. government was quick to resurrect its perennial desire to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures to combat the threat posed by Islamist terror groups.
Rhodes, along with two other people, was killed, and 50 others injured, when British-born Muslim convert Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians with his car on Westminster Bridge before crashing into the gates of the Houses of Parliament, gaining entry to the grounds and stabbing to death an unarmed police officer. Masood, or Adrian Elms if you prefer his birth name, was quickly shot by an armed policeman – the bodyguard of the U.K.’s defense secretary who happened to be near the gate where Masood entered. The entire attack lasted just 82 seconds. It was claimed by Daesh (ISIS), who called Masood its “soldier.”
It is understandable that the death of a brave policeman has led to calls for all police officers who guard Parliament to be armed. But the government was also quick to call for increased powers to allow security services greater access to the online communications and internet browsing history of individuals. On Sunday, Amber Rudd, the U.K. home secretary and the minister responsible for law and order, threatened to introduce legislation to force tech companies to allow intelligence agencies access to encrypted messaging services after it emerged Masood had sent a WhatsApp message minutes before his deadly attack.
Rudd also warned internet companies such as Google, which runs YouTube, and other smaller sites such as WordPress and Telgram, that they must do more to stop extremist material appearing online.
You can see Rudd’s point. In the last week Daesh has flooded YouTube with violent recruitment videos in what is seen as an attempt to capitalize on the attack and encourage others to repeat it.
But I am reminded of Churchill’s words.
It’s worth pointing out that last year Rudd was forced to abandon a shameful draconian plan to force companies to publish lists of all their foreign workers in a bid to “name and shame” British companies that employed too many non-U.K. nationals.
What terrorists want is to terrorize us. What better proof that they are successful than to see democracies abandon rights that liberal societies cherish?
Would more armed police, or greater access to Masood’s social media, have prevented the London attack? The former may have saved the life of the unarmed policeman, but it would not have prevented the deaths of those mowed down by Masood when he turned his car into a lethal weapon.
Terrorism does not rely on a great amount of sophistication, or collaboration that security services can monitor. A kitchen knife and a car is all you need because, as we have seen, the biggest threat to London and other cities is lone wolf attacks. Daesh may have been quick to claim Masood’s bloody deed, but security officials do not believe he was part of an Islamist cell of the kind that carried out the Paris and Brussels atrocities.
Of the 12 people arrested in the aftermath of the attack, only two remain in custody, while a third has been released on bail. A security official said: “There is nothing dramatic about this being a global plan or directed from overseas. There is nothing to suggest he was operating as part of a cell.”
The reality for western democracies is that it was always a question of time before a lone fanatic mounted an attack on London along the lines of those that have taken place with much deadlier results in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin and Istanbul.
At the risk of sounding callous, Masood’s attack on Parliament succeeded only in generating publicity. It had no strategic significance, it didn’t bring the U.K. capital to its knees, and the death toll pales in comparison to the numbers killed in those other cities, not to mention the daily civilian carnage in Syria and Iraq.
If Masood was seriously trying to attack Parliament, the citadel of our democracy, and kill British lawmakers, he failed.
Of course, terrorism is more about creating a climate of fear, or terror, and a sense of constant insecurity. But in reality Masood failed here too. Westminster Bridge is open again. Londoners went to work the next day, on buses, trains and by foot, and went out to play again that night.
Rather than attempting to further erode civil liberties by increasing the state’s power to snoop on our private lives, there’s a plausible case for asking tougher questions about why intelligence agencies failed to pick up on Masood, who came to the attention of MI5 six years ago because of his contacts with known extremists.
It is worth remembering the Daesh executioner “Jihadi John,” Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, was able to escape to Syria in 2012 despite being on an MI5 terror watch list, which prohibited him from leaving the U.K. Despite extensive so-called intrusive surveillance of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men slipped through the intelligence net and hacked to death an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in broad daylight on a busy London street in 2013.
The leaders of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, which killed 52 people, were also on the radar of the intelligence services, but again slipped through the net.
It is worth pointing out that since the 2005 tragedy the U.K. has not suffered another attack on the scale, largely because security services have successfully employed powers already at their disposal to monitor and prevent other outrages – they have foiled at least 10 attacks in the past two years.
Of course we must protect ourselves from terrorists. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.
Churchill never shied away from a fight. But he never forgot what he was fighting for.
Legend has it that during the darkest days of the war Churchill was asked to cut arts funding and to send the great works of art on display in London abroad for safe keeping. He refused with the simple response: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Tuesday, March 28 2017.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

To win post-Brexit allies, May goes too far

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Thursday, February 9 2017

As official visits go, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to London earlier this week looked like a textbook lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy. But looks can be deceptive.
In the full glare of the world’s media, Netanyahu arrived at U.K. Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s residence at 10 Downing Street only to find himself locked out and left standing in the street on his own for what seemed an eternity. At one point I wondered if he might have to kneel down at the front of the door and announce his arrival by shouting through the letterbox. Fortunately, before it got to that stage, the door was finally opened and a very sheepish Netanyahu gratefully entered.
On the face of it, things didn’t appear to get much better for Israel’s prime minister once he got inside.
May smiled and stressed the importance her government attaches to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, Netanyahu, a man who appears to have a permanent frown these days, warned about the danger Iran poses to the Middle East.
A few hours after the meeting relations appeared to get even frostier when Israeli MPs voted in favor of the so-called “regulation law,” which gives retroactive approval to illegally built Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
May’s government was quick to condemn the new law. Tobias Ellwood, the foreign office minister responsible for the Middle East, said: “It is of great concern that the bill paves the way for significant growth in settlements in the West Bank, threatening the viability of the two-state solution.” He added: “As a long-standing friend of Israel, I condemn the passing of the Land Regularization Bill by the Knesset which damages Israel’s standing with its international partners.” Well up to a point. The most important international partner, U.S. President Donald Trump, who will host Netanyahu in Washington next week, has yet to offer the world his thoughts on the matter. His administration is on record as saying Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace, but their expansion “may not be helpful.” Go figure. At any rate, Netanyahu was still en route from the U.K. when the vote happened, having left London empty handed. His clarion call for May to follow Trump in imposing fresh sanctions on some Iranian individuals and entities following Tehran’s ballistic missile test last week were ignored.
May has asked the U.N. to examine whether the tests breached any resolutions, but U.K. government officials insist it is a separate issue from the 2015 nuclear accord that lifted a host of sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear program.
Moreover, when she became the first Western leader to meet Trump in Washington last month, May advised the U.S. president of the dangers of jeopardizing the nuclear accord, advice that appears to have been heeded in Washington – despite Trump’s tweet last week that “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
May reiterated her stance to Netanyahu, telling him the accord was “vital,” though in what some see as a nod to Trump’s misgivings about the deal she added it needed to be “properly enforced and policed.” That caveat could prove significant. Because for all the frostiness in the stagecraft of this week’s visit, behind the scenes other factors are at play for May as she seeks to create a viable blueprint for the U.K.’s post-Brexit economic future.
There has been a visible change in the U.K.’s relationship with Israel since London played a key role in drafting last December’s U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the continuing expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
It was followed by May’s bizarre criticism of outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion – just days after the U.N. vote. The broadside at Kerry was widely seen as a clumsy attempt to earn some brownie points with the then-incoming Trump administration – Trump of course made a number of stridently pro-Israel comments during his election campaign.
Why? Because post-Brexit U.K. is desperate for business.
May is under intense pressure to secure some sort of U.K.-U.S. trade deal in the wake of her announcement last month that she is prepared to accept a clean break with the European Union, that will sacrifice membership of the single market and customs union, in order to allay domestic concerns about immigration and Europe’s open borders.
That has led to a rather unseemly rush to broker new trade deals, which has also seen May cosying up to Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan in recent weeks. The two governments have agreed to set up a joint working group to carry out the groundwork for a bilateral trade deal. Turkey’s current trade with the U.K. amounts to around 16 billion pounds a year.
May even tapped up Netanyahu, who also agreed to establish a working group to prepare the ground for a post-Brexit freetrade agreement. The U.K. is already Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth 5 billion pounds a year.
Ironically, the U.K.’s former EU trading partners are reassured that the rush of British firms to cultivate business deals with Iran since sanctions were lifted means May’s support for the nuclear accord will remain solid.
However, during this month’s EU summit in Malta European leaders openly expressed fears that May’s desperation for post-Brexit allies is pushing her too far toward Trump, and a softening of U.K. opposition to Israeli settlement expansion.
It is worth pointing out that the U.K. failed to attend last month’s one-day Middle East peace conference organized by the French government in Paris. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the conference was “a little like Hamlet without the Prince” because the Israelis had declined to attend.
But is U.K. opposition to settlements up for negotiation?
The fear that it might be underlines the dilemma that Brexit poses for the U.K. and its Middle East commitments. It’s early days yet, but despite the stagecraft of this week’s visit, it’s clear May is keener than any of her predecessors to keep Netanyahu onside as a means to court favor with Trump and the potential for favorable U.S. trade deals. At the end of May’s meeting with Netanyahu she invited him to return to the U.K. later this year to attend events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November. I very much doubt he will be left waiting on the doorstep on that day.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. This article was first published in the print edition of The Daily Star on Thursday February 9 2017.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Former General's homecoming: the band plays on

As Michel Aoun becomes President of Lebanon, my Eyewitness sketch of his homecoming to Beirut in 2005, after 15 years of exile in France - first published in The Daily Star on May 9 2005.

By Michael Glackin
Beirut -- Eyewitness
The assembled members of the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan brass band stood resplendent beside the podium in their uniforms. Their ages looked to range from 17 to 70, and they were occasionally guilty of the odd bum note. But what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume, particularly if, as I was, you were standing right in front of them beside the stage.
Like the thousands of others gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band had come to welcome home Aoun, Lebanon's prince-across-the-water, and to his followers as near a messiah as you can get in politics.
Most of the overwhelmingly young and largely Christian crowd gathered in the square would barely have been school age when the man his opponents dub "Napol-Aoun" was airlifted to safety out of Beirut by the French government, to a long exile in Paris.
The Martyrs' Square statue, which by now must be the most-climbed structure outside the Himalayas, had a huge photograph of the former general in his military uniform hoisted to the top of it and, as always happens on these occasions, was bedecked in Lebanese flags.
The Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band, which in addition to its trumpets and drums is also the proud owner of the largest Lebanese flag I have ever seen, tried hard to compete with the appearance of a loud thudding beat booming from giant speakers on the stage. But at the first sighting of Aoun's motorcade approaching the square, the crowd went wild, which also unleashed a fresh enthusiasm in the band that heartily banged and blew new life into their instruments.
Suddenly the music stopped. The crowd chanted Aoun's name and Martyrs' Square caught sight of the general for the first time in 15 years as he appeared from backstage. My new-found friends in the band struck up another loud tune before finally giving in to the power of the speakers, which were by now playing the national anthem at a level that could probably be heard in Damascus.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a bullet-proof screen the former general, who cut such a dashing figure as a uniformed commander during the 1980s, looked more like a chubby middle-class businessman. Luckily none of his allies on stage tried to hoist him on their shoulders as his army colleagues used to do in the old days.
Oddly enough, when Aoun finished his speech it was met with polite applause rather than the rapturous cheering that preceded it. The gathered masses got more enthusiastic after their hero left the stage, dancing to more loud music blasting out from the stage. At that point my friends in the band gave up the ghost and downed their instruments to have a cigarette. "We go home for a drink now," they told me. "He's back and we were here to greet him. That is all that matters." It was indeed.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

A U.K. malodorous wind of change

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, October 12 2016

If you thought barrel-scraping pandering to populism was limited to political discourse in America think again.
While the sickening spectacle of Donald Trump securing the Republican Party nomination for U.S. President has dominated the world's headlines, the type of xenophobia represented and fueled by the mega mouth businessman is on the increase everywhere. Even in the home of the so called "mother of parliaments".
Last summer's vote for the UK to leave the European Union - so called Brexit - appears to have fired the starting gun on a frantic political race to the bottom, with the government increasingly trying to appeal to voters basest instincts in much the same way as the Hair Fuhrer has done in the U.S.
Last week Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the minister responsible for law and order in the UK, gleefully announced that companies would in future have to publish lists of all their foreign workers. Her department later threatened to "name and shame" British companies that employed too many non UK nationals.
Thankfully, the backlash was ferocious. Steve Hilton, a one time adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron and oddly enough a vocal supporter of Brexit, called Rudd's plan "divisive, repugnant, and insanely bureaucratic", adding: "Hey Amber, for your next brain­wave, why not announce that foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms?"
Tamara Rojo, the Spanish-born director of that most English of institutions, the English National Ballet, made a similar point: She said: “After 20 years contributing to this great country and having been recognized with a CBE [Commander of the British Empire award], how long before I am made to sew a star on my clothes?”
To be perfectly fair, comparisons with Nazi Germany are somewhat wide of the mark - even allowing for the fact that 13th century England was the first European nation to require Jews to wear a visible cloth badge (prompted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which demanded Jews and Muslims wear special dress since you ask).
At any rate, within days of Rudd's crass announcement government ministers hit the airwaves to announce they had abandoned the policy. Well sort of.
Cabinet minister Michael Fallon insisted businesses would not have to publish the number of foreign workers they employ. However, he added they could still be made to "report their numbers" to government in order to help establish areas where there are shortages of British workers.
The problem here is that any sort of "foreigners list" has more than a faint whiff of the goosestep about it, particularly when set against the backdrop of other recent government announcements.
Just before Rudd revealed her plans, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the National Health Service would slash large numbers of foreign doctors working in the UK and hire British ones in their place. Hopefully the Lebanese orthodontist treating my teenage daughter will be allowed to remain in his job long enough to fit her train tracks before he's placed on the next plane out of here.
Just to ensure no foreign worker was left untouched by this malodorous wind of change, it also emerged last week that UK based foreign academics can no longer serve as advisers to the government on EU affairs. The move is understood to be due to concerns that sensitive information could be leaked to the governments of EU member states during Brexit negotiations.
Considering Prime Minister Theresa May has already shown most of her Brexit cards to the EU the ban looks pretty daft. She has already pledged to invoke article 50, the mechanism which will trigger the formal two-year process for Brexit, within the next six months. She has also made clear her willingness to sacrifice the UK's access to the EU free trade market in order to avoid having to accept the free movement of EU labour - the so called "hard Brexit".
There's not much left to leak after that, something the currency markets have already figured out - sterling has fallen to a 31 year low since the prime minister made those announcements.
On one level you can see where the government is coming from. The message from last summer's Brexit vote was clear. Those who voted to leave the EU want tighter curbs on immigration. It is right that the government should take note of this.
However, confronted with disaffected voters the government appears willing to say and do anything, regardless of the cost to the economy, and regardless of the fact that its policies are legitimizing a growing intolerance towards foreign workers.
Make no mistake, the EU referendum campaign unleashed a wave of bigotry in the UK, evidenced by the assassination of Jo Cox, a vocal pro EU member of parliament (and a champion of Syrian refugees). Her assassin shouted "Britain First" at her as he shot and stabbed her in broad daylight on the street outside her local library a week before the Brexit vote.
Official government figures reveal that in the three months since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been a sharp increase in reported hate crimes against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect the government's sudden ill-conceived plans to crack down and "get tough" on foreign workers, whether they are waiters, carpenters, doctors, or academics, is pandering to people with extreme tendencies. Indeed there is a strong danger that it is feeding and even tacitly vindicating those who are carrying out attacks in increasing numbers on foreigners in the UK.
Worryingly, a day after Rudd announced her plan, an opinion poll revealed 60 percent of the public supported her. Only 25 percent opposed the plan. That support comes despite the fact that the number of UK nationals in work is at its highest level in almost 20 years.
The politics of snarling and sneering is no substitute for substance and leadership. A hate filled lunatic fringe may have captured the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, but that's no reason for the government of the UK to embrace it. The barrel-scraping has to stop. In an increasingly unstable world the UK requires leadership, not mob rule dressed up as government.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 12 2016.