Boris Johnson, John Kerry, Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, Adel al-Jubeir
Image credit: US State Department

Following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and against the backdrop of the relentless war in Yemen, Britain’s relationship with the Gulf is once more in the spotlight. Amid global outrage at Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman for allegedly ordering the killing in October 2018, arms sales to Saudi Arabia were suspended in Germany, Norway and Denmark. Yet despite its public condemnation, the British government steadfastly refused calls to do the same, flying a high level delegation to Riyadh just weeks afterwards to discuss expanding ‘the horizons of political, security, military and commercial cooperation’.

The incident exposed the chasm between Britain’s professed liberal values and the distinctly illiberal consequences of its foreign policy decisions. The British state’s support for Gulf monarchies is no secret, with arms deals and trading relationships frequently called out by journalists and campaigners. Rarely, however, has this nexus of power faced such forensic examination in the manner attempted by David Wearing in his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain

Wearing sets himself a formidable task, to ‘map the deep, material structures’ of Britain’s relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a grouping of Arab monarchies comprising Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. For the most part, he succeeds, detailing how the military, financial and political support Britain bestows upon the Gulf states has allowed for the survival of a deeply conservative regional order.

In exchange for lucrative contracts awarded to British corporations and Gulf petrodollars flowing to the City of London, the British government has provided political cover to repressive regimes, and delivered the military hardware required for the maintenance of autocratic power. Time and again, strategic, geopolitical and commercial considerations have trumped human rights concerns, and as Britain seeks to shore up post-Brexit influence in the world system, its relationships with the Gulf states look set to acquire renewed importance.

Power and empire

A Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway and member of Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Wearing lays out his case in painstaking detail, drawing on his intimate knowledge of the region’s history and political economy to reveal the webs of power binding the Gulf with the City of London. He traces the origins of this relationship to the colonial era, as the discovery of oil and gas paved the way for the entry of British corporations and created conditions for a new regime of accumulation that would shape present day political orientations.

The legacy of empire has laid the foundations for a system of ‘asymmetrical interdependence’; Wearing writes of how the balance of power remains skewed towards Western states, animated by the ‘dual logic’ of retaining energy security and geostrategic leverage. Oil and gas reserves have allowed the GCC a degree of autonomy as rentier states, who support themselves from rent collected through hydrocarbon sales to the outside world rather than taxes extracted from their citizens. However, while ownership and control of reserves has passed to Gulf states since the 1970s, governments have remained reliant on International Oil Companies (IOCs) for operations, shipment and sale. While Britain and the United States are not directly dependent on Gulf oil for their energy supply, the growing dependence of emerging Asian powers on Gulf oil has increased the impetus for retaining regional influence.

The Gulf and neoliberalism

Welcomely, AngloArabia dispenses with the notions that UK-Gulf relations can be explained exclusively through the prism of energy security, and Wearing does not shy away from situating his narrative within a structural analysis of capitalist power. He points to the key role of Gulf wealth in the neoliberal era, with the influx of petrodollars since the 1970s driving the financialisation of the global economic system.

Yet the City of London’s rise as a leading financial centre corresponded with a decline of British manufacturing and growing balance of payments deficit, increasing reliance on the Gulf as a market for exports and source of inward investment. For their part, GCC states have sought the status and advantage of alliance with major capitalist states, revealing the political calculation behind economic transactions. Thus, Britain has resisted domestic pressure to suspend arms sales in order to protect the trade and investment relationships. Wearing’s arguments are buttressed with reference to extensive financial data, illustrating the sweep and scale of the British state’s economic entanglements with the GGC. A historical understanding of these economic cycles, he contends, is therefore essential to understanding contemporary world events, be that the realignment of trading blocs, the suppression of popular uprisings since 2011, or the climate crisis.

An important contribution

AngloArabia serves its primary purpose well in documenting the disturbing connections between Gulf wealth and British foreign policy under hydrocarbon capitalism. Wearing brings theoretical heft and detail to a topic often characterised simplistically and poorly understood. Despite the reassurances that Britain is a force for good in the world, as this book reminds us, in practice it has been anything but the custodian of democratic values, willing to appease and in many cases actively strengthen repressive hereditary rule. The book complements valuable work undertaken by other scholars, such as Timothy Mitchell, Michael Watts, James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, whose work similarly investigates how oil and gas underpins authoritarian regimes.

At times, the book’s prose comes across as a little flat and overly descriptive, missing the opportunity to construct a richer, more engaging narrative of how events unfolded. Nevertheless, it remains a well-researched and valuable resource for those seeking to understand contemporary forms of imperialism and capitalism operate in the world today, boldly interrogating the consolidation of autocratic power, and bolstering the case for a radical shift in UK foreign policy.