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Plain speaking from Boris of Arabia – after a fashion

December 12, 2016


He’s right, of course. Boris Johnson’s comments about Iran and Saudi Arabia “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the Middle East, and his observation about a lack of “visionary leadership” in the region are, if taken in isolation, fair comments. Up to a point.

But words are cheap, and Boris sprays headlines like a six-year-old with a hosepipe.

Pundits on the BBC’s Newsnight show pointed out the other night that his words nothing more than what has been said in private to the Saudis for fifteen years. They are asking whether they are a deliberate counterpoint to the government’s official position. Or is Boris merely riding the wave of plain speaking that passes for authenticity in this year of the demagogues?

Whatever. If this is the season of plain speaking, let me indulge in a little of my own.

The main reason why Theresa May is not pleased with her Foreign Secretary’s words is the threat to commerce, not the rare intrusion of ethics into diplomacy. They represent a country with declining influence in the Middle East. Yes, we make a nifty missile and some awesome cluster bombs. We’re pretty good on education, health tourism, technology and engineering. But gone are the days when Perfidious Albion was the puppet master of puppeteers. We have reverted to our former incarnation as a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon once contemptuously called us. We no longer move and shake. We sell stuff.

And as shopkeepers, we are facing – thanks to Brexit – the erosion of one of pillars of our economic prosperity: our membership of the EU Single Market. For that reason we are desperate to shore up our trading relationship with the Gulf states, hence May’s visit to the region. Over the past three decades we have made a fortune selling our Gulf allies military equipment worth many billions of dollars. Thousands of jobs back in the UK have depended on our exports of warplanes and all manner of other bits of kit.

While we might occasionally put on our ethical hat and baulk at training prison guards who watch over the incarcerated opponents of the Saudi regime, we’re happy to supply guns and tear gas to the police in Bahrain. And we have no problem with selling the Saudis ordnance that rains down on Yemen, and sometimes finds its way into the hands of warlords in Syria and Iraq.

I’m not getting into a debate on the rights and wrongs of our military exports. I only want to make the point that Mrs May doesn’t either. She considers our economic interests to be of paramount importance, and she is not about to let an overgrown college debater with a Trumpian delight in his own verbosity upset our customers with a few inconvenient truths.

Let’s now consider the expressions he used in his notorious speech.

What, to start with, does he mean by visionary leadership?

Putting on my cynical hat, I have my own ideas. Simply put, politicians and potentates create visions for others to believe in. They do so either to achieve power or to retain it. Once they’re in power, they usually fail to achieve the dreams they sell because they lack at least one of four things: the power to impose their will, unanimity among the believers, ruthlessness, and finally resources.

Those who are widely recognised as genuine visionary leaders are rare indeed. They actually believe what they say and have the qualities to realise their visions. Their political vision is built on a bedrock of personal values. They inspire and unite. Some are benign, just as many are less so. For every Mandela and Gandhi I’ll show you a Khomeini or a Castro. Oh, and I suppose you could describe Adolf as a visionary under my definition.

By that yardstick, I would be interested to hear Boris, who decries the lack of visionary leadership in the Middle East, tell us where else in the world such leaders are to be found. Donald Trump perhaps – at least he unites half of his country. Boris himself, the high priest of Brexit? I don’t think so. He is a man whose convictions are tailored to his ambition. Hardly a person who inspires or unites.

So, given the dearth of visionary leadership elsewhere in the world, it’s a little unfair of him to single out the oil sheikhs and warlords of the Middle East. If I was one of them, I would probably say “to hell with visions – I do what’s necessary to ensure I don’t end up cornered in a culvert like Gaddafi”.

And speaking of visionary leadership as a means of overcoming sectarian strife, Boris, as a historian, should remember that Gandhi couldn’t prevent the post-partition massacres in India, and that for 30 years, our would-be visionaries, Margaret Thatcher included, could do nothing to overcome the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. Until, that is, the much-reviled Tony Blair came along.

You are far more likely to find something that looks like visionary leadership outside politics and government. The true visionaries, often enough, have no political power. They act as examples, catalysts and instigators. They plant the seeds, even though they often leave it to others to turn their dreams into reality. John the Baptist, Karl Marx and Desmond Tutu come to mind.

But in politics, visions are more often than not artificial constructs. Every leader needs one. If they lack a vision, it’s necessary for them to invent one that will inspire the people. The same goes for businesses. I’ve lost count of the number of consultants who approached businesses I ran offering to help us create the holy trinity: vision, mission and values. And if you fall for their snake oil, the chances are that you will end up with a bunch of fine-sounding but hollow words. The kind of stuff that end up on glass plaques in restaurants and golf clubs.

So my advice to Boris, as a pragmatic politician, is leave the visions to prophets, saints and internet billionaires. The real business of politics is goals and the pragmatism needed to achieve them, hopefully underpinned by a constructive philosophy. If you feel that you need to create a vision, never forget that it’s an illusion you are peddling to achieve those goals.

Now, turning to puppeteering and proxies, our esteemed Foreign Secretary berates Iran and Saudi Arabia for behaviour that is the story of the past century, and applicable as much to the major powers as to the regional players. America seeking to shore up an Asian domino in Vietnam. America gleefully inciting the downfall of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviets using Cuba to foment revolution in central Africa. Iran and Saudi Arabia learned the art of proxy warfare by following the example of the superpowers.

Perhaps what Boris should have said is that proxy wars rarely fulfil their objectives – to shift power in favour of the sponsor without the sponsor suffering adverse consequences. As the US discovered in Vietnam, and Russia in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia have found out that what starts as a proxy war usually sucks in the puppeteer. The defender of the status quo becomes the aggressor in the eyes of the world. Saudi Arabia is directly involved in a costly and inconclusive war in Yemen. Iran’s body count from the conflict in Syria is rising steadily.

So although he’s perfectly entitled to talk about the questionable adventures of the Middle East’s two leading powers, he would have delivered the same message to the Saudis if he had reminded them of the superpowers’ painful experiences of proxy warfare. Not a plain enough message, I suppose, but one that the Saudis, who are masters of reading between the lines, would immediately understand. After all, they’ve heard it all before. Been there, done that, got the quagmire.

As it happens, when Boris visited Riyadh, his hosts received him with their usual immaculate politeness. Adel Jubeir, his Saudi counterpart, brushed off his guest’s plain words by using the classic excuse on his behalf: that he had been taken out of context. Jubeir’s private thoughts might well have been something along the lines of “who is this pompous windbag? He doesn’t make the decisions, so why worry about him?”

Boris is not an idiot, of course, and apart from his sense of humour, one of his redeeming features is that he tweets mainly in platitudes, which perhaps explains why he has a mere quarter of a million followers, 16.6 million less than Donald Trump.

If he really wants to establish a reputation for plain speaking, perhaps he should try adopting The Donald’s style. How about:

Theresa May way down Donald Trump’s call list after the Election. Then he told her she should come up and see him some time. Most insulting!

Or perhaps:

Downing Street objecting to my calling out the Saudis for what they are. Pusillanimous peons!

Maybe not. I sense that he had his fifteen minutes of fame on Brexit Day. Perhaps, before it all ends in tears, he would be better off slipping away to join Cameron and Osborne on the lecture circuit. Or writing more history instead of trying to create it.

  1. Robert Lacey permalink

    Nice piece, Steve – but “thousands” of incarcerated opponents? Please . . . .

    Try “hundreds”.

    And at least they’re in nice comfortable air-conditioned confinement with conjugal visiting rights – the ones that I have known, at least.

    How many Saudi political prisoners have you known and spoken to?

    As one of them said to me “In Iran I’d have been strung up on a crane.”

    Best wishes,

    As ever,


  2. Good point! I bow to your superior knowledge and will amend. Perhaps I’ve been reading too many of Trump’s tweets lately….

  3. John Butler permalink

    Cynicism can go too far though. I actually admire Boris for speaking out. A fool often speaks unconventional wisdom, even by accident. And I see now the US is restricting arms sales to SA. A visionary politician could try turning our arms industries over to more constructive ones, “swords into ploughshares”. It’s not impossible and then our commercial interests could be pursued in a more peaceful fashion. May is frantically pursuing commercial military interests in the Gulf when she’s destroying our interests in Europe. That is shaming, and we can & should do something about it.

  4. Swords into ploughshares? Possibly over the long term, but too much invested in terms of exports and jobs in the short term, I’m afraid. I agree with your final sentiment, but the only thing we can do is to convince parliament and, by one means or another, the electorate, of the folly of Brexit.

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