Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

Britain and the Arabs

Fighting the Retreat from Arabia and the Gulf — volume 1, The Collected Essays and Reviews of J. B. Kelly (New English Review, 356 pp., $24.95)The Oil Cringe of the West — volume 2, The Collected Essays and Reviews of J. B. Kelly (New English Review, 354 pp., $24.95)

As a correspondent covering the Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath, I had observed Yasser Arafat mobilizing the Palestine Liberation Organization for a guerrilla campaign on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. According to Chairman Mao, then still much admired by left-wing intellectuals, power was supposed to come from the barrel of a gun. The Face of Defeat (1972) is the book in which I expressed the view that nothing could come from this course of armed action except endless and probably irrevocable harm to the Palestinians. Determined to keep with the trend, the Times Literary Supplement made sure to give it a disparaging review. Out of the blue, the mail then delivered the offprint of an article by J. B. Kelly in a learned journal with the apt title “‘TLS’ in the Desert.” The opening sentence had a reference to this book of mine. John Kelly had come to my defense, with a critique of the selective quotations and omissions that had misrepresented what I was saying. For the next 30 and more years, John was to be a generous friend and guide to the complexities of the Middle East.

At the time, John was a professor of imperial history at the University of Wisconsin. On a par with India and Ireland, Palestine was one of the British Empire’s failures, and the rights and wrongs of that particular issue are so clear cut that he rarely commented on them. Arabia and the Persian Gulf were his area of special study, and he knew more about it than anyone else alive. Everything there was unsettled. Borders and treaties meant different things to different people. The tribe overrode the state; the strong overrode the weak. History itself was often a matter of hearsay through which only a scholar as careful as John could find a way.

Born in New Zealand in 1925, John was 24 when he reached England, then deep in post-war socialist gloom. According to his son Saul, the editor of these two volumes of essays and occasional writings from the 1960s and ’70s, John left almost immediately for Egypt “in search of sun, warmth, and a job teaching in the British Boys School in Alexandria.” Further travels in Iraq and the Trucial States familiarized him with Arabs and their way of life. A doctorate in 1956 from the University of London led to a research fellowship in the Institute of Colonial Studies at Oxford. John greatly respected its director, Sir Reader Bullard, a robust self-made man whose postings as consul in Leningrad and ambassador in Tehran had left him with no illusions about Communism or Islam.

In person, John was courteous and soft-spoken, ready to laugh at folly. On paper, though, scorn came readily. Lawrence of Arabia’s famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom is “this dreary flow of disguised rodomontade.” For years Egypt had suffered “a grotesque Jacobean melodrama, or an opéra bouffe staged by a troupe of gulli-gulli men or conjurors.” He speaks of some militant Arabs as “a small and disputatious band of rootless intellectuals, measuring out their lives with coffee spoons in the clubs and cafés of Beirut.”

In theory, nationalist movements were liberating Arabs from the British and the French in order to set up nation-states of their own. The Left always represented imperialism as the worst of crimes, and therefore nationalism, its opposite and its bane, by definition had to be “progressive.” Deluded and wishful, the Left was celebrating destructive forces; as John put it, “losing is acceptable to enlightened opinion these days.” Not what they might seem, however, nationalist movements in fact became vehicles for officers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq to manipulate themselves into power as absolute rulers. For a thousand years, John pointed out, it had been the Arab way for military commanders to stage coups, and they “doubtless will continue to do so for another thousand.” To think anything else was pure sentimentality. “The Arabs are really a very decent bunch of chaps,” John wrote in a typically sarcastic review of a book by one of the more prominent romancers. A book that claimed the superiority of Islam to Christianity he dismissed as “insolent nonsense.”

John insisted on the reality in front of him. Saudi Arabia had “a record of bloodshed, terrorism, and extortion.” Yemen had been “sunk for centuries in a squalid medievalism.” Civil war had already destroyed Lebanon. The old order in Arabia had plainly broken down, replaced by spite, dissension, and suspicion. Events have more than justified the Orwellian vision of the region’s future that he projected.

In one of his essays, John puts the question closest to his heart: “Who can say that empire is not better than the nation-state?” Britain had a record of protecting the Gulf sheikhdoms and their independence for over 150 years and therefore a moral responsibility “to continue to contribute to the upholding of peace, order, and the rule of law in an area to which she, and she alone, brought all three.” Published in 1968, his book Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795–1880 takes the measure of the imperial achievement. Based on a comprehensive reading of the archives of the Foreign Office and the India Office, it is a masterpiece of historiography, all 911 pages of it. The actors in this narrative are Indian governors, Persian Qajars, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the sultan of Oman, tribal sheikhs, the British residents in the Gulf, and, of course, the naval officers of the fleet.

The Qawasim were assorted Gulf tribesmen, fierce marauders and pirates who attacked shipping, took hostages, and gave no quarter. They had to be subdued in the interest of trade. Slaving was an altogether more difficult issue to resolve. Every year at the right season, Arab traders would set off to round up slaves in East Africa. What should be done about it was the subject of fraught debate. The traffic was essential to the economy of the ruling few, and if it were to be suppressed they would demand financial compensation. Valuable, the slaves were apparently treated quite well, but many in England, including Lord Palmerston as foreign secretary, were determined to put slaving down on humanitarian grounds. Lord Aberdeen, another foreign secretary, hesitated to interfere with local custom and Islamic precepts. The topics have changed, but the ambiguity of Western intervention in the Arab world remains constant. A memorable scandal broke out when Professor Ali Mazrui from Mombasa used the prestigious Reith lectures on the BBC to deliver a diatribe against the West for the slave trade. For centuries, the Mazruis were the principal slave dealers on the east coast of Africa, John pointed out, publicly refusing to take moral instruction on slaving from anyone of that name.

Britain’s decision in 1971 to remove all military presence east of Suez marked a victory for the Left. Losing the power that had hitherto protected them, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the other petty sheikhdoms were now at the mercy of several aggressors, among them the Soviets, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The rulers’ offer to pay the costs of maintaining a British garrison was rejected out of hand. The Iran–Iraq war, the Marxists in Aden, the fighting in Dhofar, and the expeditions led by Bushes I and II all testify to the instability the British were happy to leave behind. Thanks to his expertise in treaties and boundaries, John was retained to advise both Sheikh Zaid of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Oman, who were defending themselves against land grabs by a Saudi Arabia eager to bolster oil reserves, by force if necessary. John said that one look at the faces of officials in the Whitehall room where they met to adjudicate on the Saudi seizure of the Buraimi oasis belonging to his sponsor Oman was enough to tell him that his cause was lost: They had long since become accustomed to appease whoever was the strongest party. Hardly ever attributed to him, but all the same a fixture in current political vocabulary, “preemptive cringe” is the phrase that John hit upon to sum up this collective feebleness.

Published in 1980, his book Arabia, the Gulf, and the West is another classic, a white-hot 530-page polemic against British policy in the Gulf. As prime minister, an informed Mrs. Thatcher spoke to the Foreign Office about it and received a memorandum: “In the opinion of the Office, this man is not sound.” Washington was no better. Visiting with various think tanks, John criticized “the slow paralysis of American foreign policy which has today almost reached a terminal stage.” Between the United States and Saudi Arabia was a “strange love affair” bound to end in tears one day. He intended to write one last blockbuster to expose the Saudis as the bullies of the Gulf, and arch-hypocrites as well. That work was never completed, partly because editors of journals and newspapers, not least National Review, badgered him for contributions, and partly because he and his wife had retired to France. Still, he had absorbed the past so thoroughly that he could predict the future with accuracy. As timely and cogent as ever, these two volumes of his collected essays and occasional writings ought to make him a household name.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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