Once Upon a Time in Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as David Cameron begrudgingly explained in a recent interview with Jon Snow, has managed to nose itself into a unique global position — an ally, a friend and the centre of Middle Eastern intelligence for the West. However, how many people understand just how such a nation arrived at this crucial niche? Especially when you consider the persistent reports of human rights abuses from within the kingdom — public beheadings, amputation and floggings for such terrible crimes as ‘fornication’ or ‘witchcraft’ — and from without, with the US backed bombing campaign of Yemen and the ruthless oppression of the democratic Bahrain uprising in 2011.

And yet at the same time, there has been plenty of other news about the UK’s overt (and covert) relationship with the regime: billions of dollars in arms deals; royal visits with the British monarchy; corrupt voting schemes between the two nations in order to bolster Saudi’s position within the UN Human Rights Council. Derision has rightly fallen on the UK government for enhancing a state that beheads its citizens for practicing sorcery, onto the global stage for human rights.

But why? Why do we have this cosy set up? Yes, there is the obvious lure of oil, but the Saudis don’t have exclusive access to the black stuff, with other oily nations seemingly ignored or even viewed as enemies (look to Venezuela). So why do our decision-makers bend over backwards to accommodate this brutal dictatorship?
In the 1740s, the geographical area we now know as Saudi Arabia was more or less a plateau for warring Bedouin tribes. Ibn Saud, the ancestor of the modern Saudi family, was just one of many desert leaders, raiding other tribes and vying for geographical supremacy. But a 1741 encounter with an exiled cleric named Adl al-Wahhab, forged a partnership that would alter the fate of the whole Middle East.

1740 arabia

Map of Arabia, 1740

Al-Wahhab was not your everyday Muslim. He saw the 18th century understanding of Islam that surrounded him as a regressive, backwards step towards polytheism, or as he called it, Jahiliyyah — referring to the indigenous nomads of the Nejd, who still lived a pre-Islamic life, and were commonly considered barbarians.

The cleric saw everything that had been added to Islam from around 950-1000 AD, as a false path that needed to be reversed and its religious doctrines abolished. Al-Wahhab’s interpretation also warned anyone who showed the slightest resistance to his teachings, or who failed to follow them to the letter, that this proved them to be non-Muslim. And according to Wahhabi laws, you should convert or be slaughtered. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated; it was to have major repercussions…

Adl al-Wahhab was, I suppose, just one in a very long line of religious fanatics, but Ibn Saud saw something much more in his extreme preaching, something he realised could lend him an edge over the other tribes of the region and potentially offer him the opportunity to seize the peninsula.

The traditional raids of neighbouring tribal villages was, until Adl al-Wahhab’s affiliation with the House of Saud, done for wealth and conquest. But now, with the fanatical cleric under Ibn Saud’s wing, the raids became Islamic crusades, leading to thousands of violent executions in neighbouring territory.

Word of the bloody raids soon spread and before long Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab’s brutal reputation was striking fear into villages and cities throughout Arabia. They soon acquired much of the peninsula, giving the populations they conquered a simple choice: convert to Wahhabism or die. Reports of the massacres of thousands, such as at Karbala in 1801, instilled yet more fear into surrounding settlements, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which capitulated under the panic and fear created by Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab, with little or no resistance.

These were the salad days of Wahhabism. The glory days, that are taught as such in Saudi schools to this today. Alas, for them at least, they didn’t last long.

The first quarter of the 19th century saw the Saud-Wahhab forces annihilated; first by the Egyptians, and then again by the Turks. Their people however, held out together in the desert, and importantly, so did their Wahhabi culture.

For the next 100 years the Ottoman Empire hung over the peninsula, whilst the Sauds fought battle after battle with neighbouring tribes, once again vying for dominance. The years of persistent battle eventually caught up with them, when in 1891 they were finally defeated, with the Saud family escaping to exile in Kuwait.


Around 10 years later, Abd-al Aziz, the then House of Saud leader, came out of exile determined to reclaim the peninsula. In doing so, he used much the same tactics as his historical ancestors, Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab, namely fear under the banner of jihad. But there were two other important aspects to Aziz’s strategy that can’t be overlooked: the Ikhwan project, and the support of the British.

A major part of Abd-al Aziz’s strategy for reclaiming the peninsula, was to extend Wahhabism, through radical teaching, into the surrounding Bedouin tribes. The traditional tribesmen were considered theological ‘blank slates’ by the House of Saud; primitive and unenlightened, the Jahiliyyah were opened up to Wahhabi conversion by Saudi clerics with the zeal of Christian missionaries in Africa.

The Ikhwan were used to attack tribes and other Houses whom resisted, and once again as with the first Wahhabi uprising, their particularly vicious habits of cutting the throats and beheading non-convertors began to spread fear throughout Arabia.

From 1913 until the late 1920s, the Ikhwan was Abd-al Aziz’s army. They won conquest after conquest, claiming the land and feeding the militia with more Wahhabi conversions, whilst similarly feeding the fear which gripped the land with more mayhem and killing.

The British Government began courting Abd-al Aziz when it became increasingly clear, with each victory he gained, he would emerge as ruler of a vast portion of Arabia. The British rulers had much to protect in the vicinity, with the Sykes-Picot Agreement being discussed at the same time. Aziz knew he needed the British in order to authenticate the nation, and therefore to embed Wahhabism into the Kingdom.

In 1915, whilst the eyes of the world were on the Dardanelles, France and Belgium, Ibn Saud signed the Darin Treaty, where he agreed to become part of the British protectorate.


One of the main problems with having a huge army of religious fanatics, is they can be hard to bring to heel. It had been positively encouraged to raid any non-Wahhabi settlements prior to the treaty, but when the Ikwhan made attacks on other British protectorate (namely Transjordan), the British was forced to have stern words with Abd-al Aziz. Even before the treaty was signed, a movement within the Ikwhan had formed, one that was unhappy with Abd-al Aziz and, as they saw it, his personal neglect of Wahhabi customs. They were angered by his sudden tolerance of the people who, until recently, were deemed heretics. The signing of the Darin Treaty and Abd-al Aziz’s growing acceptance of Western modernity (cars, telephones and machine guns were being introduced) was felt to be in direct conflict with the Wahhabi doctrine, which rejected non-traditional ways of life and would never agree to become subordinate to an imperial power.

By the late 1920s, and after gaining both Hejaz and Nedj, Abd-al Aziz was finding the rift within the Ikwhan a concern that could no longer be ignored. The splinter movement had grown far beyond a splinter, and had intensified their jihadi attacks on Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The self proclaimed King of Hejaz and Nedj, knew that something had to be done.

It came to a head at the Battle of Sabille in 1930, where Abd-al Aziz seized his opportunity. The Ikwhan rejected modern weapons, and were helplessly decimated by the machine gun fire (supplied by the British) of Abd-al Aziz’ remaining army. They were cut to pieces by the onslaught, in what was also a warning to anyone else who challenged the King’s rule. What remained of the Ikwhan was absorbed by what would eventually become The Royal Saudi Landforce. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born, and just six years later prospectors struck jackpot amounts of oil within the kingdom.


The Ikwhan has drawn two more recent imitators. The first came in 1979, when Islamic purists, revolting against the modernisation of the Saudi state, laid siege the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They saw themselves as ‘true’ Wahhabi, whilst the state had allowed itself to become corrupted with modern ideas, such as educating women. They also wanted to ban TVs, start hating the West again and to kick out any non-Muslims living in the kingdom. The siege lasted just over two weeks, when the Saudi Army got the religious clearance to storm the mosque. Both sides took heavy casualties but eventually the insurgents were tear-gassed out of the mosque, and either killed or captured.

The vast majority of the insurgents were executed, but at the trial of the group leaders, the ulama (the religious most senior clerics and scholars that bore much influence in court) showed great leniency, despite the many laws, both Islamic and state, they had defiled.

The truth was the ulama majority agreed with most of the extremists’ ideology. In fact, the supreme response to the siege by the Saudi state was to hand more power to the ulama, which in turn issued stricter Islamic code upon society. So the second Ikwhan may have lost the battle, but it could be argued they won the war.


The second incarnation of the Ikwhan needs no introduction. IS (or ISIS) are extremists whose clever use of the internet, cold-blooded brutality and military proficiency has catapulted them into the centre of global affairs.

Isis fighters, pictured on a militant website verified by AP.

The conditions created by the West’s war-sanctions-war policy in Iraq since 1991, left the country utterly broken, and a fertile breeding ground for extremism. John Pilger recently wrote, “Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture.” I’d like to add another aspect to distance and culture: time.

The British were well aware of the Wahhabi culture within Saudi Arabia throughout their early relationship. Indeed, one of their officials even converted. Yet, seemingly, at no time did it ever occur to anyone – or if it did, they failed to voice it above a whisper – to be concerned about supporting the regressive and violent culture of Wahhabism. Even a rudimentary sociological examination would have shown in flashing-red-neon the obvious self destructive seed lying at its heart, that would grow intertwined with the success of the state. One can only assume that they chose to turn a myopic eye.

We continue to ignore most of the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia, the bombing of Yemen, the cruelty to its own people, its funding of Wahhabi extremists all over the world, in exchange for — according to David Cameron — Middle Eastern intelligence on terrorist threats. Seeing as how almost all the funding and arming of terrorism comes from within the kingdom, I guess they are in a good position to give accurate advice.

The Great British Truncheon (part 1)


“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.

The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.

Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.

In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.

On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.

The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.

In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.

Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.

orgreave truncheon

Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.

Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.

But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.

Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.

The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.

It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.

At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.

Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave

Farmland is not The Countryside

I stopped the car quite suddenly and checked the mirror. The was no traffic coming in either direction; it was still pretty early. The farmland spread out all around me, gleaming brand new in the semi-frost. The top of Ffair Rhos, high at the start of the Cambrian Mountains, is a place where the usual order of mirror-signal-manoeuvre can be a little relaxed. I’d seen some sort of disturbance by the side of the road about 50 yards back. As I looked over my shoulder, I could see something moving about slowly near the fence. I reversed the car until I came up along side what it was.

A brown, leashed creature I initially took to be a dog, sat just in the field on the other side of the wire fence. It was sat in what looked like the crater of a small explosion. As it blinked mud from its eyes, I saw that its coat wasn’t brown; it was covered entirely in the mud it was sat in. It was one of those moments where you seem to swell with excitement and simultaneously sink with dread. As I watched, the badger suddenly rose onto its powerful hind legs and yanked back hard at the snare around its neck. The whole fence shook violently and the badger flipped on to her back.

More new soil was cascading down the bank and on to the road as I ran over. The badger pulled instinctively away as I drew closer, causing the fence to rattle and shake further and the wire around her neck to tighten. I felt the anger at my throat as I looked at the homemade snare deliberately fixed to the lowest section of wire fence. It was sickening. I began trying to undo the wire from the tiny tin locking plate. Each time I made any promising progress the badger would suddenly pull, tightening the lock plate again and twice slicing into my fingers. Once she moved towards my hands with her powerful front claws, snapping her jaws close to my fingers, so that I had to quickly withdraw them.

After 20 minutes or so I had eventually succeeded in releasing the locking plate. She sat for a moment. Then as she turned she realised she met no resistence from the wire. One second later, she was away.

I pushed my cold, sore hands deep into my pockets and watched the badger loping up the field. The snare still derailed from her neck. A flock of sheep glanced at her, then went back to their moronic, interminable grazing. It was incredible to see the badger beside the sheep. Despite her handicap, she looked fluid and natural; at once part of her surrondings. No longer showing any sign of panic, she used the shadow of the stone wall to disappear into a thicket of spring bramble. The sheep in contrast seemed extraordinaryily alien to the landscape, resourceless and seemingly without wit. I thought about the snare still around the badger’s neck.

“Fifty, fifty,” I muttered aloud, even though I knew her chances were slimmer than that.

I walked back to the car.




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