Text of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles Lecture: “What the Arabs really want”


Your Excellency, my Lords, and there are several Lords here, several Members of Parliament, several holy men, several Ambassadors and, of course, all of us have in common our interest in the Middle East, and are deeply concerned about what is happening there. Now what I wanted to do was to play on the words, ‘what the Arabs really want.’ Some of you will remember a film featuring Mel Gibson which appeared about ten years ago called, ‘what women really want,’ in which Mel Gibson was given the gift of understanding what the film-makers thought women really wanted, as opposed to what men really want. And I wanted to play on the word ‘want’ in the sense of both my understanding of what the Arab world really needs, but also of what people there really want from us in the West at this most difficult of times. I am very conscious in doing this, how poorly informed all of us outsiders really are about what is happening in the Middle East and about the realities of life there. I’m slightly reminded of the comment by the head of classics at my school when he heard, what I thought was the good news that I’d been awarded an open scholarship in classics at Hertford College, Oxford, and his remark was only, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man in king.” And I slightly feel like that accompanying you on this journey this evening. My knowledge of what happens in the Middle East, and what is happening, is only partial and incomplete, and I very much look forward to hearing your comments and contributions in the time afterwards Oppblåsbare dørvakter.

I had in fact prepared a speech this evening about ten days ago, but two events in the last few days led me completely to change everything I was going to say to you. One was a lecture given to the Saudi-British Society by one of the few academics who dared tell Tony Blair how unwise it would to invade, and then occupy, the land of the two rivers, Professor Charles Tripp, the Professor of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He gave a wonderful lecture to the Society, of which I have the privilege to be Chairman, on Art and Power in the Middle East. The Art, which was inspired by the Arab Spring as we call it, though in fact we all know it is the autumn and the beginning of a long period of some suffering and turmoil for the Arab world.  But Charles, in a magnificent tour de force, drew together some of the images on the streets, on film, even the language of Twitter and Facebook which the turmoil of the Middle East has produced, and led me to even greater humility in trying to understand what the Arab world is really going through. The second event was last weekend, when with your magnificent secretary, director, really impresario, Leo Docherty, and I attended a meeting in Manama of the dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. At this meeting in Manama there were lots of outsiders, Westerners mainly, but also the odd Russian, the odd Iranian, telling the Arabs what they should be doing about Syria, or about Egypt, or in Yemen. And, of course, the Westerners present had less to say about Palestine and Israel, less to say about Iraq, but I couldn’t help feeling that it would have been rather better if those of us outsiders who were there, had spent less time telling the Arabs what we thought they should be doing about reform, or unity, and more time explaining how we could help them on the long and difficult journey in front of them. I was left feeling too, with a sense that, in the great sweep of history, we are dealing with forces over which few local governments, and even fewer outside governments, have much influence.

Now today is the 10th December 2012, and we are approaching two centenaries which, I think, lie at or close to, the root of everything that is happening in the Middle East today. Ninety-five years ago, on the 2nd November, the British Foreign Secretary wrote to Lord Rothschild, stating that his Majesty’s Government viewed with favour, “the establishment within Palestine, of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to endanger the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” At the same time, the Secretary of State for India, himself Jewish, Edwin Montagu, along with Lord Curzon, opposed the idea of giving what we chose to think was, “a land without people, to a people without land.” And he wrote of that step, “I assume that this means that the Mohammedens and Christians in Palestine are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put all in positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English, or France with the French. That Turks and other Mohammedens in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.” Now the decisions by His Majesty’s Government to view ‘with favour,’ whatever that meant, the “establishment of a national home” whatever that means, in Palestine, was of course in many respects a very high minded one. It was driven by Christian Zionism which animated at least the Foreign Secretary and many others in the Cabinet, and it wasn’t wrong. It isn’t wrong to support the idea of a national home, and now a state, in Palestine for the Jewish people. But to have done so without serious regard for what Mr Balfour’s letter chose to call “the civil and religious rights” of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, was of course, great negligence. Negligence of the unintended consequences and, I think, a kind of moral negligence as well.

Now today is the 10th of December 2012, tomorrow the 11th of December.  Ninety-five years ago tomorrow, General Sir Edmund Allenby, dismounted, accompanied by the political missions attached to his headquarters and by many other representatives, chose to enter Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate. In doing so he was following in the steps of the Kaiser, who in 1898 had also entered Jerusalem as part of his great tour of the Middle East. And with Allenby’s arrival inside the walls of that ancient city, began, I suppose, Britain’s moment in the Middle East. Our Mandate over Palestine; our decision to help create the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; our engagement with the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Gulf as I should say here, which had already begun with the Bombay Presidency of the East India Company nearly one hundred years earlier. And what is happening today is, in my view, unfinished business from 1917. What flowed from those two acts, Mr Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild, Allenby’s successful campaign up through Ottoman Palestine, on to Damascus eventually in 1918, the seizure of Jerusalem, everything, or almost everything we see today flows from that removal of Ottoman power and the process of Western occupation and interference that has lasted nearly a century. Western engagement and interference that has addressed our wishes and needs rather more often that it has addressed the wishes and needs of the Arabs of the peninsula, and the Levant, and beyond. What Elizabeth Monroe called “Britain’s moment in the Middle East” is long gone. It ended perhaps in 1948 when we marched on the 15th May out of Palestine without leaving behind a political solution, but it certainly ended in 1967 when, again at short notice, we pulled out of Aden and South Arabia, having said we’d be there forever. But a Sterling crisis looming, the Labour Government decided we should be leaving South Arabia. And then, only three years later, we modernised our relationship with the Arabian Gulf and withdrew our forces from the Gulf, again having said we’d planned to be there for a very long time indeed.

And now, and this was something I certainly drew from the conference in Bahrain this weekend, we see America’s moment in the Middle East beginning to draw to its conclusion. The fact that by 2030 or 2040 America will no longer depend on hydrocarbons imported from the Middle East is a fundamental change. America’s much heralded pivot to the Pacific, its decreasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil will, I think, fundamentally alter the balance, along with the unsuccessful conclusion of the invasion and occupation of two Arab lands. It much amused me when I was Ambassador in Riyadh, that in his State of the Union address, it must have been in 2002, President George W. Bush announced that America would over the next few years decrease by 75%, its dependence on Middle East oil. And at the moment President Bush was standing up in Congress to announce those words, his National Security Advisor was telling Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that those words had got into the speech by mistake, and Secretary for Energy was telephoning the Saudi oil Minister, Mr Al Naimi, to tell him that the President hadn’t really meant it at all, America would continue to want Middle Eastern oil for quite a long time to come.

So the first answer to the question I posed in the title of this lecture is that, in my view, what the Arabs really want is the time and political space they need to work through their development: a development that has been arrested for too long by outside interference and occupation. As with earlier revolutions in Europe, or America, or Asia, these things will take time and cost much blood and treasure. There is not a pain-free, cost-free, way forward for the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries will need to make their own mistakes. They may need, they probably will need, as we did, to pass through periods of religious puritanism. Trying to buck the market seldom does sustainable good, and as conservatives, we should recognise the limits of state intervention, particularly outside state intervention, as the course of human history flows across the Middle East. We can occasionally speed up the wheel of history, as we did with the successful and thankfully brief outside intervention in Libya, but to change the course of history in the way that we attempted to do in the 1920s and 30s, and the way that America has attempted to do since its moment in the Middle East began in 1945, is something that we as Westerners, and above all as Western Conservatives should, in my view, avoid.

The second answer to my question is one that I hope would be obvious to every single one of us in this room. It was one that I used to remind policy makers of, both in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan, and perhaps even more important, as ambassador in Israel, which is that Arabs are human beings too. Ordinary Arabs want and need what we want, which is jobs, education, a better future for their children. They don’t particularly want elections every year, or Western-style constitutions, they want and need representative and accountable government, but the idea that our models can be parachuted in from outside is, I think, the height of hubris. And if you talk to ordinary people in Shubra, in the teeming suburbs of Cairo, to the wretched people of Haleb or Damascus, who are suffering beyond what any of us can imagine now, what they want is safety, security, representative and accountable government, and above all, what every single one of us in this room longs for, which is a better future for our children than we have been lucky enough to enjoy.

Now some of you will remember that a quarter of a century ago, perhaps the most distinguished British Arabist since the Second World War, Sir James Craig, suffered the misfortune of having published his two valedictory despatches from the British Embassy in Jeddah. The first of those despatches, which I as  Private Secretary to the Permanent Under-Secretary, tried unsuccessfully to supress, and  Alhamdulillah  that  we didn’t succeed, the first of those despatches was called ‘What’s Wrong with the Arabs?’ The second of those despatches was called simply, ‘The Saudi Arabians.’ Now in the first of those despatches Sir James wrote, and I think this goes to the heart of the arrested development that has plagued the Middle East thanks to outside interference, he concluded that there was, across the Arab world, a reluctance to face, and then act on, the truth. I want to come back to that in a moment.

In the second of those despatches he concluded rather patronisingly, and I think in words that are really rather out of date today, that the problems for Saudi Arabia were “incompetence, insularity and Islam.” Now in tribute to Sir James,  but not in following him exactly, I want to use that rather nice alliterative triplet to offer you three answers beyond the grand answer of ‘space and time,’ and the micro answer of ‘wanting what all human beings want,’ three suggested answers to the question, ‘what the Arabs really want?’ And those three answers, in the alliterative triplet of Sir James, are ‘education, engagement and emancipation.’

I have often said that I think perhaps the key document for understating the deprivation from which the Middle East suffers, is a document written by the Arabs themselves. The first of the Arab Human Development Reports, the one of 2002, was written by Arabs, for the Arabs. And that identifies three deficits for the Arab world: political rights, women’s rights, and access to knowledge.

And in dealing with the first of my triplet of the three ‘e’s I want to focus on education, knowledge. The fact that more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the past one hundred years. The fact that, for all the funding rightly pouring into Arab universities, all the efforts which some of you in this room have been leading to develop and take forward the Arab academy, the Arab universities, none of those universities yet feature in those appalling, but probably necessary, league tables of the world’s great universities. I remember studying Aristotle at Oxford, and if one wanted to establish the precise text of some of Aristotle’s great works, at the bottom of the Oxford Classical Text, the authentic text would be written not in Greek but in Arabic, because the universities of Cairo, Bagdad and Damascus, after the lights had gone out in Athens, then in Rome, and in Constantinople, it was those universities that, through Cordoba, passed the torch of learning on to, first the university of Paris, and then from Paris to a certain university in the English Midlands, of which I am proud to be a graduate, and from there onwards to Cambridge, and across the Atlantic to the great American universities. And it is those centuries of darkness, those centuries of deprivation, that we need to reverse.

All of us know that the first and greatest gift we can give the Arab world is support in the search for education. As Ambassador in Riyadh soon after 9/11, I was appalled that the first reaction of the United States was to cut off access to the American academy for the Arabs of the Middle East. I’m glad to say that having fallen to a low of 3,000 Saudi students at American universities in the years immediately after 9/11, thanks to enlightened policies both in Washington and in Riyadh, where King Abdullah is following in the footsteps of his great predecessor King Faisal and sending as many young Saudis as he can abroad to be educated, there are now nearly 100,000 young Saudis at American universities, and if the Saudi chargé d’affaires, he must correct me if I am wrong, but I think there are perhaps 17,000 young Saudis studying in Britain today. That’s something that is, I think, the biggest contribution we can make to helping the Arabs on the next stage on their long and difficult journey.

But it shouldn’t be just about teaching. It must also be helping the Arabs do what we, and I think Tony Blair takes a great deal of credit for this and the work of the present Education Secretary has continued that, we need to help the Arabs raise the status in the Arab world of the ‘teacher’ of the ‘ustadh.’ Too often he became an employee, a ‘muwazzaf’, a functionary, instead of someone holding the torch of learning up to his pupils and guiding them forward. Encouraging the Arabs to restore the status of the ‘ustadh,’ the professor, the man of learning, is, I think, an important contribution to that task.

It is also not just about turning out PhDs, I remember someone coming to preach at my school and telling us never to study for a doctorate because he said PhD stood for “phenomenally dumb” but whether or not it does, and I say this with my daughter here about to embark on a PhD, I still think that that is only the crust of something much deeper and much more important which is training Arabs not only to know the facts, but also to help in the task of asking the right questions. Not only knowing the facts, but knowing how to use them and where to find them.  And training them that working with one’s brain is only perhaps half as good as being able to work with one’s brain and one’s hands as well. Vocational training, training people to follow a vocation in the true meaning of the word, is something we can help with. We had a tribute the other day in the Saudi-British Society, to the late great Arab poet and thinker and adviser of kings, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, and one of the memories of him I treasure, is accompanying him, one dutiful step behind, as he and the Prince of Wales, when he was Saudi Minister of Labour, went round a great workshop where young Saudis were learning how to build things. And as the Prince of Wales, looking rather bemused in goggles and a white overall, started to pick up a hammer and to hammer something in, Ghazi turned to the assembled audience and said, “Look! It’s not the Prince of Wales: it’s the Prince of Nails!” And really he had a very good point there.

So the first of three is ‘education’. The second of the three is ‘engagement.’ Engagement constructively, standing beside the Arabs, accompanying them on the next stage of their journey, but not trying to prescribe the route or the direction. Remembering too that democracy is not just about elections. As some of you may have heard, I was appalled to discover that the constitution that a Frenchman designed for Afghanistan, and an American imposed, specifies fourteen national elections in the next twenty years: completely unsustainable. Democracy means and is about the rule of the people, and in my view there are many different ways of expressing the will of the people. Of course it does mean an element of  election, and an element of choice, it does mean that, but it means above all that the government must be representative and accountable, and the first principle is helping those who make the choice to understand that political arguments are settled by words and debate, and not by force.

But the most important contribution we can make in our engagement with the Arab world as it goes forward is to remember these three principles. First, do no harm, do no more harm than the harm we have done already. Second, fix what we have broken, and third, do only what it is in our power to do and not more. And, with those principles in mind, I recall the words of, perhaps our greatest Prime Minister and a Conservative, at least most of the time, Winston Churchill, at the end of the First World War when he said, “. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” And my fear is when these great waves of change sweeping across the Middle East have run their course, the dreary, sad minarets, steeples, towers and campaniles of Jerusalem will rise from the floodwaters.

The first and greatest thing we can do in the West is to right the wrong that has been done to the Palestinians. We can never right it completely, but in Israel’s own interest, we should be helping the only the country that can solve this problem, not on its own but without it nothing can be done. And following the recommendations which Lord Peel made in 1937, he called it then, “partition,” so did the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947, later Presidents Carter, Clinton, even George W. Bush, whom we should never forget was the first American President to promise a Palestinian state, he did so in 2002 and assured his listeners that it would be established by 2005, but delivering that which only America can do. Helping America break the stranglehold that an ill-informed Israel lobby has over American politics is the biggest single contribution that we can make, and it’s a debt that we as Conservatives, we as Britons, still have, in my view, sitting on our account. It does, in my view, mean that sometimes we have to be more conditional in our support of America and perhaps a little bit more French and a little less British, if you get my drift. Sometimes for the Americans, and those in the American system, who know what needs to be done, a little bit of pressure from London would, I think, help them in their task, and a little bit of short term turbulence would be a small price to pay for discharging the debt.

I say this as a Hebrew-speaking, former Ambassador to Israel, someone who has deep affection for the Jewish people. I believe passionately that Israel on its present course is embarked on a pathway to assisted suicide: suicide assisted by the Congress of the United States. The idea that this problem can be solved by walling up the Palestinians in the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Bantustans, which the South African Government embarked on in the 1940s, is not only offensive morally, it is deeply out of keeping with everything we know of human history. It will not work, it cannot work, it should not work. And anyone who has a real affection for the Jewish people will want to help them avoid this looming disaster, further disaster in their history.

And one of the collateral benefits of peace with Israel, a just settlement in Palestine, will be, if I may put it crudely, to put the Jews back in the Middle East. Because, one of the many examples of collateral damage from the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, has been to remove the cultural and commercial yeast which the Jewish communities provided in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Aleppo, in Cairo, in Alexandria, right across the Middle East. In the 1950s, three Arab governments had Jewish ministers in their cabinets. I’ll never forget, preparing for my posting to Israel, going to see a man who’s done much for economic development in Palestine, Sir Ronald Cohen, and going to see him, and rather as it happened at my interview for Warburg’s bank, halfway through the interview, Ronnie without any warning at all, at Warburg’s they’d burst into French, but Ronnie burst into the most  baladi Alexandrian Arabic you could ever remember. A man who was born and grew up in Alexandria, who’s heart is as much in the Arab Middle East as it is on the seafront of Tel Aviv, or among the walls of Jerusalem, and that man’s talent and energy, instead of being deployed on the rather small scale of development in Gaza and the West Bank, should be available, must be available, back where it once was in the wider Middle East.

Imagine London, imagine New York, without the cultural and commercial yeast provided by Jewish communities. In Riyadh, one of my best friend’s father had been the Foreign Minister of Iraq in the 1950s, and he used to tell me of the circle among which his parents moved in Baghdad in the 1930s and 40s, and he said of his mother’s bridge four, one was Armenian, his mother was Arab, and the two others were Jewish ladies of Baghdad. So I just throw that out as one of the great benefits I think would come from reinserting the Jewish people and Israel back into the wider Middle East. It was something I saw as Ambassador in Riyadh where, under cover of their British or American, passports, Israelis would visit the Middle East, were helping with software or with irrigation plans, but they doing so through cut-outs and under cover, not in the way that would happen with the restoration of Israel to a place in the Middle East. It was a dawn which broke, but a false dawn, with the Camp David accords, where it was possible to go by bus from Cairo to Tel Aviv and back again, and one saw the beginnings of engagement, but it was all abandoned with good reason starting with the attack on the Osirak reactor.

And finally, I want to talk about ‘emancipation’ the third of my three ‘e’s’. Not emancipation from foreign rule, though that’s important, but emancipation from what the French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon, called the tyranny of tradition, and he wrote this, “the only real tyrants that humanity has known have been the memories of its dead or the illusions it has forged itself. The philosophic absurdity that often marks general beliefs has never been an obstacle for their triumph. Indeed the triumphs of such beliefs would seem impossible unless on condition that they offer some mysterious absurdity.” After many years in the diplomatic service, dealing with Northern Ireland, two years in Israel, four in Saudi Arabia, three in Afghanistan, I’ve seen quite enough of the mental slavery that often masks itself as religion. In extreme Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the symptoms of the sickness are the same, an uncompromising belief in the literal, God given truth of ancient texts. Texts in which elementary scholarship and common sense can son detect the contemporary hand and circumstances of the men who originally composed them.

The Manichean certainty that my way is the only way and that all other truths are wrong is, in my view, the beginning of the road to perdition. I saw it as Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, when I used to allow some of the Protestants of Riyadh to worship in our Embassy hall on Friday mornings, with the knowledge and connivance of the Saudi authorities. One day attending this meeting, heard the American Pastor announce at the end of prayers that we were to pray for the salvation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that he may be saved and returned to the new path. And I reckon probably many Conservatives here who would probably share that sentiment, but I hope not on the same basis. Because when I rang up the pastor the next day to say I’d been rather surprised to hear us all invited to pray for Rowan Williams’s salvation and I asked him why, the answer was that the Bible says that only those who have taken Jesus Christ as their personal saviour can expect to go to heaven, and because Rowan Williams had announced that Muslims and Jews could also expect to go to heaven, Rowan was not a true Christian and therefore he needed to be saved.

We saw something of the same phenomenon when Jonathan Sachs, the chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, produced a wonderful book called, ‘The Diversity of Difference,’ in which he stated that there were many roads to God, and then was forced by his conservative religious base to withdraw the book on the grounds that the true Jewish doctrine taught that there was only one road to God and that was the Jewish way. We used to see a bit of the same among the more conservative circles in Riyadh, which King Abdullah has been doing so much to fight through opening the path of dialogue, promoting moderate Islam, but a particularly absurd example I remember was a fatwa circulated declaring that St Valentines Day was apostasy. All of us can find examples of this in all three of the great monotheistic religions and beyond it. My point is simply this, that to help the Arab world on its journey, we have to encourage that process of emancipation from ideas which hold back human development. Ideas which don’t deal with the fundamentals of Islam which are surely, as in Christianity, do unto others as you would be done by, but are much more to do with the traditions and customs of Arabs in the years after the Prophet brought the word to the people of the peninsula.

Now that really brings me back to James Craig and the central point of this lecture. That the biggest single brake on helping the Arabs take forward their journey through the real dark passages that lie ahead, is that gap between what James Craig called, truth and reality. The gap between connotation and denotation; between word and fact; between verbal sense and real world reference; the gap between rhetoric going in one direction and reality going in another. And we all know when we’ve sat in a diwaniya, or listened to a poet, or even picked up today’s newspaper from the Arab world, that there is a certain gap between reality on the one hand, and the reports we read in the papers. It is a question of degree, because certainly our own press cannot pretend to have a monopoly of truth, but all of us who know and care for the Arab world, I hope, know what I mean. So I conclude by saying that this change, as Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah said, at the conference which Leo and I attended in Manama, this growth has to be organic, it has to be from the inside out and we as Westerners can fertilise that growth but we can’t and shouldn’t direct it.

So I just wanted to end by almost asking you to think for a moment about what this is all about. It is not about Kings and Presidents, and governments, and the Brotherhood, or about Hizbollah, or the Alawites, it is about the ordinary people of the Arab world. The people who are flocking into the refugee camps in Turkey, the wretched, uncounted, unnamed millions in the suburbs of Cairo, who see what is being played out in Tahrir Square, but don’t actually have the time, or the money or the means to get down there, but what they really deserve, and what they really want, is what every human being wants. Which, as I said at the beginning, and will say again and again, is a decent life, a decent living and, above all a better future for their children. And if we can play a part in offering these three ‘e’s’, in accompanying our friends in the Arab world on their journey, we will have, in my view, discharged in great measure, the debt which we owe the Arab world for the mistakes we have inflicted on them over the past century of engagement, the centenary of which we mark tomorrow, when General Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate.  Thank you very much.


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