Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 6 November 2012
On the nauseating political doublespeak scale, David Cameron's claim to "support the Arab spring" on a trip to sell weapons to Gulf dictators this week hit a new low. No stern demands for free elections from the autocrats of Arabia – or calls for respect for human rights routinely dished out even to major powers like Russia and China.
As the kings and emirs crack down on democratic protest, the prime minister assured them of his "respect and friendship". Different countries, he explained soothingly in Abu Dhabi, needed "different paths, different timetables" on the road to reform: countries that were western allies, spent billions on British arms and sat on some of the world's largest oil reserves in particular, he might have added by way of explanation.
Cameron went to the Gulf as a salesman for BAE Systems – the private arms corporation that makes Typhoon jets – drumming up business from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as smoothing ruffled feathers over British and European parliamentary criticism of their human rights records on behalf of BP and other companies. No wonder the prime minister restricted media coverage of the jaunt. But, following hard on the heels of a similar trip by the French president, the western message to the monarchies was clear enough: Arab revolution or not, it's business as usual with Gulf despots.
But popular unrest has now reached the shores of the Gulf. In Kuwait, tens of thousands of demonstrators, including Islamists, liberals and nationalists, have faced barrages of teargas and stun grenades as they protest against a rigged election law. After 18 months of violent suppression of the opposition in Bahrain, armed by Britain and America, the regime has outlawed all anti-government demonstrations. In western-embraced Saudi Arabia, protests have been brutally repressed, as thousands are held without charge or proper trial.
Meanwhile, scores have been jailed in the UAE for campaigning for democratic reform, and in Britain's favourite Arab police state of Jordan, protests have mushroomed against a Kuwaiti-style electoral stitchup. London, Paris and Washington all express concern – but arm and back the autocrats.
This is effectively a mafia-style protection racket, in which Gulf regimes use oil wealth their families have commandeered to buy equipment from western firms they will never use. The companies pay huge kickbacks to the relevant princelings, while a revolving door of political corruption provides lucrative employment for former defence ministers, officials and generals with the arms corporations they secured contracts for in office.
Naturally, western leaders and Arab autocrats claim the Gulf states are threatened by Iran. In reality, that would only be a risk if the US or Israel attacked Iran – and in that case, it would be the US and its allies, not the regimes' forces, that would be defending them. Hypocrisy doesn't begin to describe this relationship, which has long embedded corruption in a web of political, commercial and intelli gence links at the heart of British public life.
The danger now is of escalating military buildup against Iran and intervention in the popular upheavals that have been unleashed across the region. Both the US and Britain have sent troops to Jordan in recent months to bolster the tottering regime and increase leverage in the Syrian civil war. Cameron held talks with emirates leaders this week about setting up a permanent British military airbase in the UAE.
The prime minister defended arms sales to dictators on the basis of 300,000 jobs in Britain's "defence industries". Those numbers are inflated and in any case heavily reliant on government subsidy. But there's also no doubt that British manufacturing is over-dependent on the arms industry and some of that support could usefully be diverted to, say, renewable technologies.
Sooner or later, these autocrats will fall. Without western support, they would have certainly been toppled already. When that happens, the western world risks a new backlash from its leaders' corrupt folly. [Abridged]
Twitter: @SeumasMilne http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/06/ulf-protection-racket-corrupt-dangerous-folly