Imperialist Manoeuvres in the Wake of the "Arab Spring"

Since the Tunisian revolt last December sparked off the series of revolts know as the Arab Spring the scenario in the Middle East which had previously seemed as lively as the contents of a canopic jar (1) has changed. Not so much in the way those on the streets wanted, as the article on Egypt accompanying this shows. What are really shifting are the tectonic plates of imperialist interests.

US imperialism, the main player in the area has based its strategy since 1945 on two states, Saudi Arabia and Israel (from its founding in 1948). Down the years other states have entered and left the US sphere of influence (e.g. Iran) but these two have been the bedrock for its oil strategy. The recent turmoil has though put this under greater strain.

The Palestinian Application to the UN

This was first demonstrated by the decision of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank to apply to the United Nations for recognition as a state. Mahmoud Abbas has until now presided over a disaster for the Fatah faction of the PLO. Not only did they lose the elections in the Palestinian territories to Hamas in January 2006 but the policy of trying to pursue a deal with Israel has seen yet more expansions of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. To say the President of the Palestinian Authority looked impotent was an understatement. Things seemed no better when his staunch ally, Hosni Mubarak was swept from power in Egypt. But the fall of Mubarak was also a blow to the US and Israel who had counted on Egypt as one of the guarantors of the hypocritically named “peace process” (also know as pax Americana) in the Middle East. With him gone the authoritarian suppression of anti-Israeli demands in Egypt and the wider Arab world has also vanished.

For the moment the military junta running Egypt have announced they will stand by the previous agreements of the old regime but it remains to be seen if this will be supported by the wider population in elections later this year. And when the popular revolt spread to Syria, one of Hamas’ two main backers, Mahmoud Abbas suddenly found himself with a limited increase of freedom. This was what lay behind the desperate move by the PLO to ask the UN to recognise a Palestinian state. We should remember that the UN Security Council in 2002 declared support for a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one. In 2003 the Quartet (Russia, the US, the EU and the UN) published the “roadmap” calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. Then Bush promised it by 2007 and finally Obama stated in 2010 that he hoped to see a Palestinian state acknowledged in 2011. It’s 2011, so Obama has now said … the US will veto the Palestinian application even if the rest of the Security Council or even the entire General Assembly support it. For the Palestinians it is a bit like the sign in the pub. “Free Beer Tomorrow” - a non-realisable promise. In reply to the Palestinian’s temerity to ignore US “advice” there are calls in the US Congress to cut the $500 millions a year aid to the Palestinians.

But this demand has revealed just how complicated the contortions of imperialism are. The greatest opponents of such a move are the Jewish lobbies in the US and the Israeli government! Why? Because this “aid” is part of the way in which the Palestinians can survive. If the US stopped it the Israeli government would have to pick up the bill or face an even more uncertain future. As the Financial Times reported

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government official who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, agreed: “American aid to the Palestinians is not a favour to them,” he said. “It’s largely because the structures that are kept in place - aid and security co-operation - serve Israeli and American interests”.

Such are the contradictions of modern imperialist domination. The US Administration is already worried that Israel will become increasingly more isolated in the Middle East as a result of the fall of the Arab dictators with whom they could “do business”. And UN recognition of a Palestinian state (even if one does not exist) would have some advantages for the Palestinian ruling class. It would for example give them access to the International Court of Justice and even the International Criminal Court. This would allow them to indict Israel for war crimes, including the establishment of more settlements. It could thus even turn the tables on the highly effective Israeli propaganda machine in the West. Little wonder that the Netanyahu Government, after months of stonewalling is suddenly urging the Palestinians to return to negotiations (though not promising them anything). But as Brecht’s old adage has it, the more the leaders talk of peace, the more war plans they are lying.

Saudi Oil and US Dollars

Turning to US-Saudi relations they really began in 1937. The discovery in that year of oil by the US firm Standard Oil set the US on course to an understanding with the Wahhabite autocracy of the Saud family in the Arabian peninsula. Although the Sauds emerged two centuries ago as one of many clans fighting for control in the peninsula they only got control of the whole area in 1932 when Saudi Arabia came into being. The desert Kingdom was literally one of the most backward on the planet. However it was the only Middle East oil country where the US had managed to muscle in before the British (who had assisted the Saud’s rise in the 1920s). As Standard Oil (soon to become Aramco and sharing profits with the Sauds) began to find more oil during the Second World War the significance of Saudi Arabia to US imperialism became obvious.

This was the background to the famous (and hilarious) (2) meeting of Roosevelt with King Abdul Aziz on the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the Suez Canal on 14 February 1945. The meeting was arranged in the greatest secrecy when Roosevelt was on his way back from holding the Yalta Conference with Stalin and Churchill. The British found out and realised what the US was up to. Churchill chased after Roosevelt and met the Saudi King in Egypt three days after Roosevelt. Whereas Roosevelt listened to Saudi complaints about Jewish immigration to Palestine and promised that no state of Israel would be proclaimed without consultation with him, Churchill, in his racist smugness, not only insulted the King (by drinking and smoking all through their meal and discussion - something Roosevelt had been advised to avoid) but also spent most of the time reminding Abdul Aziz of the past help he had from Britain. He was thus expected to endorse a plan for new Jewish state of Israel. The outcome is put in this deliciously understated account from the Saudi Commercial Office

King Abdul Aziz developed international relations with the world's great powers. Early in 1945, King Abdul Aziz met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy near the southern end of the Suez Canal. In the same year King Abdul Aziz met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Over the past six decades, Saudi Arabia has developed a special relationship with the United States, based on mutual respect and common interests.

Bye Bye, British Empire, Bye Bye! (3) This was the beginning of a series of reversals for British imperialism around the globe at the hands of their wartime ally. But it was the fear of a new and more menacing imperialist rival that drove the US to renege on its promises to the Saudis. When the British mandate in Palestine began to break down under the combined attacks of Jewish terrorists and the chronic lack of resources of an empire in decline the US was faced with a dilemma. After all the main concern was US oil interests so recently consolidated by Roosevelt. When the Jewish militia, the Haganah, entered Haifa it drove out all the Arabs. Haifa had an oil refinery which processed Iraqi oil and the US began to worry that this would lead to a cutting off of supplies to Western powers. Many of the top brass in the US establishment wanted to put a halt to Israeli activity. Although Truman was well aware of the strength of the Jewish lobby in the US this was not what finally swayed him to support the idea of an independent Israeli state. When the Americans realised that the Saudis did not intend to cut off the revenues they got from Aramco the US oil company signalled by giving permission to Aramco to extend into offshore drilling. This was to remain the bedrock of US oil interests in the Middle East ever since. With the Saudis more interested in revenue than the fate of the Palestinians the question of support for a Jewish state became rather different. Who else might benefit from an Israeli state in the Middle East? Secretary of State George C Marshall prepared a report which basically said the Arab armies were in no fit state to fight (and the US Ambassador to Egypt added that the British were refusing to supply the Egyptian Army with weapons) so that Israel would win in the short term. But he ominously added that

If Jews follow the counsel of their extremists who favour a contemptuous policy towards Arabs any Jewish state to be set up will be able to survive only with continuous assistance from abroad.

The US would thus have to pay a high financial price but Truman was prepared to pay it. In 1947 the Cold War was already starting. Stalin, despite his anti-semitism, despite all the Comintern’s previous condemnations of Zionism as form of colonialism was already promoting himself as the “godfather of Israel”. On his orders Czech arms were being dispatched to the Haganah. For Stalin this would enable the USSR to gain a client state in the Middle East to drive out the British and prevent the Americans from filling the void. He assumed that the “socialist” ideals of the early Israeli pioneers would mean they would naturally gravitate towards the USSR. As a result the USSR was far more forthright about passing UN resolutions in defence of Israel (even denying that the Palestinians were being driven from their homes at gunpoint). It deliberately forced Arab Communist parties not to take part in resistance to Israel and the USSR became the first state to recognise the Israeli declaration of statehood de jure. But not before Truman had already recognised Israel as a de facto state - a declaration that came only 12 minutes after Ben Gurion announced the formation of the state of Israel on May 14 1948.

Both the USSR and USA thought that Israel would be a useful forward base for their imperialist ambitions in the Middle East and both tried to woo Israeli support. But the financial clout of the USA ensured that as time went on it would come to play the dominant role which today costs the US $3 billion a year. By the time Stalin died in 1953 a reappraisal was underway in Moscow and within a year Soviet support was to switch to the Arab states most notably Egypt.

As for the Saudis US officials at the UN had learned by March 1948 that the

Palestine conflict was a civil one and it was most important for the Arab states’ own interests not to do anything which would give the Security Council occasion to use force in Palestine (4).

In other words oil (or rather its income) is thicker than blood. US military bases were established in the country and the latest military technology was supplied to the Saudi monarchy. A common anti-communist ideology was usually enough to ensure a common purpose during the Cold War but US-Saudi relations have not always run smoothly. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arrival of a theocratic Shia state in Iran (both 1979) reinforced the alliance. Indeed their mutual support for the mujihadeen in Afghanistan (and thus eventually Osama Bin Laden) was to backfire once the Cold War was over. For the Al Qaeda network the war against “the infidel” now switched targets from “godless communism” to “Christian crusaders” i.e. US imperialism.

The US invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War and the subsequent stationing of more US troops in Saudi Arabia only strengthened the opposition to the Saudi monarchy and US imperialism amongst Islamic fundamentalists. This is why 15 of the 19 suicide bombers who flew into the twin towers on 9/11 were Saudi-born. Much is made of this by US critics of the Saudi alliance but successive administrations have always recognised where US long-term interests have lain.

Crushing the Bahrain Demonstrations

Throughout the so-called “Arab Spring” there has been much political chatter about how the US, after 60 years of defending “stability” (i.e., dictators) in the Middle East, has now switched to favouring “democracy” (5). But this is not only a gross oversimplification - it is also not true. When the world shifts the smart imperialists shift with it. But the US policy is support for democracy in words and an eye for the main chance in deeds. This is clear in the way in which the Syrian and Yemeni “democracy” movements have been left to fight their regimes alone (6). In Syria more than 3000 people have been killed already. This is much more than in Egypt and Tunisia (and possibly even Libya before the NATO bombing began) put together. Yet still the only action taken to protect these people have been a few sanctions and a lot of platitudes. Unlike Libya there is nothing to gain for US strategic policy in interfering in either. (7)

Nowhere was this clearer this year than in the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain. Just one day after Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, visited Manama, to talk to the King of Bahrain, the country was invaded by the 1000 Saudi and United Arab Emirate troops. There can be little doubt that the authorisation for this was agreed between the Al Khalifa monarchy, the Saudis and the US government. The US Government was quick to deny that it was an invasion and simply called for the Bahrain government to exercise restraint against demonstrators. This came a little late since by then 33 people had already been killed. What made Bahrain different was that it is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet and the majority of the population are Shia Muslims (although the royal family are Sunni). Having presided over the disaster in Iraq which had seen the unexpected rise of the Shia faction there, neither the US nor the Saudis wanted a regime in Bahrain which might have been more pro-Iranian.

“Using restraint” has led to the arrests of thousands and the torture of hundreds of detainees. In September 20 doctors were sentenced to between 5 and 15 years in gaol for assisting injured demonstrators in what Amnesty International called a “sham” trial in a military court. The whole affair shows the not only the continuation of the US-Saudi alliance but their solid front in the region against Iran. And what better than discovering “a plot” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Whether a plot really exists or not it is too early to say but if it did it would be a departure in policy for the Tehran regime.

Iran had been trying to improve relations with Saudi Arabia but as we recorded in the last Revolutionary Perspectives (8) the Iranian ruling class is divided. At first the Iranians greeted the risings in the Arab world as being copies of their own Islamic revolution. However when these then engulfed their only ally in the area, Syria they have toned down the triumphalism. In the face of the slaughter in Syria they have even mildly criticised the Assad regime. The splits between the followers of President Ahmedinejad and the regime’s real ruler Ayatollah Khamenei (who controls the Revolutionary Guards) may have spilled into foreign policy, Ahmedinejad has been seeking more normal relations with both the US and Saudi Arabia as a way of starting the process to end sanctions. The discovery of an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador (who according to Wikileaks reported the famous advice on Iran of the Saudi King to General Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake”) is probably an attempt not only to smash the Ahmedinejad strategy but also to further isolate Iran. All this may be highly speculative but one things is clear. The episode will once again raise the stakes in the imperialist confrontation in the oil-rich lands. The international outcry against the “terrorism” of the Iranian regime is preparing the world for another hideous imperialist experience.

And to conclude where we began the Israelis have responded to the Palestinian application to the UN by hypocritically calling on the Palestinians to negotiate. In reality they are continuing their policy of divide and rule. They have pressed ahead with building new houses in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) whilst at the same time they are doing prisoner swap deals with Hamas. Both are designed to undermine Mahmoud Abbas’ authority with the Palestinian population. For years the Israelis complained they had no one on the Palestinian side who was prepared to recognise Israel and negotiate peace. In Abbas they have had one for some time but in a world dominated by imperialist interests there will be never be any peace. As we have argued often in the past the solutions posed by capitalist politicians are utopian fantasies. Neither a “one state solution” where Arabs and Jews live together with equal rights, nor a “two-state solution” where a rump Palestine exists alongside an exclusively Jewish state, is a realistic outcome. Both are only formulae for the fight to go on and on. The only solution can come in a post-imperialist, post-capitalist world where states and national frontiers don’t exist (9). Until then the potential for imperialist manoeuvring in the Middle East and in Central Asia (10) to spark a wider conflict should not be underestimated.


(1) Ancient Egyptian funerary jar used to store the internal organs of mummified bodies.

(2) See Thomas Lippman “The Day FDR met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud” at

(3) And yet the British ruling class continue to lionise Churchill as our “greatest Briton” Martin Gilbert who in an article in the Observer in 2004 - see claimed

Churchill planned a peace conference after the war, at which he and Roosevelt could persuade the king of Saudi Arabia to agree to the creation of a Jewish sovereign state in Palestine. Roosevelt died and Churchill was thrown out of office before the conference could take place. Instead of a Jewish state being created with Arab approval, the United Nations proposed two states, one Jewish, one Arab, with Jerusalem under international control. The Jews accepted. The Arabs did not, and launched five armies against the Jewish state, a failure of Arab leadership that has led to six decades of conflict.

This is a fantasy. Churchill was the last person to win “Arab approval” and this would not have been forthcoming anyway. The Jews only accepted the partition as a tactic and the 5 moth eaten armies (trained and in some cases led by the British!) were no match for the Haganah nor as brutal as the Irgun.

(4) Foreign Relations of the US 1948 V part 2 p.719 quoted in Irene Gendzier “Why the US Recognised Israel” in Le Monde Diplomatique Oct 2011 p.3.

(5) See for example

(6) See “Syria - so many deaths, so many illusion to be shattered at

(7) See our articles on The Truth Behind NATO’s Victory in Libya , The Unfinished Business of the Arab Spring .

(8) See “Crisis in the Iranian Ruling Class” in _Revolutionary Perspectives 58_This split over normalising relations with the West was also evident under the last two presidents, Khatami and Rafsanjani. Khamenei put himself in the luxurious position for himself by supporting it implicitly, that is keeping quiet at the beginning to see how the “offer” goes then deciding to reject it once the offer has been made

(9) See Israel, Palestine and Neither One State nor Two but Workers’ Internationalism

(10) See, for example Gas Wars - Russia’s Struggle to halt US Encirclement .


Love this delicious and excellent article very much.

I'm not so sure that Western imperialism has nothing to gain from the fall of the Assad regime in Syria. For sure they would like to see a Western oriented regime there -- some parts of the opposition movement have promised to cut ties with Iran and their proxies Hamas and Hezbollah if they form the government -- but Syria has strong conventional forces so military intervention would be bloodeir than in Libya. Also, China and Russia would certainly vote against any resolution calling for a "no-fly zone" or a "humanitarian corridor" as Sarkozy suggested, so any intervention by the West in Syria would not have the stamp of approval from the UN that it had in the case of Libya.


You have mistaken what was said. We did not say that there was nothing to gain for the West from the fall of the Assad regime. Of course they would like it for the reasons you give. But what we said was that there was nothing to gain from the active intervention by the West directly. Hence they have been using their surrogates in the Arab League etc to up the ante and put the squeeze on Damascus.

Israel is in a slightly different and much more ambiguous position as the rise of a more assertive Arab nationalism if not Islamic fundamentalism (see the Egyptian events) will undermine the basis of the deals they did with the Arab dictators in the past.

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