Review the lists of MPs who are taken on expensive parliamentary jaunts abroad and you will find relatively few names you know; they are more likely to come from the new intake, young guns looking for sponsors and exotic, all expenses paid excitement. Step forward the Israelis, Pakistanis, Japanese or Chinese; or the Saudi, Bahraini or Emirati royal families; or any of the other “foreign” lobbies operating in Westminster. Junkets, delegations and “fact-finding” are a highlight of the heady first few years of a member of parliament’s career in the House, and they can spark interests in topics where none existed before. They also provide issues to raise in the Commons which usually and curiously seem to be in the best interests of the MPs’ recent hosts.
Take Charlotte Leslie, for example; a young and impressive Conservative MP, who has campaigned admirably on standards in the National Health Service and mental health issues. Having never commented on the region in her parliamentary career since she was elected in 2010, she made a stirring speech last week about “what Britain might learn from its relationship with the Gulf.” She did so, tellingly, having just returned from a junket to the United Arab Emirates.
In her speech, the MP for Bristol North West claimed that the UAE is a haven for “pluralism”. This is, at best, a dubious assessment. Foreigners in the Emirates are second-class citizens, racism is rampant and the proper treatment of citizens ends when they express anything but adulation for the monarchy, at which point they are usually tortured. When asked by an opposition Labour MP whether she had much care for the thirty-seven British citizens who have reported being tortured by the same government she defended, Leslie replied, “It is easy to carp morally from the sidelines on issues such as human rights… but that is not always the best way…” This was not a slip of the tongue. In her closing comments, the Tory MP re-affirmed the priority she afforded to the UK-UAE alliance over the human rights of British citizens, referring to attempts to push the latter to the fore as “impotent moralising”.
Leslie also noted how the Emirati Minister for Culture and Youth had told her during the visit that the UAE was maintaining a “confident identity as rather conservative Muslims.” This is a baffling claim that is made often, which is not borne out by reality. “The bosomy blonde in a tight, low-cut evening dress slid on to a barstool next to me and began the chat,” noted a Guardian reporter back in 2010. “She asked, ‘Where are you from? How long are you here? Where are you staying?’ I asked her what she did for a living. ‘You know what I do,’ she replied. ‘I’m a whore.’”
There are an estimated thirty thousand foreign prostitutes in the United Arab Emirates. Toleration of prostitution – indeed, creating a city that is a known destination for those seeking the services of prostitutes — hardly seems like a “rather conservative” interpretation of Islam. We are not talking about an Islamic state where prostitutes cower away from religious police, we are talking about an Islamic state which actively encourages prostitution (largely for economic reasons). The Guardian journalist returned home and wrote up his findings: “Why Dubai’s Islamic austerity is a sham – sex is for sale in every bar”.
Not only did Charlotte Leslie MP appear to be indifferent to the fate of her own citizens, and dreamy about the religiosity of the Emirati way of life, but she also presented a view of the terrorist threat that conveniently lifted any blame from the shoulders of the Gulf autocrats. It was in this that the propaganda purpose of such “fact-finding” trips to foreign states is most obvious.
Leslie blamed the “takfiri” ideology, which underpins Daesh and many other extreme Islamist groups, entirely on the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, which is problematic; Qutb wasn’t the “creator” of takfiri (the denouncing of Muslims by other Muslims as “disbelievers”) ideology. You can trace the doctrine back to a prototype formula in the Mongol era, and then to Taqi Al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah; you can certainly say that Qutb promoted the philosophy in the early to mid-twentieth century, but to say that he was the “creator” would be to overlook a scholar who Leslie’s UAE hosts would probably prefer not to be mentioned in the British House of Commons; step forward Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It was his followers who, upon his death, began the mainstreaming of the takfiri ideology, and it was his followers who, allied with the House of Saud, exported it more vigorously than Qutb could ever have hoped for. This industrial-scale exporting of Wahhabism was not just done for theological reasons, but also as a buffer to Iran, and communism, during the 1980s. It was done, therefore, for foreign policy reasons and more or less controlled by the House of Saud, the UAE’s closest ally.
Of course, woe betide any MP — especially a Conservative — who returns from a Gulf junket saying that the Saudi state brand of Islam, Wahhabism, or Saudi foreign policy might be in any way responsible for Daesh. The same goes for failed or failing economic policies practiced by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Leslie cited in her speech the Hedayah Centre, an extremism think tank funded by the UAE government which happens to disagree with the thesis linking poverty to extremism. The centre is not, as her “fact-finding” meeting had confirmed, interested in the economic failures that quite clearly exacerbate extremism; in fact, its corpus of research concludes that “to equate ending extremism with simply ending poverty is misleading and dangerous.”
While there are wealthy, extreme Islamists, the recruits for extremist groups, much like those of communists, socialists or fascists, tend to come from amongst the poor. This is also generally true for mainstream Islamist groups, including those in the UAE. Al-Islah, the Islamist party whose members are currently holed up in an Emirati prison after a widely criticised and literally torturous trial, draws its support not from the wealthy emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, but their poorer neighbours, like Ras Al-Khaimah. Looking at the number of foreign fighters in Daesh, there is, in fairness, an extremely small number from the tiny UAE itself. However, well-regarded former intelligence officials now believe that jihadist recruiters have become firmly focused on recruiting poorer young men than have traditionally been attracted to foreign jihad, standing at complete odds with the message that Charlotte Leslie delivered in the Commons last week.
Why might the UAE be interested in telling British parliamentarians, via their new slightly more sun-tanned mouthpiece MPs, that the importance of economic factors in contemporary terrorism is “misleading and dangerous”? Perhaps it is the precarious nature of the UAE’s economy, alongside that of Saudi Arabia and others in the region. Half of all consumers in the UAE, polls suggest, already think that the country is in recession, with forty per cent having little or no confidence in their rulers’ capacity to create jobs. It would be an embarrassing failure if a predicted collapse does indeed spark a wave of extremism in the Emirates, because it is not the extremists who are responsible for ensuring that the economy stays stable, but the UAE rulers themselves.
It makes political sense, therefore, for such rulers to blame the entire terrorism threat on “ideology”, although it is there that the UAE propagandists hit a speed bump (no doubt built by a migrant worker) which slows down their argument. It’s simple: if you put too much emphasis on the terrorist threat being ideological and not economic or political, the inevitable question that follows is, where does this ideology come from?
In all fairness, there are multiple points of blame; you can blame Qutb as much as you can blame Lenin (upon whose thought Al-Qaeda has modelled itself) and as much as you can blame the Wahhabis. What the UAE’s cleverly crafted communications strategy is insistent upon, though, is that the Wahhabis have nothing to do with it. In their case, as ever, it’s a case of blaming the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, hence Leslie’s reference to Sayyid Qutb.
Misdirection complete, the objective of her junket fulfilled, Charlotte Leslie sat down and was congratulated politely by other MPs. The reputation of the United Arab Emirates shone through the murk; it is safe, for the time being. Although a parliamentary junket to the UAE may well paint a thousand words, the cracks are beginning to show through.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.