Questions that ought to be asked of British foreign policy go unarticulated. Why did the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ (to use the Cabinet Office’s preferred term) become a British priority? Why is the Royal Navy sailing ships through the Taiwan Strait? Why is Britain conducting military training programmes in the Persian Gulf and ten countries from Gambia to Somalia? Why did the UK become so heavily involved in the atrocities committed in Yemen?
On 16 September the World Bank discontinued its annual Doing Business report. It had been one of the Bank’s flagship publications: a detailed index of the conditions for businesses in different countries around the world, along with an eye-catching league table. Countries could improve their ranking by cutting red tape, strengthening investor rights or making labour more ‘flexible’ – the standard neoliberal reforms. Following the prescription rarely made places richer or more developed, but that didn’t seem to affect the report’s influence.
The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap. During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.
The decision to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 40 per cent was slipped onto page 76 of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March. The only reason to announce a major strategic decision in such a quiet way is to avoid attention, which is exactly what happened. The UK is now committed to maintaining a larger stock of nuclear warheads than China (according to US estimates) and there has been too little scrutiny of the policy.
Over the past week there have been daily demonstrations in towns and cities across Oman. Public protests are rare in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They last happened in Oman in 2019, when protesters demanded that the sultanate address rising unemployment. This was also a central concern of Omani protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The main demonstrations this time have been in the two main port cities, Salalah and Sohar, where unemployment has historically been highest. Activists have shared photographs of British-made tear-gas canisters used against them, similar to those used by police in Hong Kong.
Unlike the US, the British government is continuing its military support for the war in Yemen. The latest government figures show that the UK approved $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. (There had been a year’s suspension of arms exports since June 2019, after the Campaign Against the Arms Trade took the government to court.) The UK has also cut its provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, despite UN warnings that the country is facing ‘the worst famine in decades’.
Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.
Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’. In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, he did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.
For around a year, the Royal Navy has been drip-feeding news about the reorganisation of the Royal Marine Corps into what it calls a ‘Future Commando Force’. The programme has been widely reported in the national papers as the creation of a ‘lethal new unit’. At the end of June, the navy announced that the marines were getting new uniforms, which the Times described as ‘hi-tech’ because the material includes a small amount of spandex. In one promotional video a marine walks through smoke wearing night vision goggles and looking like one of the sand people from Star Wars.
On Monday, 20 April, for the first time on record, oil prices went negative. Futures contracts for May deliveries of West Texas intermediate grade crude oil changed hands for -$40 a barrel. In physical markets in the United States today, Oklahoma Sour and Wyoming Sweet are trading for -$5.75 and -$8.50 a barrel. Oil companies are extracting crude from the ground and paying people to take it away. The immediate cause is that oil storage facilities are almost full and oil, unlike bulk natural resources such as sand or gravel, cannot be piled up in fields. The storage tank farms in places like Cushing, Oklahoma will soon reach maximum capacity. The problem is not unique to the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic means global demand for oil has fallen by around 35 per cent. At the same time, a war is being waged using oil flows.