Saudi Aramco trainees, Phil Hall, 2014
Do Gulf Arabs understand the UK better than the UK understands Gulf Arabs?
by Phil Hall
When I gave my opinion on some issue relating to what was happening in one of the Gulf states a Jordanian colleague challenged me. He asked: Do you think you know about the Arab world? I understood his intent. He was asking me:
What makes you think you understand what is happening in the Arab world? Have you studied it? Is your Arabic good enough? Do you care enough? Are you qualified in some aspect of economics, politics and sociology that might give you a privileged insight?
My experience and knowledge, limited as it is, allows me to formulate questions that more expert people might usefully answer.
Throughout the late 70s and the 80s, my father, Tony Hall, was editor of several Middle East Magazines and, for me, he was a privileged source of insight into the Arab World. But among other, more famous political journalists, a few stand out. In particular, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn.
After a talk by Patrick Cockburn, I put this question to him:
Does the West’s understanding of the Middle East lag behind the Middle East’s understanding of the West?
Patrick Cockburn’s replied: ‘That’s a good question. Difficult to say. Probably quite a lot of things in the Middle East people do understand [about Europe] in Iraq, Libya, in Syria. They are full of conspiracy theories as well. The West’s understanding of the Middle East is pretty limited, I’d say. One can be over-derisive about these things because it is genuinely very complicated as to who is doing what to whom in Iraq in Syria and Iraq and there are so many people involved. And some people are very visible, like the Russians, let’s say, in Syria, but the Iranians are enormously important and there’s a sort of Shia axis of people who are Shia who think: ‘If we don’t fight and win in Syria we’ll be fighting in Iraq or we’ll be fighting in Iraq or we’ll be fighting in South Beirut….So you have all these very complicated things, and, sometimes when you are writing about them you ask yourself: Should I add that the militias on the border fighting with the Turks are Turkemens, and then distinguish between Sunni and Shia Turkemens? And you can sense at this point that you may be losing your audience? They won’t cut it, but you can feel the poor old reader thinking: ‘Life’s too short.’ For example, a Kurd. There are different kinds of Kurds: Sunni, Shia – all these different things. You know, around Mosel, the Shabak, the different types of Christians. All these are fascinating. I always find it very, very interesting.’
But he had no real answer as to what extent Arabs understand the West, and, in particular, to what extent they understand the United Kingdom. He conceded: Probably quite a lot of things in the Middle East people do understand [about Europe] in Iraq, Libya, in Syria. But then he was dismissive: They are full of conspiracy theories as well., Perhaps there are many experts in the west who don’t care if they are better understood than the people they are supposed to understand. Is this an example of post-colonial arrogance?
Let us take the example of a single Arab country: Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco alone, according to its website, graduates around 20,000 trainees every year, all of whom are required to speak, read, write and understand English to an acceptable operational level. English is taught throughout Saudi Arabia in all universities and private schools and from the fourth grade, every student will study at least four hours of English a week. For 20 years English has been compulsory from the fifth grade in all schools.
In Saudi Arabia, for the emerging national bourgeoisie, speaking English is a requirement. According to the CIA factbook in 2022, 38.3% of the 35 million population of the country are migrants. Out of 9-10 million foreign workers only 3.5% speak Arabic as their native language. English is the lingua franca for managing foreign workers. Managers in all the state companies speak English, the officer class speaks English, and, needless to say, the upper echelons of government speak English very well indeed. Some of them are educated at Sandhurst, at Russell Group universities, and in British public schools.
The number of Saudi students doing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the UK alone is large, oscillating between 8,000 and 9,000 every year. In almost every university in the UK Saudi students, including women, study for masters and doctoral degrees. Then they go back to Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, in Saudi Arabia, at universities in 2020, 60.3% of the students were women and 39.7% were men.
While only British people of Arab origin watch films made in Arabic in the UK, in Saudi Arabia, in addition to their own Arabian culture and the influence of the cultures of Egypt, Lebano
The Saudi’s have large investments in the UK. They acquired a controlling interest in Newcastle United in 2021.
Let us contrast the growing expertise of the Saudis about the UK with the UK’s knowledge about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. How many British people do degrees in Arabic, a language which has over 300 million native speakers? Additionally, although it is not their native language, a further 1.5 billion people understand Arabic as a part of their religion.
According to information from Cambridge University, only about 2055 people studied for A’ Level Arabic in 2022 with AQA and Cambridge International. Only 15 of the 285 universities in the UK offered a range of degree courses in Arabic or Arabic related subjects. Only 14 postgraduate degrees in Arabic were offered in British universities in 2022. The current ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Neil Crompton, only studied Arabic for one year.
In the UK, there are 332,000 British Arabs, of which 53% were born outside Britain. Arguably, this expertise in Arabic and familiarity with Arab culture of some of its citizens gives the British state the opportunity to gain insights into the internal workings of countries like Saudi Arabia; working for the security services must be a major source of employment for many British Arabs given the strategic importance of the region and the recent wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria and the current situation in Palestine / Israel. This despite the racial profiling by the British police, the stigma associated with working for British intelligence and the difficulty of obtaining a security clearance.
Many British Arabs will have been to Saudi Arabia for a variety of reasons. Britain also has a large contingent of expatriates who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and live and work there now. Some British Muslims have experience of working in Saudi Arabia and of going on the Haj to Mecca (the Holy place). The government of Britain can call on the insights of a very wide range of people in order to help it understand those aspects of the Saudi reality that it needs to understand.
There are roughly 26 think tanks in the UK that deal with foreign policy and, in addition to the diplomatic service, the BBC, national newspapers and magazines have between 20 and 40 correspondents who specialise in the Middle East. There are and five or six specialist Middle East magazines based in the UK. A host of NGOs work in Arab countries, 93 of them operate in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to the expertise of the security services, the diplomatic service, NGOs, the press, and think tanks, British Business and the British military also have an intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia: from large companies like BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKlein (SSK), Rolls Royce, Unilever, to small specialist companies.
The British military and intelligence services have worked with the Saudi government for many years. Britain has a Military and Security Cooperation Agreement with Saudi Arabia. Britain even has high-ranking soldiers embedded in the Saudi Arabian armed forces. There is a history of alliances between the UK and Saudi Arabia going back to Captain Shakespeare and the foundation of the Saudi state.
Narrowing the question down to the specific case of Saudi-British relations: Who has the clearer view? Who understands the other nation better? Is Britain really in a position to second guess the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or is Saudi Arabia in a better position to second guess Britain?
An answer suggests itself: The playing field has levelled out. The Saudi national bourgeoisie has grown much more powerful. The Saudi state infrastructure has suppressed religious fanaticism and uncontrolled corruption. The Saudis have made a concerted effort to educate their people abroad and in the UK and, consequently; they understand the UK well. The Saudi state has prioritised the learning of English while the British state has neglected the teaching and learning of Arabic.
In addition, there is the two-way traffic in all the dealings between the UK and Saudi Arabia; especially in the business and military spheres. Information flows both ways. Finally, a fair number of British Arabs are, potentially, not only strategic security assets for the British state, but for the Saudi state as well. Just as it is with other diasporas and migrant communities.
What will be the consequences for the UK and the West of the deficit in their knowledge of the Middle East and the Gulf? What will the consequences be of this growing disparity in understanding whereby countries like Saudi Arabia become experts in the UK, while the UK gradually loses its expertise and understanding of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Middle East?