Category Archives: Saudi Arabia

Final thoughts on voting, non-voters and elections before results are finalised

A few weeks ago I decided, against the advice of friends and family, not to vote at this General Election and I managed to stick to that vow. I have written at this blog about my reasons for abstaining, but to summarise, I mistrust both major parties and their leaders, the election was called to allow the Tories to extend their lead over weakened opposition and I live in a safe, Leave-voting seat extremely unlikely to be toppled by Labour.

Obviously, a part of me wanted to take part. My polling station is but a five-minute walk from my home. The polling card I was sent on Tuesday is still leaning against my television as I type, almost guilt-tripping me into feelings of wrongdoing. But in good conscience, I did not wish to. There is something very slavish about the voting process that is especially magnified when one lacks enthusiasm for all of the available, balloted candidates.

As a non-voter at this election, I wanted to rebut three of the more ludicrous claims that have been made, particularly today, about the vote. They are certain clichés that are recycled every polling day, but that nonetheless linger despite being so profoundly false. I then want to slip in a few final thoughts about improving elections, turnout and predictions ahead of tonight’s result. I should note that this blog has been written partly before and partly after the emergence of tonight’s exit poll.

Non-voters surrender their right to complain

Of all the nonsensical remarks made by the sad individuals who spend polling day pressuring others to vote, none is more irritating and wrong than the argument that non-voters cannot complain about their future political environment or public policy.

The first reason for this is that voting is not by any means the only way to express your views or mobilise politically. In fact, for large portions of the country living in safe seats, it is scarcely a way. Other, very good avenues through which a person can become active and influence the political landscape might be through think tanks, research, trade unions or protest.

Can we really say that a highly active political person, who falls outside the traditional spectrum and thus does not support establishment parties, does not have a right to complain despite engagement in other relentless forms of campaigning and activism? Furthermore, this cliché ignores the reverse: that the reason many do not vote is precisely because they have no party to vote for. Are these people not entitled to a moan? There are plenty of them.

We don’t elect all kinds of bodies and individuals who represent our national institutions. We don’t elect judges, public servants or Lords. Does this mean that, upon their occasional incompetence, we are not allowed to deride and moan about them? I fail to see how the absence of a personal vote equates to limits on that individual’s speech.

It is perfectly plausible that complaints from non-voters, especially those with influence such as academics, may actually help in their complaining to form constructive solutions to difficult problems. I would also add that common reasons for not voting have nothing to do with disinterest. Often, health or scheduling issues may conflict with access to a polling station.

I don’t want to set a complaints threshold. I am not going to say: ‘Only taxpayers can moan about flaws in public policy’, because I think children have the right to moan about injustices and failures at school and in their local communities. The truth is that targeting non-voters (who may live in seats rendering their votes unworthy of effort) as individuals who need to be silenced instead of contributing to debate is a very flawed idea indeed.

Britain fought wars to defend the right to vote

Can anybody name a war in which British troops were explicitly fighting to defend the right to vote? I certainly can’t think of one. A quick examination of any of our country’s more notable conflicts over the last century or more will induce the sensible to conclude that votes were no factor in our military pursuits. Brave men and women have always fought, and continue to fight, for liberty and to resist unjust oppression. These are the necessary motives for war, not protecting or winning any kind of vote. I am not sure why people constantly spread lies like this.

If by ‘war’ we mean suffrage, then that is at least more accurate, if a little misleading. Men in the early 1900s (whose suffrage is always mysteriously forgotten) and women in the late 1920s did indeed fight for the vote, but through domestic mobilisation and pressurising of political institutions. Certainly not on any battlefield.

Abstaining is unjust as other countries do not have the vote

Many countries, it is true, do not have public elections, but it is important that we clarify what we mean by countries that ‘do not have the vote’. The United States, for instance, holds quadrennial elections that the public are able to vote in, but does not constitutionally enshrine any explicit right to vote.

There are also countries in which voting is mandatory, such as Egypt, Lebanon and North Korea. Regardless of the appeal (or lack thereof) of candidates, or of the views of individuals, citizens are legally obliged to cast a ballot every few years. Furthermore, there exist countries that hold elections at municipal and not national levels, or in tier-based systems. Saudi Arabia and China are good examples of countries that operate these respective systems.

But I do not see why the existence of less democratically organised countries provides any moral reflection of abstentionism in countries that do allow their citizens to vote. It is not our business to decide upon the running of other countries as much as we would appreciate not allowing the influences of others dominate the way we govern our own. If citizens in oppressive regimes demand more voting rights, then those opportunities must be fought for at the bequest and approval of the affected population.

If we look for a moment in countries that restrict voting participation or refuse to hold elections altogether, we notice that these practices go on in un-free countries. I would ask the voting zealots to remember that as well as craving votes, many citizens in these countries would also appreciate the freedom not to vote (and hence legitimise the leaders that they despise).

Spoiled ballots ‘None of the above’ option

Why do people spoil their ballot papers? It is the most ridiculous waste of time and I have never understood why folk bother doing it. I was actually informed by a colleague this week that standing candidates are actually shown and read all spoiled ballots, which I found quite amusing (though I didn’t independently verify that it was true).

One interesting idea that I do think people should pay more attention to, though, is that of a ‘none of the above’ option on electoral ballot papers. I believe that if enough of the electorate opted for such an option, say 25% of voters, then an election ought to be declared void and is re-started with new leaders and new manifestos. I do not know if such an idea would cause massive political instability, but it would certainly provide shelter for the disillusioned.

The youth and voter turnout

Last night, I put a bet on with Ladbrokes that voter turnout would fall between 60-65%. I still imagine that this is the case, as I think that post-referendum fatigue may have caused many people to stay at home and not both today. ‘Brenda’, infamously interviewed by the BBC outside her house a few weeks back, captured this mood excellently by asking: “Why are they asking us again, can’t they just get on with it?”

Public figures, usually trendy liberal lefties and rich celebrities, once again tried their best to rally the young at this election. Their mannerisms are often so patronising. I wouldn’t mind so much if these people were honest, and openly asked youngsters to cast a vote for the Labour Party. That would at least be a little more sincere. The young may have turned up in surprising numbers today but it will be a while before we have any evidence. I suspect youth turnout was, as is customary, proportionally low.

The freedom not to vote and marginalisation

It is worth remembering that the freedom not to vote is very important. It was not protected by any of the nation’s wars, but it remains a useful method of political protest. The freedom not to vote is imperative purely because it allows members of the public to refrain from voting in instances where all balloted candidates propose policies and espouse views that they personally disapprove of.

I am actually developing a rapid dislike for the term ‘marginalised’. It is overused in political discourse. But, for social and moral conservatives such as myself, as well as other narrowing sects of the population, marginalisation is something we are experiencing. And I see no end to it.

Many who do not vote choose not to because they feel that in doing so, they would be fuelling a consensus or knot of parties with whom they have fundamental disagreements; thus bringing upon themselves further disenfranchisement. In this regard, not voting can be just as powerful and as telling as voting.

 


Russia, Iran, Syria and a whole load of hypocrisy

Some rather unsurprising developments caught my eye yesterday afternoon concerning the ongoing Syrian civil war and, in particular, the not-so-secret involvement of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps September 25th will have to go down as international hypocrisy day, as the two regional powers faced intense accusations from three western powers concerning what they called ‘war crimes’ in Syria. Three news articles in particular may interest readers at this blog:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37468080 (accusation number 1, from an American diplomat at the UN)

http://www.itv.com/news/2016-09-25/russia-hits-back-at-boris-johnsons-syria-war-crime-slur/ (accusation number 2, this time from the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary Al Johnson)

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-and-Russia-in-danger-of-becoming-war-crimes-accomplices-468663 (and finally a small contribution from French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault)

I must stress right away that I do not deny and have not denied the links between Iranian and Russian action in Syria and the intensifying civil war. Iran’s funding of terrorism in Syria; the tail country of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ has been a continued and deliberate ploy to further destabilise a now ravaged and desperate nation. Russia’s bombing campaigns are hardly secret, and it would seem that agreed ceasefires with the United States (which are crucial to the fostering of any kind of productive or peaceful settlement) have gone largely ignored in the Kremlin.

I am personally convinced that the Russians and Iranians are sensing that the Syrian military are growing in confidence. Israeli commentator Yossi Melman recently attributed the shooting down of two Israeli aircraft in the Quneitra region on the part of Assad’s government to this renewed confidence. It is not hard to imagine that, given recent successes in Damascus against both non-aligned rebels and Islamic State, Assad’s forces are beginning to feel a sense of control once more.

The Syrian military are coming off the heels of a slightly more successful summer. Notable gains were made in Aleppo, and three strategic locations were wrestled from the al-Nusra front (Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate) in the western province of Hama. From the perspective of Russian and Iranian foreign policy and their diplomats, this would therefore seem a bad time to adhere to any proposed plans for a ceasefire. While momentum appears to be going the way of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime, why stop now?

You can see why western powers are frustrated. It is particularly amusing to see the ‘war crimes’ line thrown out in an attempt to demonise two countries following an entirely reasonable strategic goal (though the way it has without doubt been followed has been counter-productive to peace). War crimes have become a thing in the Middle East not in recent years, but in fact many years prior to the Arab Spring. But again, the question of hypocrisy comes ringing back to me.

The United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia do not, contrary to their claims, have any principled objections to war crimes in Syria. If they did, then why, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his fantastically concise book ‘The rise of Islamic State’, would they have sought to play such an active role in laying down the fertile soil out of which ISIS would grow. More recently, in fact, United States-led airstrikes killed 28 civilians in a ruthless attack on al-Ghandour, a small town in the northwestern countryside of Manbij.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – responsible for accounting for the suffering of non-combatants in the ongoing Syrian crisis – recently noted of the 28 innocents (allegedly including both women and children): “They were killed when the warplanes of the international coalition committed a massacre in the town of al-Ghandour, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”

These points are made over and over again, but they are important. The Syrian civil war has long been a proxy for major powers to flex their military muscles in an attempt to further their own interests. How sad it is that so many young children have to pay the price for this never ending stupidity. Also stupid was the insinuation that Iran would support a ceasefire in Syria, even temporary, between the United States and Russia.

In the case of Syria, the strategic goals of Russia and the United States are in direct contravention to one another. Since Iran’s vision for Syria requires its tactical alliance with Russia to be maintained for the foreseeable future, it would appear that any longstanding ceasefire between the two major powers could threaten the political interests of Tehran in the Syrian conflict. President Rouhani said in an interview recently that to ground all planes would “benefit the terrorists 100%” as IS would be able to continue with their ‘savage killings’.

Both Iran and Russia remain adamant that Syria is stronger, at least in the short term, with Assad in power. A strong argument can be made to support this. Former CIA analyst and respected foreign policy commentator Graham Fuller has explained in the past that many Syrians (including large Sunni and minority communities) now accept that preserving Assad’s power could well be preferable to despotic alternatives. In Iraq, Sunni communities saw ISIS as a lesser of two evils, the same is not true in Syria. For Russia, it is about preserving and extending its geo-strategic influence in the region. For Iran, it is about protecting Shia communities and combating Sunni terrorism – funded and supported, in large part, by the very countries ‘seeking to establish’ a ceasefire in Syria.

The devastating effects of the Syrian civil war remain only a bloody backdrop to a posturing deadlock between major world powers. It’s about time they were pushed to the foreground.

 


Don’t be fooled by Saudi Arabia’s front against ISIS

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan, formerly Washington’s Saudi ambassador and head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, sat down with then MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove shortly before 9/11, he warned quite prophetically: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”

Startlingly ominous as we now know this to be, those interested in Middle Eastern conflict would do well to acknowledge the significance of the quote. It provides a clear and incisive backdrop into one of the most deep-rooted and bloody conflicts of the twentieth, and now twenty-first, century. The Sunni-Shia divide, framed much more clearly in terms of Saudi Arabia-Iran, has until the present day created a serious of region-shattering proxy wars, with devastating consequences.

Saudi Arabia’s role, both locally and internationally, in promoting the practice of Wahhabism (a fundamentalist, literalist version of Sunni Islam) is now well-documented. Thanks to brilliant work from Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Jason Burke, among many other distinguished writers and journalists, Saudi Arabian involvement in the harbouring and growth of the Islamic State is now widely accepted.

Incessant armament supplies, intense propaganda campaigns and the funding of the spread of Wahhabi practice have allowed the Saudis a strong foothold in both Iraqi and Syrian affairs in the form of ISIS, the shiny new plaything of militant, Sunni fundamentalism. Assisted by Qatar and the other Gulf Monarchies, Saudi Arabian foreign policy has quite literally advocated the scourge of Shi’ite Muslims from the Middle East, a ploy which has, to some considerable extent, succeeded.

If it wasn’t for an equally authoritarian, equally intense and equally hate-filled Shi’ite campaign against the various sects of Sunni Islam, ISIS’ growth would have been far more rapid. The Shia crescent, as it has become known, through Iran, Lebanon and Syria, has waged war with equal merit and pummeling devastation. The Iranian regime, expressed externally through its funding of Hezbollah, (a terror group in Southern Lebanon and now fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Western Syria) has become a potent counterweight to Sunni and Wahhabi expansionism.

With the conclusion of 2015’s Iran Nuclear deal, sanctions lifted against Iran quite recently have allowed the Shi’ite regime substantially more financial freedom. How the Iranians spend the cash will be interesting to see, but I suspect that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Saudis will be hugely disappointed. With more money in the coffers, it would be prudent to assume that funding to both Assad’s government and Hezbollah will increase at a notable rate.

And so herein lies Saudi Arabia’s decision to go to war with ISIS. Fearing stronger Iranian-Western relations, the Gulf power knows that it must do anything it can to either reclaim lost support from the United States, or draw attention from bolstered Iranian diplomacy. I wasn’t especially surprised by either Saudi Arabia’s pledge to take 150,000 troops to Syria, nor by the timing of the announcement. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s bitterly competitive, sibling-esque relationship would be humorous if so many innocent lives were not at stake.

Saudi Arabia’s hierarchy do not want military confrontation with ISIS. Firstly, because they support the religious essence of the newly-established regime, and secondly because it may sprout civil conflict between angry ISIS sympathisers (of which there are probably a few million) within Saudi Arabia itself. Instead, the decision to go to war against the Islamic State is merely a tactical foreign policy endeavour, designed to usher in the backing of western powers, whilst simultaneously appearing much more forcefully to bring about peace and stability across the Levant (something made practically impossible by the artificiality of post-war drawn borders).

And so it would be wise to urge caution to all those taken in by Saudi Arabia’s new war against ISIS. Just how a military campaign will work out between the Saudis and the group they actively nurtured remains, for the time being, unclear. I suspect conflict will be minimal and likely non-consequential, just how the monarchy would like it. Nor, too, would I rule out the possibility of armed troops being used to aid the Islamic State in various forms in a bid to retain influence in both Syria and Iraq.

Never have I seen a more transparent military campaign in all my short life, and I certainly hope that my government isn’t reeled in by it. The Saudis are not our allies, (they despise our relative freedom and rampant atheism) and have been far too compliant with the ISIS cause than perhaps members of the Royal Family will care to admit. 150,000 troops seems a hefty contribution, and may even appear productive in the so-called ‘war on terror’, but do try your best not to be fooled by it.