The kindest group of strangers I have ever met was in Qatar.
It was my first solo journalist jaunt overseas, in late 1997, to write a country report on the small Arab state. The trip was almost over, and had included an interview with the then-chairman of OPEC, who was also Qatar’s Minister of Oil and Gas, Abdullah al-Attiyah. I was ushered in, and there he sat in his vest, with his feet on the table. After that, everything was possible and we got on well.
I also interviewed Abdulbasit Ahmad al-Shaibei, an Islamic banker who doubled up as a local radio host. Lovely bloke, who went out of his way to answer all of my questions. No surprise that he is now the head honcho at Qatar International Islamic Bank.
Abdul invited me to meet his friends and family in Doha that evening. Nervously, I said yes. Better than sitting in a hotel room but wasn’t sure how much we would have in common. The taxi driver raved about the greatness of Tony Blair on the way. The diminished heat of the evening was tolerable. Adbul answered the door and took me into a beautiful, fragrant garden.
His friends were mainly engineers who worked for Qatar Petroleum. They switched to English the minute that I arrived. They were keen to hear my (very limited) views on politics, and how it was to live in Europe. No alcohol was offered or drunk, but these guys were very Western in their outlook. In fact there was a round of joke-telling, quite crude, that made me feel at ease. After an hour, I was sitting at the middle of a table, ducking in and out of various conversations, tucking into a machboos dish of rice and meat, eyeing the salads and pickles. Feeling very much at home. Yet I didn’t know anybody.
Later, over coffee, it became clear that there was a tremendous respect for Britain. Its culture and civilising influences, and the ethos of fair play. And particularly the Labour government under Blair, which was seen as a beacon of hope for a better world.
There was one sour note. Britain’s military ties to the United States. I listened to complete disgust that we had participated in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. There was no anti-western ideology at work, none of them were fans of Saddam Hussein, but they were deeply enraged and saddened at the slaughter of Iraqi civilians, and the ‘shock and awe’ news pictures broadcast from the US bombers. In particular at the so-called ‘Turkey shoot’, when tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians retreating from Kuwait along the Basra Highway, having ceased hostilities, were indiscriminately bombed off the face of the earth.
I was quiet and listened. There was no ambiguity in their words. They described cold-blooded war crimes, carried out against their Arab and Muslim brothers by President Bush and his US military strategists.
One of them said, gently: “I love your country. But if Britain continues to associate with the US it will lose all of the goodwill it has built up in this region. Among the ordinary people. The governments will smile and buy your weapons, but the people will know better.”
Fast forward, to 2003. Blair and Bush holding hands, before illegally reducing Iraq to rubble. Onto 2011, when the Western-backed ousting of Gaddafi sent the once-prosperous sovereign state of Libya spinning into dysfunctionality. Refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. Slavery auctions returning in some parts. Onto Syria, where the arrogance of the West is so unbridled that our newscasters have regularly mouthed the notion of subjecting a secular, democratic society to ‘regime change’, as if this were as natural and just as handing out a speeding fine.
The guy in Qatar said, very simply: “To intervene in another country’s affairs needs the certainty of moral authority. If you sell weapons, and kill innocent people, that disappears.”
I wonder what this friendly stranger would have made of British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, who has just made the case that Brexit is an opportunity to “strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”
What sort of a human being trumpets his country’s ‘lethality’?
Williamson also reckons that defence will be “pivotal in reinforcing Britain’s role as an outward-looking nation” after Brexit. Probably wrong, but I had this idea that defence is to repel attacks. Has Williamson heard of an oxymoron? Is he one?
Maybe, because he wants to send Royal Navy vessels through the South China Sea to “give other nations confidence” as well as show Britain was “standing up for our values”.
You can tell he has thought long and hard about these plans. He insisted that Brexit has “brought us to a great moment in our history”, when we must be ready to deploy “hard power” against those who “flout international law”.
Now I get you Gav. We are going to invade our own country. Why didn’t you just say that?