Nigel Jones

David Cameron and the long history of the posh Arabist

Anyone with a smattering of knowledge of Britain’s troubled history in the Middle East will be unsurprised by Lord Cameron’s increasingly pro-Palestinian pronouncements on the Gaza war. 

Twice in recent days Cameron has called on Israel to ‘pause’ its offensive against Hamas in Gaza, and he says he has personally challenged the Israeli government and urged it to abide by humanitarian law. He has also reiterated Britain’s support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem and the endless feud between Israel and her implacable Arab enemies.

Ever since T.E. Lawrence went around Paris in flowing Bedouin robes putting the case for a united Arab nation to the peacemakers of Versailles after the first world war, the British Foreign Office has had a core of upper crust Arabists at its heart. These influential chaps, who are often also Tory politicians and clearly entranced by the romance of the desert, have been a decisive influence on British policy in the Middle East for more than a century. They have consistently advocated for the interests of Arab states – no matter how autocratic – and denigrated the only democracy in the region: Israel. 

Sir Mark Sykes, the Tory MP, diplomat and Yorkshire landowner who carved up the Ottoman empire to create the states of the modern Middle East, was an early exemplar of this tradition. Before he fell a fatal victim to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, Sykes was the architect of the Sykes-Picot plan that partly drew the borders of the modern Middle East. 

Notoriously, another prominent Arabist whose actions and views changed the region’s history was Harry St John Philby, father of the infamous Soviet spy Kim Philby. Philby senior shared his son’s strange dislike for his native land, and was instrumental in persuading his Saudi Arabian friends to give the US rather than Britain drilling and extraction rights to the vast deposits of newly discovered oil in the Arabian peninsula.

Philby converted to Islam in 1930, became chief advisor to the Saudi monarchy and promoted their claims, rather than those of the rival Hashemite dynasty in Iraq and Jordan, as guardians of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Like Lawrence, with whom he worked for the British secret services, Philby affected Arab dress and explored the unmapped Arabian interior. He took a Saudi wife, by whom he had three more children, and was a bitter anti-Semite and Hitler sympathiser, standing as a parliamentary candidate for the fascist British Peoples’ party at a by-election in the 1930s.

After his fall from power, Cameron’s ties to the Arab world strengthened

After the creation of Israel in 1948, British Arabists found a new cause: anti-Zionism. Tory politicians like Anthony Nutting, Dennis Walters and Ian Gilmour – who owned and edited The Spectator in the early 1960s – relentlessly promoted the cause of the displaced Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and tirelessly criticised Israel.

There was a curious nexus between public school Tories on the wet wing of the party like Gilmour, and support for the Arab cause. David Cameron is firmly in this tradition, and among his most Ill-advised forays into foreign parts when he was Prime Minister, his bombing of Libya in support of rebels opposing the Gadaffi dictatorship stands out as particularly crass and foolish: leaving Libya with a legacy of chaos and anarchy that continues to this day. Only a narrow Commons vote in 2013 stopped Cameron from making a similar disastrous military intervention in Syria’s civil war on behalf of Islamist insurgents fighting the secular Assad regime. 

After his fall from power, Cameron’s ties to the Arab world strengthened: in 2021 he was photographed glamping in a tent in the Saudi desert with the Australian financier Lex Greensill, whose company Greensill Capital he had helped to try and win Government supply chain contracts before its collapse. The two men were in Saudi to meet Crown Prince Mohammed al Salman, despite the Prince’s alleged involvement in the gruesome killing and dismembering of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Cameron also took up a teaching post at Abu Dhabi university.

Britain has close economic and defence ties to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf emirates arising from our former imperial role in the region. David Cameron should be very careful that his protection of these links and his own Arabist sympathies do not trump his moral duty to support Israel in its existential battle against the enemies who exterminate it if they could.