As one Arab blogger put it, on the news that Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali had flown out of the country to safety in Saudi Arabia, “why not make it one plane to fly around and pick them all up”. It’s a simple solution: sweep up all the Mubaraks, Assads, Gaddafis, Saudis and Husseins and put them on a plane together.
The leaders of all the autocratic regimes of the Middle East, whether kings, colonels or mullahs, have sucked their countries dry of the fruits of the labour of Arab masses and sold their natural resources to multinationals of the US, Europe and Asia. While the Saudi princes have partied with alcohol, drugs and call girls in the hotels and swanky residences of London and New York, they have applied brutally repressive regimes back home to keep their people under the heel. Women are not allowed to drive in or to walk the streets of Riyadh and they are subject to draconian measures if they fall out with their husbands or engage in any hint of extra-marital activity, while the husbands do what they like. Whereas Mexican women earn 42% of male earned income,and Indian women earn 32% (bad enough by international standards); in Qatar, women earn just 28% of men’s incomes and in Jordan it is only 19%.
But the real horror is that how these repressive regimes, despite in many cases having significant national wealth, keep their people in poverty and unemployment. In Tunisia, over 65% of the population is under the age of 30, but 50% of those who graduate from higher education do not have a job. As a new report by Global Financial Integrity points out, these leaders embezzle and steal billions from their nations, stacking it up overseas in secret bank accounts and extensive properties. According to GFI, North African nations lose $1.2bn a year in illicit financial outflows generated by corruption, bribery, company fraud and just simple stealing. With a population of just under 11m, that means every man woman and child in Tunisia hands over $110 a year to its elite to slip out of the country.
Many of these economies have been growing at a fast pace in GDP terms. But none of this gets to the mass of the people. Instead, unemployment is high, while inequalities of income and wealth are rising. The UN’s Human Development Report publishes every year the gini coefficient, the measure of inequality based on the richest 10%’s wealth or income versus the poorest 10%. In the UK, that ratio is around 35; in the US it is closer to 45 – very high by international standards. But even in relatively poor Tunisia it is at 40, in Syria at 42, and in Morocco at 41. These are very high levels compared with Northern Europe, with gini ratios around 30 or below.
In the Gulf states, immigrant labour from Pakistan and other parts of Asia are used at slave labour rates and conditions. The Gulf States are particularly dependent on a large immigrant population as a cheap labour workforce. Excluded from citizenship and denied formal democratic rights, they are often not included in official census data and surveys, yet are the most affected by poverty and lack of essential services. The number of foreign workers in the six Gulf States has increased tenfold since the 1970s. They now constitute over two-thirds of the total population. In Saudi Arabia 35% of the population are immigrant workers. Expatriate workers account for 61% of the total workforce of Oman, 83% in Kuwait and 91% in the United Arab Emirates. In the UAE migrant workers are prohibited from bringing their family members into the country with them unless they earn at least 3,000 dirhams a month (US$816), but most of these workers are employed in menial, low paid jobs and struggle to earn a third of that amount. The UAE and some other Arab countries have also passed legislation barring immigrants from owning any property, no matter how long they have lived in the country.
This state of affairs has, of course, been fully backed and supported by the ‘Western democracies’ for decades. The war in Iraq was to topple a dictator, we were told (once the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise). Yet at the same time, the Saudi kingdom has been backed to the hilt without a word of criticism, even though it has been exporting extreme muslim jihad ideas through Bin Laden to Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The ‘international community’ supports these regimes because they back their multinational oil and gas interests; they buy their arms exports and they support the West against the ‘rogue states’ of Iran and Afghanistan and its ‘softly-softly’ policy over Israeli occupation of Palestine. Thus we had the craven support of the UK’s Blair government of the Saudi regime and the covering up of bribes to Saudi princes in the sale of arms by British Aerospace. And we have the cosying up to the Gaddafi regime in Libya once that government dropped its ‘rogue status’.
Democracy in the Middle East has never been on the foreign policy agenda of the US, the UK or Europe. But now the powers-that-be will desperate to ensure that there is democracy in Tunisia. It can’t be stopped so let’s have a democratic government that keeps the status quo: multinational oil interests and support for Western policies. Can a bourgeois democratic government survive in Tunisia between the pressure of the masses below and the pressure of imperialism and its client state of Israel along with the autocratic Arab states from above? We shall see. Or maybe there will be more planes flying out dictators over the next few years.