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Following all expenses paid trips to the Middle East, local MP Charlotte Leslie has developed a newfound support for the United Arab Emirates.

Review the lists of MPs who are taken on expensive parliamentary jaunts abroad and you will find relatively few names you know. They are more likely to come from the new intake, young guns looking for sponsors and exotic, all expenses paid excitement. Step forward the Israelis, Pakistanis, Japanese or Chinese; or the Saudi, Bahraini or Emirati royal families; or any of the other lobbies operating in Westminster.

Junkets, delegations and “fact-finding” are a highlight of the heady first few years of a member of parliament’s career in the House, and they can spark interests in topics where none existed before. They also provide issues to raise in the Commons which usually and curiously seem to be in the best interests of the MPs’ recent hosts.

Take Charlotte Leslie, Conservative MP for Bristol North West. Having never commented on the Middle East in her parliamentary career since she was elected in 2010, she made a stirring speech last week about “what Britain might learn from its relationship with the Gulf.” She did so, tellingly, having just returned from a junket to the United Arab Emirates.

In her speech, Leslie claimed that the UAE is a haven for “pluralism”. This is, at best, a dubious assessment. Foreigners in the Emirates are second-class citizens, racism is rampant and the proper treatment of citizens ends when they express anything but adulation for the monarchy, at which point they are usually tortured. When asked by an opposition Labour MP whether she had much care for the thirty-seven British citizens who have reported being tortured by the same government she defended, Leslie replied, “It is easy to carp morally from the sidelines on issues such as human rights… but that is not always the best way…” This was not a slip of the tongue.

In her closing comments, the Tory MP reaffirmed the priority she afforded to the UK-UAE alliance over the human rights of British citizens, referring to attempts to push the latter to the fore as “impotent moralising”.

Not only did Charlotte Leslie MP appear to be indifferent to the fate of her own citizens, but she also presented a view of the terrorist threat that conveniently lifted any blame from the shoulders of the Gulf autocrats. It was in this that the propaganda purpose of such “fact-finding” trips to foreign states is most obvious.

Leslie blamed the “takfiri” ideology, which underpins Daesh and many other extreme Islamist groups, entirely on the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, which is problematic; Qutb wasn’t the “creator” of takfiri ideology (the denouncing of Muslims by other Muslims as “disbelievers”). To say that he was the “creator” would be to overlook a scholar who Leslie’s UAE hosts would probably prefer not to be mentioned in the British House of Commons; step forward Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

It was his followers who, upon his death, began the mainstreaming of the takfiri ideology, and it was his followers who, allied with the House of Saud, exported it more vigorously than Qutb could ever have hoped for. This industrial-scale exporting of Wahhabism was not just done for theological reasons, but also as a buffer to Iran and communism during the 1980s. It was done, therefore, for foreign policy reasons and more or less controlled by the House of Saud, the UAE’s closest ally.

Of course, woe betide any MP — especially a Conservative — who returns from a Gulf junket saying that the Saudi state brand of Islam, Wahhabism, or Saudi foreign policy might be in any way responsible for Daesh. The same goes for failed or failing economic policies practiced by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Leslie cited in her speech the Hedayah Centre, an extremism think tank funded by the UAE government which happens to disagree with the thesis linking poverty to extremism. The centre is not, as her “fact-finding” meeting had confirmed, interested in the economic failures that quite clearly exacerbate extremism; in fact, its corpus of research concludes that “to equate ending extremism with simply ending poverty is misleading and dangerous.”

While there are wealthy, extreme Islamists, the recruits for extremist groups, much like those of communists, socialists or fascists, tend to come from amongst the poor. This is also generally true for mainstream Islamist groups, including those in the UAE.

Looking at the number of foreign fighters in Daesh, there is, in fairness, an extremely small number from the tiny UAE itself. However, well-regarded former intelligence officials now believe that jihadist recruiters have become firmly focused on recruiting poorer young men than have traditionally been attracted to foreign jihad. This stands at complete odds with the message that Charlotte Leslie delivered in the Commons last week.

The UAE’s cleverly crafted communications strategy is insistent that neither the Wahhabis or internal economic strife have anything to do with the terrorism threat. For the UAE, it is as ever, a case of blaming the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, hence Leslie’s reference to Sayyid Qutb.

Misdirection complete, the objective of her junket fulfilled, Charlotte Leslie sat down and was congratulated politely by other MPs. The reputation of the United Arab Emirates shone through the murk. It is safe for the time being, but the cracks are beginning to show.


An edited version of this article was originally published on MEMO, Middle East Monitor.

 

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