Category Archives: Uncategorized

Lost Aragon Stories from the Resistance Currently Being Translated

I am working on three fascinating short stories by the great French writer, Louis Aragon, which were lost for many years, having been published cladestinely during the war under the pseudonym Saint Romain Arnaud. I found this little book in a junk shop in Paris (picture below).

The stories are about life under Nazi occupation: a bickering elderly couple are visited by a Gestapo search team;  a bored country priest becomes the unwitting accomplice to a resistance bomb plot; a sports journalist charts his own political journey via a decade of cycling events.

Witty and chilling at the same time, with an almost journalistic approach to narration, these stories are very unlike his surrealist writings.

Watch this space for availability via Thin Man Press and Kindle.

Major NPG Claude Cahun Show References my Translation of ‘Disavowals’

The ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which ends 29 May 2017, places Claude Cahun – whose most important literary work, ‘Disavowals’ I translated from French for Tate Publishing – alongside contemporary British artist, Gillian Wearing.

Both artists, born seventy years apart, deal with universal themes of identity, gender and notions of self-disclosure often via self-portraiture and masquerade.

It took me three years to translate Cahun’s complex and utterly unique work. I was commissioned by Professor Dawn Ades, who gave a very interesting talk about the exhibition (for which she wrote the catalogue introduction) at the NPG last week. I was in the audience, and in the course of the event, she frequently referenced my book and even waved it around so that the audience could see it!

I have to say that I am rather baffled that nobody from the NPG saw fit to invite me to participate in any of the events associated with the show; when Professor Ades talked about self-portraiture and the ambiguity surrounding the attribution of Cahun’s photographs (taken by her companion, Susanne Malherbe) I wanted to jump up and down and spout my theory about this which comes straight from the pages of the book. Ha!

Not wishing to appear bitter and twisted (B&T) allow me to recommend the show to you!

And the book!



Editing ‘American Porn’ by Heathcote Williams

I have to say that Heathcote Williams is an absolute joy to work with. We rushed out his book ‘American Porn’ to co-oncide with Donald Trump’s inauguration and he accepted all my editorial suggestions – even some quite radical ones – with incredible calm, charm and absence of ego.

Last month, Blackwell bookshop in Oxford, hosted an event to celebrate ‘Brexit Boris’ and ‘American Porn’. Williams, recovering from a serious bout of illness, gamely attended and the evening was a great success..

If you are interested in finding out more about the book, just click on the cover!

Translation of Peter Doherty’s book out in French Feb 2017

I very much enjoyed supervising the translation by talented Parisian poet/singer-songwriter, Thomas Baigneres, of Peter Doherty’s latest scribblings to be published by Le Castor Astrale in February 2017… somehow it’s even more intriguing, imaginative and pokey in French!!!

Congratulations to the team at Le Castor Astrale who have done a fantastic job and worked so hard to make this happen.

Click on the cover for more info:


Sally Beauman RIP

I was very sorry to hear of Sally Beauman’s untimely death. My interview with her for my Independent column was one of my favorite and most memorable. She was so articulate and bright and mesmerising…

One night, my dead mother rang me: Susan de Muth in bed with Sally Beauman

I  AM sometimes quite frightened of the dark and I really resent that. It seems to me that it’s a particularly female fear and very foolish.And yet I also love the night. I am fascinated by altered states of mind and particularly enjoy twilight. As light fades, every shape is open to a new interpretation and the imagination released from certitude.

I also love walking by starlight in the Cotswold village where we have a cottage. No human lights diminish the effect of the moon and stars, and sensing people asleep all around me is very peaceful. The only sound is my own footsteps and Lovell huffing and puffing now he’s gettting on a bit.

These contradictions in how I experience the night are, I think, very interesting and quite common. We are conditioned from early childhood, particularly by fairy tales, to regard the night as a very potent, usually threatening, presence. Later on, night becomes associated with romance, sex, magic and poetry.

I hardly ever work at night. I am very strict with myself and stop around 6pm, spending the evening winding down. When Alan’s performing he gets back very late, high on adrenalin, and that’s the time we finally get together. I’m usually exhausted, having been writing all day, but I drink black coffee and we go to bed ridiculously late.

I don’t often go to watch Alan in plays, though I’m always at his first nights. I identify with him immensely and feel frightened: I know the exact bits where he sometimes forgets the line or gets it slightly wrong; I know all the care and passion he’s put into it. Until quite recently I couldn’t get through a first night without rushing to the lavatory and being violently sick in the interval. Ridiculous] He’s always fine.

Our bedroom is like a uterus, a cloistered private space. It’s the only place in the house where I keep photographs. I don’t like them on public display. I find the way photos freeze time perturbing and see them as personal icons. When Alan’s away I particularly miss his warm physical closeness in bed. I like to put my cold feet on him to warm them up – even though it usually makes him angry]

I have to read for at least an hour before I go to sleep. This often helps me through an impasse I might be having with character or structure in my own writing. Even if what I’m reading is a completely different type of fiction I will wake up with problems mysteriously solved.

I often dream of the characters in my books. I always know who they are, though sometimes they look completely different from how I’ve described them. When that happens I realise there’s another aspect of that person I haven’t yet considered, and I’ll alter them as a result. This close relationship between dreams and fiction is wonderful for a writer.

I don’t think I’m ever in my dreams. I’m always observing – from where I don’t know. The strange, novelistic thing that sometimes happens is changing from being an exterior viewer to an interior viewer, like a narrator switching from third person to stream-of-consciousness. I don’t think it’s important to understand dreams. I prefer them to be mysterious and would never want mine analysed.

I am delighted when I dream of the deceased and wish it would happen to me more. The other night I dreamt extraordinarily vividly of my mother, who died nearly 20 years ago. At the end of the dream she went away somewhere and then telephoned me. I absolutely could hear the phone ring. I picked it up and heard her voice, at which point I woke up. This effect of this moving, indirect communication, stayed with me all through the next day.

I do enjoy sleep and it’s very comforting. I always sleep on any big decisions. You wake up distanced and can look at everything more sensibly. I’m not lazy like I used to be, however. It seems to me now that I spent half my life as a student at Cambridge asleep. I was so hedonistic in those days.

What changed me was having a baby. You suddenly become very aware of your own lifespan being limited and you want to use your time as well as possible. I’m quite terrified of being idle and wake up every morning at 6.30am. I creep down to the kitchen for my first shot of coffee and read poetry – good gymnastics for the mind.

I know that breakfast in bed and a good long lie-in would be the most wonderful sybaritic thing – but it’s simply no longer a possibility.

Sally Beauman is the author of several blockbuster novels. She lives in London with Alan Howard, the RSC actor, their 19-year-old son, James, and a large dog called Lovell.

Sally Beauman’s latest novel, ‘Lovers and Liars’, is published by Bantam at pounds 15.99.

Heathcote Williams’s Verbal Assault On Boris ‘Beast of Brexit’ Johnson

Thin Man Author Heathcote Williams Lambasts Boris Johnson ‘Beast Of Brexit’: Indie Review


Back with a vengeance: Heathcote Williams’s latest work is a lacerating attack on Boris Johnson
Heathcote Williams, for 50 years a scourge of the establishment, is making waves again. To literary acclaim, he has published a scathing attack on Boris Johnson. And the revolution (re)starts here, he tells his namesake Heathcote Ruthven

“Left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain.” These are the words of acclaimed journalist, former Major of London, and so-called “national treasure” Boris Johnson. How this casually offensive toff was ever considered loveable, let alone respectable, will be the wonder of future historians.

Meanwhile, it appals another old Etonian, Heathcote Williams, who has devoted much of his life to undermining an establishment that he knows first-hand – and not as a bien pensant bourgeois, but with real action and anger. A poet, playwright, squatter, magician and more, he has now focused all his fury and wit in a lacerating take-down of supposedly loveable Bojo.

The Beast of Brexit: a Study in Depravity is a pamphlet in the radical, Swiftean tradition of pamphleteering revitalised by Williams and his contemporaries in the Sixties – and still remarkably robust – and this 20,000-word collage of the most maniacal, hypocritical, and cruel things the former mayor has ever said or done makes for electrifying reading. It has even been declared “book off the week” by the influential London Review of Books.

Why? Because, although many of Johnson’s exploits are widely known, Williams has a poet’s ear for the damning and often neglected specifics. By the end of the diatribe, you can’t avoid the conclusion that Johnson is a terrifying sociopath. As for Brexit, that’s not really the issue in this slim volume; nor, says Williams, does Johnson really care about its likelihood. Bojo’s intention, he says, is only to “bounce his 17-stone self into Number 10 Downing Street”.

Here, we read of Journalist Johnson’s carelessness with the truth: from falsifying quotes by his godfather Professor Colin Lucas to sexing up a story about an archeological discovery, to inventing an EU plot to ban dipping bread in olive oil. We encounter his fair-weather loyalties: passionately supporting then-President George W Bush until it suited him to recast Dubya as “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy”.

Here we’re reminded of his cruelty towards women and the violence in his personal life. We observe his love of the super-rich, whom he once described as “a put-upon minority like Irish travellers and the homeless”.  And let’s not forget his friendship with the fraudster Darius Guppy. Would Boris get the address of a prying journalist, so that Guppy could have him beaten up? Sure, said Johnson.

None of which may have much bearing on the future of our pensions or the straightness of bananas. But then, the book’s title – or its first half, at least – is just a peg, conveniently provided by West End, his German publisher. Four years ago, to coincide with the Queen’s visit to Berlin, it published in translation his last major essay, an anti-monarchist polemic called Royal Babylon. “And for that,” Williams says down the phone from Oxford, “I felt a certain obligation to do something specifically for them. But then they asked me to write about the referendum! The idea of writing anything about Europe and Brexit filled me with an earthquake of a yawn.”

Williams’s speech is littered with dramatic turns of phrase, his (now raspy) voice precise in its pronunciation, as he describes how he managed to make the political personal. “The poet Niall McDevitt turned me on to an impending attack”, signed off by Johnson while he was still mayor – namely, the desecration of Bunhill Fields in the City of London; now a public garden, once a burial ground and still the resting place of the visionary William Blake, the patron saint of the English mystic tradition.

“He essentially wants to surround them with these venal tower blocks filled with City slickers, casting a shadow on the anti-materialistic Blake. That really got my goat. It was a step too far,” says Williams. “There’s a German word for people like Johnson: Backpfeifengesicht. It means ‘a face that needs to be punched’.”

Boris Johnson’s sole aim is to become Prime Minister, according to Williams (PA)

As this point, I must admit a complicated relationship with my subject. Although friends with my grandfather, there was no family connection. I was named, if you like, in tribute, after my mother was deeply moved by Williams’s 1988 Whale Nation – a disorientating paean to the largest mammal on earth, and aching reflection on the destructiveness of humanity. I didn’t meet him until later in life, but was reminded of his existence almost daily by people asking: “Where’s that funny name from, then?” There was never a shortage of material with which to answer.

In 1964, the 23 year-old Williams published The Speakers, a surreal ethnography of London’s most famous public ranting spot, Speakers’ Corner. It earned praise from Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Harold Pinter (the last of whom wrote: “These are the only people I’d ever want to listen to”). Pinter commissioned him to write a short play, which was to become The Local Stigmatic, later made into a film by Al Pacino, and recently revived at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London for its 50th anniversary.

His first full length play AC/DC premiered at the Royal Court in 1969 and elaborated on its predecessor’s theme of the grotesque inequalities caused by celebrity culture. (“Part comedy, part visionary tract, part psychedelic nightmare,” wrote The Guardian’s reviewer.) Many more gems were to follow, including the poignant Hancock’s Last Half Hour, and there was always a flow of pamphlets, poetry and manifestoes.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Williams furiously involved himself in London’s counterculture – on which he left an indelible mark – and his experiments with alternative lifestyle were just as important as his writing, at least in terms of reputation. He was obsessed with magic, and briefly a member of the Magic Circle. (“I think it’s just breaking rules, really,” he says. “Magic gives the illusion of breaking rules, about gravity, about time, about place.”) And in the first-ever London Review of Books, Francis Wyndham wrote “The Magic of Heathcote Williams”, a piece that hailed him as “a kind of Prospero to the alternative society”.

“He is drawn to overstatement by a genuine indignation mixed with a teasing sense of farce,” continued Wyndham. “He celebrates the irrational in a facetiously punning language with evangelical and apocalyptic overtones.” Williams’s domain was Notting Hill, which was liberally daubed in the poetic graffiti of his milieu. “Squat now while stocks last”, “words do not mean anything today” and “housing is a right, freedom is a career” are some choice classics.

He worked intermittently and chaotically on different magazines: the literary journal Transatlantic Review, the radical vegetarian magazine Seed, and animal rights magazine The Beast (“the magazine that bites back”). Along with Germaine Greer and others, he founded Suck – the first European “sexual liberation” paper – before going on to establish “the independent state of Frestonia”, a squatted neighbourhood in West London’s Latimer Road.

Frestonia applied for a tank from the UN in order to defend itself from the local council. “It was a ploy really,” he says. “We had our own passports, our own stamps. The idea was to firewall these streets with so much publicity – à la the Ealong comedy Passport to Pimlico – that they would have to give us concessions. And it worked. A lot of people got social housing out of it.” Meanwhile, they had their own ministers and passports; walls were knocked down to make the back gardens collective; they took over a defunct local hall and turned it into their own national theatre. “In a way, I suppose that was a Brexit of sorts. That’s the kind I would like, not that of Boris Johnson.”

In the mid-1970s, Williams spent two and a half years running the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency. They would crack empty buildings, change the locks and give the keys to anybody in need of a house. It has been estimated by Tony Allen, the “father of alternative comedy”, that the agency was responsible for housing thousands of people (including a young Joe Strummer). After market days, leftover vegetables would be collected in a cauldron and served as Rubbish Risotto or Portobello Soup. “We were seeing people whose homelessness had caused other dark conditions. Somebody knifed me in the stomach for no reason at all. It was quite hairy sometimes.”

It was rumoured that the police were gathering evidence and intending to charge Williams with whatever they could in order to send him to prison. Mindful of the heat, he got out of town and in the next two decades wrote his best known works, a trilogy of richly illustrated book-length poems on environmental themes. After Whale Nation came its elephant equivalent, Sacred Elephant (1989), and then Autogeddon (1991), a Ballardian reflection on how cars are taking over the planet:

If an alien was to hover a few hundred yards above the planet

It could be forgiven for thinking

That cars were the dominant life-form,

And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:

Injected when the car wished to move off,

And ejected when they were spent.

The following 20 years passed more or less in obscurity and illness. “I wasn’t just lying around” he says, slightly defensively, “I was painting and writing. I campaigned to save Jericho Boatyard in Oxford from property developers.”

More recently, he helped to re-launch the International Times (founded 1966), both online and as a print publication that has so far run to three issues. And in the renaissance editorial, he invoked a spirit that has as much relevance to many young people now as it did nearly 50 years ago:

“One minute IT was a soggy-brained psychedelic hippy, the next a member of the Red Army Faction. It was a paper that endorsed squatting while the entire UK mainstream media liberal ‘lifestyle’ papers such as The Guardian were petrified by it and demonised it. The hidebound Marxist Left regarded IT and all it stood for as hedonist adventurism. So it was. And is. And much besides.”

But now Williams has come out of hiding, what’s next for the croaking old sage? “I’m working on too many things to mention, actually. My head is littered with unfinished stuff. I prefer talking about things when they’re cooked.”

Heathcote Williams’s pamphlet ‘Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit A Study in Depravity’ is available from the London Review of Books bookshop for £7.99, tel: 0207 269 9030

A Strange Tale


Jesus Hawthorn

A little Hawthorn bush has appeared in the sinister vale of Visnar

Our dear friend Jesus Arias, writer, musician, composer and doyen of Granada, Andalucia, died earlier in the year. He was still young with much ahead of him. Pneumonia swept him away as he slept.

His brothers buried his ashes in that terrible wooded vale just outside Visnar where thousands of men, women and children were shot dead during the Spanish civil war and buried in mass graves… among them Federico Garcia Lorca.

Jesus once went to Visnar with a spade, copious amounts of weed and Joe Strummer, on a quest to discover the actual resting place of Granada’s great poet.

They gave up on digging after a while but smoked so much pot that they felt they were communicating with Lorca and, as Jesus loved to relate, Joe announced, ‘This is a bad place, man, I can  feel it’.

There is a square named after Joe Strummer in Granada. Well a square-let, actually, Placeta Joe Strummer.

Jesus loved Lorca and his brothers felt he would like to share this cold earth with his hero and dug a hole in the shade of a large tree and placed his ashes there with tender remembrance.

Jesus’s brother Jose took us to visit and remember Jesus. As you leave the village of Visnar, the small white road snakes between increasingly obscure hills. Even this road is indescribably sinister and you can easily imagine military trucks packed with victims rattling along it, drawing to a slow stop at the place of execution.

Even though it was a sunny Spanish day it was deadly cold as we walked through the trees. The earth itself was thick and cold and lifeless. I caught a chill from that place and was ill for a while.

But… in the very spot where the Arias brothers had placed Jesus’s ashes, a plant had taken root and was now thriving. Fresh and green, it was a hawthorn. It seemed miraculous that this cold earth and this spot overshadowed by a tree could produce this little bush.

Later, we would discover that Hawthorn is not only the symbol of creativity (which Jesus had in abundance) but is the very plant from which Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns was fashioned. Is it fanciful to consider this as a message from Jesus, a poetic gesture from beyond the grave?

Non-violence and education: the legacy of Badshah Khan

Published in Open Democracy e-zine

Susan de Muth 29 January 2016

The legacy of this hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism is especially relevant today in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.

Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Last Wednesday’s massacre at the Badshah Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar in Pakistan, is the latest in a long list of attacks on the country’s educational institutions and poignantly underscores the ideological polarisation that lies at the heart of the Taliban’s ‘war on education’ and their threats this week of more attacks to come.

Like many westerners, I had never heard of the university’s namesake, Abdel Gaffar Badshah Khan (1890 – 1988), until last July when I published an ‘investigative poem’ about him by Heathcote Williams.

I was to discover that, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Khan is a legendary figure – a Muslim hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism and, with his friend and comrade Mahatma Gandhi, a vigorous opponent of the sectarian hatred and violence which continues to this day. Khan was to establish a 100,000-strong “unarmed army” of male and female “peace warriors” – a unique event in human history.

Khan was also a great believer in the power of education and, in an improbably progressive gesture, founded a girls’ school in Utmanzai in 1910 when he was only 20 years old. “If you wish to know how civilized a culture is,” Williams reports him as saying, “look at how they treat their women”. Williams relates how Khan urged women to come out from behind the veil:

My sisters, you are today oppressed because men/ Have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet./ In the Holy Qur’an you have an equal share with men./ If you study history you will see that there are/ Many scholars and poets among women./ Today we are the followers of custom/ And we oppress you./ It is a grave mistake we have made in degrading women…

How different this message is to that of the Pakistani Taliban who ordered every girls’ school in the Swat valley to close when they seized control of the area in 2009. Declaring education to be the “nursery of the evil, democratic system”, the group attacked 838 schools between 2009-2012, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Violence against scholars has continued with the December 2014 massacre of 132 school children at their desks at the Army School in Peshawar, and last week’s rampage at the university which cost at least 50 students and teachers their lives.

He was repeatedly jailed and tortured but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance.

Badshah Khan’s legacy as a champion of education – as well as non-violence – continues to inspire new generations of the region’s Muslims and informed the foundation of the Badshah Khan Educational Trust in Peshawar in 2007 and the university in 2012.

Addressing the UN in 2013, Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, cited Badshah Khan, along with Gandhi and Mother Theresa, as the source of her beliefs and sense of mission. “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” Malala said. “The power of education frightens them.”

Last summer, I spoke to the Badshah Khan Educational Trust’s director, Khadim Hussein, to discuss the possibility of a translation of Williams’s poem. He was full of joy and enthusiasm as he described the trust’s rapid expansion from just two schools to twelve. With the media full of the ultra-violent Islamic State’s declaration of a ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, and sectarian warfare tearing the region apart, he expressed his delight that Williams’s poem would remind readers that Islam is not synonymous with extremism and barbarity. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are appalled by the extremists’ savagery.

This week, Hussein was in deep shock after the “horrible wickedness” that stole so many young lives and sought to destroy the hope and ambition of Pakistan’s 27 million school age children. He commented on the dreadful paradox that “this violence that has been perpetrated on the land of the icon of non-violence, Badshah Khan” but remained quietly defiant: “Nobody can move us one inch by any kind of violent act from the ideals and practice of non-violence,” he said.

First the British colonialists and, after partition, the Pakistani government realised the power of Badshah Khan’s belief, shared by Gandhi, that “anger controlled/ Can be transmuted into a power/Which can move the world.” On one occasion, Khan’s unarmed ‘peace army’ was attacked by British soldiers during a demonstration, resulting in 400 deaths but they did not disband. Khan himself was repeatedly jailed and tortured – the last time at the age of 95 – but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance. “The finest weapons of the Prophet,” Williams reports Khan as saying, “are patience and righteousness”.

It is this kind of courage in the face of persecution, this simple belief in a just cause, that, one hopes, will ultimately prevail as the brave educators and students of Peshawar resume ‘business as usual’.

As Badshah Khan always used to say at the end of his speeches to the hundreds of thousands who flocked to hear him: “Stre mashe – may you never grow tired.”

Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior by Heathcote Williams is published by Thin Man Press and is available from all good bookshops and online ISBN 978-0-9930141-2-3

KSA-Iran Stand-Off: Economic Implications

[For Turkish magazine Derinekonomi]

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are ringing alarm bells, not only because of the increased risk of sectarian war in the Middle East but because of the wider political and financial ramifications.

The Saudi economy is already struggling under the unprecedented drop in the price of oil, the proxy war it is waging in Syria, and the actual military intervention it launched in Yemen ten months ago under the moniker ‘Operation Decisive Storm’.

All of the above have their roots in the Sunni kingdom’s rivalry with Shiite Iran which is essentially sectarian and has its roots (in modern times at least) in the 1979 Islamic revolution which deposed the Shah and struck dread into the hearts of the Saudi royal family, which feared it may suffer a similar fate.

The drop in oil prices to a record $30 per barrel (it peaked at $145 in 2008) is largely due to Saudi pressure on Opec members not to apply the agreed ceiling on oil production. Riyadh’s intentions were, apparently, political and designed to damage the Iranian and Russian economies; both are oil-rich enemies (Russia backs Iran and Syrian President Assad, also Shiite, from the Alawite branch) and both under sanctions. Many Opec members (including KSA) are suffering as a result – 2016 budgets were conceived with a projected oil price in mind: for Libya this was a wildly off the mark $208 per barrel, KSA $96, Ian $70.

Saudi planners clearly did not expect its ‘oil war’ to last as long as it has. Nor did it factor in the rapprochement between the US and Iran which saw the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed in July 2015. To date, Tehran has been complying with the nuclear limitation terms and all UN, US and EU sanctions are due to be lifted in early 2016 at which point, Tehran has signalled, it will immediately boost oil production which has been running at half its capacity for nine years.

Behind the West’s new deal with Iran is the search for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Russian President Putin has taken the diplomatic lead here and convinced the major powers that without Iran (which supports the Assad regime, whereas the Saudis insist he is removed) negotiations will have no chance of success.

Diminished oil revenues are by no means the only drain on the Saudi economy. The kingdom has been leading the coalition bombarding southern neighbour, Yemen, for the past ten months at a cost of at least $60 billion. The ongoing offensive is the initiative of the recently appointed Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Sultan, 30, the son of King Salman whom many believe to be the power behind the throne. Prince Mohammad believed the war – designed to destroy the Iran-backed Houthi rebel brigades who have unseated the legitimate (Sunni/Riyadh friendly) President Hadi – would last no more than ten days and does not appear to have a Plan B or an exit strategy. Meanwhile, an estimated 3000 Yemeni non-combatants have been killed, half of them children.

The oil-dependent kingdom is running out of funds and has started dipping into its savings to meet ongoing costs – it has already sold most of its European currency reserves.

At the end of 2015, the IMF warned that Saudi Arabia would go bankrupt within five years if it does not change its economic policy.

Meanwhile, Iran can see the light at the end of the austerity tunnel and its economy is growing again after a 6.6% contraction in 2012. Post-sanctions it will expand existing oil contracts and has been courting new business, worth $30 billion, from global players such as BP, Shell, Total, Statoil and Sinopec.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Iranian economy is relatively diversified, and with 80 million people it is the 17th largest market in the world. Tehran is currently awash with high profile Western business people seeking new opportunities in a variety of fields from technology to education; former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder led a German delegation at the beginning of January.

Tehran’s five year plan projects 8% growth and, so long as Tehran does not renege on its nuclear commitments, the World Bank agrees, forecasting 5.8% growth in 2016 and 6.75% in 2017. Several commentators compare Iran’s potential to Turkey’s economic miracle at the last part of 1990s.

The region’s main financial worry remains Saudi intransigence with the financial press suggesting that prices could tumble to just $10 per barrel.

The Kingdom appears to be standing firm despite its alarming 15% deficit in 2015. The budget for 2016 includes cuts in public subsidies for fuel, electricity and water. Prince Salman outlined drastic ideas for a short-term solution to his country’s fiscal woes in an interview with The Economist in early January. These include floating the state-owned Saudi Aramco, the world’s most expensive company valued between $1-$3 trillion.

The Western corporate press has embraced this Thatcherite project with Forbes magazine calling it a ‘mini revolution’ which will see Saudi Arabia ‘emerge as the leader of the Middle East’. Others foresee civil unrest: the region’s autocratic regimes are largely tolerated because of an unspoken contract between government and people that the nation’s resources belong to everyone and are shared (however unequally).

There are ramifications abroad too. Saudi Arabia’s influence regionally, as well as internationally, has largely depended on its oil wealth. Egypt, in particular, will be hard hit by any Saudi belt-tightening – the military regime has benefitted from $ billions to keep it afloat after years of war and instability.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia ramped up the stakes in early January when it decided to behead controversial Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The riots in Tehran that followed saw the Saudi Embassy set ablaze and Riyadh severing all diplomatic ties. The headstrong Prince Mohammad is now adopting George W. Bush’s stance that ‘who is not with us is against us’, apparently challenging the West to choose between KSA and Iran.

The West would do well to avoid siding with either rival, seeking, instead, to broker peace… preferably via the mediation of a regional, neutral player, such as Oman.

Anything else risks a region-wide meltdown in the flames of sectarian hatred.


New article on Open Democracy about Saudi Prince ‘Reckless’

The reckless power behind the throne

King Salman’s son Mohammad seems to be piloting Saudi Arabia into a series of ever more risky adventures.

                                                        Wikimedia/July 07, 2015. Public Domain.

In the past year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has abandoned the cautious fence-sitting that long characterised its diplomatic style in favour of an unprecedented, hawkish antagonism. That this transformation coincides with the meteoric rise of a previously little known prince – 30 year-old Mohammad bin Salman – is no accident; it seems that the prince is now the power behind the throne.

Since the death of the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, in 1953, the kingdom has been ruled by an increasingly elderly succession of six of his 45 sons; the last incumbent, Abdullah, died last January aged 90 and was replaced by the present king, Salman, who is 81 and rumoured to be suffering from dementia. The youthful, sabre-rattling Prince Mohammad, insiders say, is Salman’s favourite son by his third and favourite wife, Fahda.

Salman has one remaining brother – 75 year-old Muqrin – who would normally have been next in line for the throne. Whether alone, or at the instigation of others, Salman removed Muqrin from the succession three months after he became king. Prince Mohammad now moved up the line of succession to become ‘deputy Crown Prince’, with only his 56 year-old cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef between him and the throne.

King Salman then bestowed an astonishing array of portfolios and titles on his inexperienced son, making him Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister – the very same posts Salman himself occupied prior to inheriting the throne – as well as head of the Economic Guidance Council and Chief of the Royal Court. Within weeks, bin Nayef’s court was merged with the Royal Court, now supervised by Prince Mohammad, and one of his closest advisers was removed from the ruling cabinet.

No wonder Prince Mohammad feels mandated to pilot the kingdom into a series of ever more risky adventures, earning himself the unofficial nickname ‘Reckless’ and unfavourable comparisons with his highly intelligent half-brother, 56 year-old Prince Sultan bin Salman, who became the first Arab astronaut in 1986 and is currently languishing in obscurity as head of the Saudi Tourist Board.

At the heart of all Sunni Saudi Arabia’s current woes is its longstanding sectarian and political rivalry with the Shi’a republic of Iran. The toppling of the Shah by the 1979 Islamic revolution struck fear into the Saudi royals’ hearts and consolidated Riyadh’s political and military dependence on the west.

Just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong.

Until very recently, Iran was isolated and under heavy sanctions, the bête noire of the west, harbouring nuclear ambitions and an aggressive attitude towards ‘the great Satan’, America, and its client state, Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia could do no wrong – despite its appalling human rights record, oppression of women and rampant corruption. Pliable and passive in its regional politics, Washington’s willing ally eagerly swapped billions of petro-dollars for sophisticated military hardware, aircraft and weapons. Margaret Thatcher had a special department for pushing through the al-Yamamah arms deal which involved record amounts of dollars and corruption. This ‘special relationship’ endured: the flag over Buckingham Palace flew at half-mast when King Abdullah passed on in January last year and David Cameron, Barack Obama and François Hollande were among many world leaders who travelled to Riyadh for the late monarch’s memorial.

But just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong for the desert kingdom.

First, the west suddenly woke up to how deeply entrenched the Islamic State (IS) had become on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as it set about building its ‘Caliphate’; this problem now replaced the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as regional priority number one. Before this complication, alignment in Syria had been relatively simple and along sectarian fault lines: the Alawite (a branch of Shi’ism) Assad regime was backed by Iran, Iraq, Russia and China, while the mainly Sunni opposition was championed by Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states, Turkey, the US, UK and several European countries.

Recognising the growing predominance of Islamic extremists within the opposition (a situation actively fostered by Saudi Arabia) the west now preferred a political solution to the Syrian civil war and reluctantly conceded – largely under Russian pressure – that this could not be achieved without Iran. Furthermore, it looked increasingly likely that IS could not be defeated without the co-operation of the Syrian army, transforming Assad – temporarily at least – from the problem to part of the solution.

To the dismay of the Saudis, Washington began to court Tehran, creating a vehicle for rapprochement by bump-starting the nuclear limitation agreement which had been stalled for thirteen years but now accelerated to the finishing line in a matter of months. Concluded in July, it was finally signed by President Obama in October last year and Tehran was invited to the Vienna conference on Syria the same month. In addition, Iranian assets were unfrozen and sanctions lifted.

Not only did the Saudis feel betrayed, but they now faced another problem as a result. Since November 2014, they had been exerting their considerable influence on OPEC to keep pumping oil at levels above the agreed ceiling, despite falling prices. Ostensibly aimed at pricing the American fracking industry out of the market, it was also political, intended to harm the economies of oil-rich Iran and Russia – both under international sanctions at the time. Tehran now called Saudi Arabia’s bluff, announcing that as soon as sanctions were lifted it would pump a million extra barrels a day. Suddenly the tables were turned and it was the Saudi economy that was at risk, with the IMF warning in October 2015 that the nation would bankrupt itself within five years – despite its gargantuan sovereign funds ­– if it did not reverse its policy.

Nor is this the only drain on Saudi finances. Since March it has been bombarding the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, presumably at the instigation of Prince Mohammad (with his defence minister hat on). Saudi Arabia has no history or experience of unilateral armed intervention – it sent 3,000 soldiers to each of the major Arab-Israeli wars and a few more to the first Gulf War – yet the prince believed that the Houthis would be defeated in a matter of days. Ten months on, with no plan B and no exit strategy, nothing has been achieved but the devastation of the poorest country in the Middle East and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Analysts estimate that the financial cost of this adventure has already topped $60 billion. With oil revenues at rock bottom, the Saudi treasury has sold billions of dollars’ worth of European stocks to meet the ongoing costs of this unwinnable war.

The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all?

Things took an even more hawkish turn last week when the Saudi regime took the decision to behead a well-known dissident Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. There were riots in Tehran where the Saudi Embassy was set on fire; Riyadh immediately cut all diplomatic ties with Iran and shortly afterwards a Saudi airstrike damaged the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. The resulting tension has sent shock-waves through the region, with many fearing a war between the two powers as the Saudis seek to enlist the support of fellow Sunni nations.

With the headstrong Prince Mohammad at the helm, backing down does not appear to be an option… and if the war-chest runs out, contingencies are in place. In an interview last week with The Economist, Prince Mohammad revealed a plan to float Aramco – the trillion dollar nationalised oil company and the country’s most valuable asset – on the international markets and sell billions worth of nationally-owned prime land for private development. In addition, subsidies for the needy will be slashed and the education and healthcare systems privatised, putting them out of reach for the poorest members of society.

In Gulf countries, autocratic systems are generally tolerated due to an unspoken contract between government and the people that everyone benefits from the nation’s wealth (albeit extremely unequally); Prince Mohammad’s Thatcherite vision, if implemented, risks widespread civil unrest. In addition, the restive Shi’a population in the east is sitting on top of the country’s largest oil fields and distribution centres.

Saudi influence abroad has always been predicated on its wealth and can be expected to diminish along with its coffers. Nevertheless, Prince Mohammad adopted the diplomatic style of George W. Bush in his search for allies: ‘Who’s not with us is against us’. The right wing press has apparently already made its decision: the Daily Telegraph declared that “Britain Must Side With Saudi Arabia”, while Roger Boyes in The Times opined “execution by sword is brutal but Riyadh remains our best hope for peace in the Middle East”… well that’s not what they say about the Islamic State. In fact, the past year saw a record number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia and 157 executions in all.

None of this is to say that Iran is any better – both theocracies are intolerant, oppressive and cruel. The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all? Shouldn’t Britain and America, supposedly ‘developed’ countries claiming to be beacons of progress and democracy, be brokering the rapprochement between these two extremist regimes that is key to regional peace, and a political solution to the Syrian crisis? Shouldn’t the west be exercising the undoubted influence it still possesses in the Royal Palace to urge more caution, more debate?

If the west persists, instead, in following a deluded prince into an unwinnable battle against a fabricated monster, it might as well champion Don Quixote tilting at windmills and declaring “a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless”.