The Sport of Kings
The headlines are banal: A United Arab Emirates jet with a Manchester City Football Club logo lands in Khartoum. The owner of Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour, is cousin to Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan who wants to buy Newcastle United Football Club. According to Al-Jazeera, Emirati officials seek a deal for the supply of mercenaries, bodies, for General Khalifa Haftar’s team in warring Libya. General Haftar passed thru military training in Russia in the seventies, was captured in the war with Chad in the eighties and lived in a big house by a golf course in Northern Virginia in the noughties.
Behind the headlines? For many years white coated operatives in Basingstoke have shipped smart ammo via oil slick states into sandy wastes their grandfathers fought over — full of binge in General Bernard Montgomery’s curious expression. Those god-forsaken red-eyed Desert Rats would gulp to see corpse robbers and sister sellers setting up straight from the box weapons and conjuring up blood-based fighting combinations on their iphones. On Saturday nights (if he buys the Club) Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan, sat on the sheikly sofa scoffing crisps will have a choice of watch my team: the live feed of the Toon’s frizzy haired wonder boys or the gore-tex stream from embedded gopros rushing in to kill at Watiya airbase. Goal!
Spool back to 2014 when, after a quarrel over constitutional amendments, the Libyan House of Representatives established a rival parliament in Tobruk, controlled by General Haftar’s forces. Think of the French Deputies at Bordeaux in 1940 if they had rejected Petain and had De Gaulle lead them into fighting exile in North Africa. Amongst those left behind were the Islamists. Sadiq Ghariani the Grand Mufti of Libya has issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to defeat Haftar. The previous government reconvened as a General National Congress (GNC) and voted Tripoli their capital. Backed by the UN they rely on Turkey Qatar and Italy. This team, a western-style pasteboard government, runs with the stale old motto Operation Volcano of Rage. Ex-Gaddafi soldier Haftar enjoys the support of Egypt, UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France. Over six thousand tons of arms have been supplied by UAE to Haftar this year. Continental Europeans watch with interest the semi-final line up: France with Russia’s Wagner Group (retired Russian servicemen — dream on ye squaddies — plumped out with ex-Syrian rebels) against Italy and Turkey. Note that old Libya hands Italy and Turkey play on the same side. They have history, in July 1911 Italy bombarded Tripoli and Turkey lost control of its last African territory.
Proxy war. The hope had once been football as a proxy for war, now it turns out the other way round, war as a proxy for football generated by fratricidal fuzzie-wuzzies in the sand-pit regions of the world with (thought but not said) …their absurd costumes and disgusting religion. Children who want big toys. Dip into a UK diplomatic pouch of yesteryear,
“…Zaid’s two sons Khalifa and Sultan are divided. Khalifa prefers our Hawk, Sultan the French aeroplane. The two are rivals and each maintains his own arms purchasing organisation. I do not see why we should be coy and take comfort that Zaid loves us the best while he gives the French the business. Faisal Bin Sultan the Rolls Royce local agent told us that Rolls Royce had jibbed at allowing him the necessary funds to ensure favourable consideration…”
Why not? Altho it comes a bit hard to imagine a Rolls Royce that jibbed. In these deadly games the Foreign and Commonwealth office acts under the slogan: the world is what it is, delicate negotiations with floating armouries operating out of Sri Lanka are carried out via screens of private security firms. England’s clever blend of State soft power and blind eye piracy makes it apt for the sort of five dimensional juggling required: military, political, technological, financial and regal, for sometimes it is sovereign to sovereign — kiss my KCB. And always the ambiguous attitude towards the US of A, the bully on the block.
The original infatuation of the Englishman for the Arab came about thru easy access to the sort of sex they had become used to at their public schools. This then became overlaid with the lust for oil, in which the Americans joined. The love affair with the dashing, impetuous skirt-clad Arab carries on under the discreet tailoring of arms trade executives and Whitehall warriors. This curious construct has endured and dominated, made a slave of, western society. In 1973 after the impertinence of the oil price hike there were whispers of military action to seize Middle Eastern oil-fields. Lord Cromer, UK Ambassador to the USA reported that discussion with Secretary of Defence Schlesinger led him to feel,
“…it was no longer obvious to him that the USA would not use force…”
Prime Minister Heath ordered intelligence to look closer at USA intentions. The spooks told him,
“…the Americans might consider it could not tolerate a situation in which they and their allies were at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries and would prefer a rapid operation to seize oil-fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and possibly Abu Dhabi if military action was decided… …the occupation would need to last ten years as the West developed alternative energy sources, and would result in the total alienation of the Arabs and much of the rest of the Third World…”
What a pity we didn’t develop those alternative sources anyway.
Whatever shape external States want to squeeze the land into, tribal ways remain. Overseas rule can never get into the grit and grain of local power. Here (abridged) is their narrative from 2014,
“…Libya has been a thorn in the side of the One World Order devils since we ousted King Idris 1969. The Libyan People flourished — no debt and more than five hundred billions of dollars of reserves. The bombing force of NATO, Al Qaeda mercenaries and radical Islamists overthrew the few million Legitimate Libya citizens. Now Libya is a failed state. No rule of law and no hope in sight. We are the Proud and Brave People of Libya, and we The Tribes of Libya represent 98% of all the Libyans Worldwide and want nothing from your Kind…”
Deborah Jones, USA ambassador to Libya in 2015 saw it like this,
“…Libya is a strategic gold-mine. Rich in natural resources and only a few million Libyans to deal with. They are incapable of running their own country, only simple tasks can be completed by the Libyans…”
She cited the drawing up of a budget as something beyond them. It seems that a difference in value systems is discounted as decoration. I see a friendly US cavalry officer sitting on a stool and trying to explain to a Cherokee the eternal principles behind interest and loans. Limited view.
It took twenty years for the Italians to pacify the interior after their bombardement of Tripoli in 1911. Wheat was the lure. Today it is oil. Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) has okayed the purchase by France’s Total of a stake in the field at Waha. Total say they will invest six hundred and fifty million dollars. NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla is,
“…pleased to report that NOC approves this deal for the investment and a one hundred and fifty million signing bonus to be paid by Total and allocated to corporate social responsibility…”
Corporate social responsibility is the new beast on the scene. It is a way of passing money thru as many hands as possible before it disappears. A recent guide my italics puts it this way,
“…our world, the people and organisations in it are becoming ever more interconnected and CSR is a way to actively manage those connections to benefit a company as well as those people, organisations and communities your are connected to via what you sell, who you hire, who you buy from and so on…”
For poor but smart people daily necessities are come by in all sorts of ways, money is privileged as a way of influencing people. When the EU sent more than three hundred and sixty nine million euros to Libya through UN agencies Libyans were quick to set up mechanisms to actively manage the money. I once made a lobster trap from string designed to trick rich car owners into paying me for privileged access when I parked cars at Ascot races. The same inventiveness recycles migrants between detention centres, rubber boats and coast guard launches, one of Haftar’s strategic levers being the manipulation of profitable pressure by sub-Saharan migrants on States across the water. Associated Press reports that one coast guard unit is run by Abdel-Rahman Milad, sanctioned by the UN for human trafficking. When his men intercept migrants it is UN staff who tick the medical check boxes. Milad denies any links to human smuggling saying,
“… you know, what I think happened is those traffickers wear uniforms similar to the ones my men have…”
(No doubt, the comfortable westerner sneers, from the same diverted container). To clean up the migrant detention centres the UN launched Gathering and Departure Facilities (GDF). It was a windfall for those who muscled the service contracts. Millions of euros for food and aid went to a company owned by al-Khoja, deputy head of the Libyan detention center agency. An anonymised official said that al-Khoja had used sections of the GDF building to train his militia fighters and fit out the usual bad taste luxury apartment,
“… we feel like this is al-Khoja’s fiefdom. He controls everything. He shuts the doors and he opens the doors…”
People from the west (or Five Eyes as it likes to be known) can’t get their heads round this texture. They can’t imagine a world where the only higher authority to appeal to is three blocks down the road but check with Ali first if it’s safe. The international spaceships beaming down goodwill, cowardly benevolence, hi-tech arms, pasteboard politicians all at the same time don’t convince the people on the street. Maybe we should listen more carefully and not talk so much. As the higher managerial functions of States become more amenable to silent and deep running computers — and their servants displaced — street life or local life will become an affair requiring more skill. The new Covid-19 protocols are just a foretaste — already the UK police are confused, their authority diminished. A tribe of protesters against the health restrictions has started to form. Differing from them, perhaps, is a British Common Sense tribe, the latest flag to be flourished. Who does anyone now owe allegiance to and how to be sure of it?
Some of you may remember the battles between Mods on scooters and Rockers on motorbikes at the seaside in the 1960’s. This tribalism lived on underground in myth but has now burst out, armed with social media super competence on the streets of London. Groups of Rockers, standing for rectitude and respect for property, have taken on the job that Plod is too paper-bound to do and are hounding the Mod pests who steal and thug in the postcode jungle. There is hope. They are not quite up to Libyan standards but British youth without the benefit of private education, black and white, is getting there. Their unofficial chief is a suspiciously Libyan looking bright North Londoner. Go find him under the rubric HandMuffWarrior. Pass me the woad, Alice — welcome to Tribal Britain.