Prince begins royal solidarity tour

Prince Charles – heir to the British throne – is due to arrive in the Middle East on Monday for a nine-day "goodwill" visit to Arab monarchies. His tour will take in Jordan, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

These trips, which happen every few years, are usually a cue for the British media's royalty specialists to slip into full orientalist mode – so stand by for reports mentioning camels, the slaughtering of sheep and feasting in desert tents.

Since Charles will be accompanied by his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, there is also the inevitable hijab question, which at least helps to keep photographers employed. Royals, of course, are perfectly accustomed to dressing up in outlandish clothes, so I wouldn't have thought that adding a modest abaya or two to Camilla's wardrobe would be any big deal – though it seems that won't be necessary.

Ephraim Hardcastle in the Daily Mail reports:

"The Duchess of Cornwall won't have to wear abayas – full-length robes, required for women under Islamic law – during her visit with the Prince of Wales to Saudi Arabia ... As a visiting VIP, she has secured an exemption."

But Hardcastle continues, rather grumpily:

"Not so the female journalists who'll accompany them. They'll have to cover themselves from head to toe. My source says: 'This'll tickle Camilla no end'." 

Dressed to please: Charles and Camilla on an earlier trip to Egypt

According to a statement from Clarence House, the prince's residence, Charles and Camilla are not simply renewing their "close personal friendship" with Arab royalty. It's an official visit requested and largely organised by the British government for political (and economic and military) purposes. So let's look at the politics of it.

The good part is that it doesn't include Bahrain where continued repression is straining the kingdom's historically close ties with Britain. Under present circumstances a visit to King Hamad would certainly have been contentious.

But what of the countries that Charles and Camilla will be visiting? Questions can always be raised about such trips – and rightly so – on human rights or feminist grounds (see Catherine Bennett's article in today's Observer). The counter-argument is that dialogue is beneficial and trips can be used to gently nudge oppressive regimes in the right direction – though the nudging is often so gentle as to be virtually imperceptible.

That is one problem with the latest royal tour but there is also something much more fundamental. Charles and Camilla's last official visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2006, and a lot has changed since then. Seven years ago, public criticism of the way the Saudi royals conduct themselves came mainly from westerners or dissidents outside the kingdom. Today there is a new dynamic: pressure for change is growing inside Saudi Arabia – as it is in the other countries the royal couple will be visiting.

Across the Arab region monarchies are beginning to feel the heat from their own people and are responding in ways that don't augur well for their long-term future. Regardless of all the guff about friendship between nations, a visit at this juncture by the heir to the British throne sends out entirely the wrong message: to Arabs seeking change in their countries it will look suspiciously like a royal solidarity visit. That familiar phrase, "wrong side of history", comes to mind.

Two other phrases stand out from the Clarence House statement about the royal tour: "military links" and "commercial partnerships". This is scarcely surprising, and in due course prime minister David Cameron will no doubt announce some deals which are "good for Britain" as his government struggles to pull out of the economic recession.

As with royal visits to the Gulf, such deals have always attracted some criticism but, again, there are reasons to be especially wary of them now. One reason is that we don't know how long the monarchies will survive and weapons sold to them today could end up in entirely different hands a few years down the line.

Christopher Davidson, author of the provocatively titled book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, made an interesting point about these commercial relations during a talk in London last week.

Faced with a problem, the first instinct of Gulf rulers is to throw money at it – since most of them have plenty to spare. Internally, they have certainly been using money in an effort to buy off political dissent (as previously discussed on this blog). However, Davidson went further and suggested that splashing money around externally is another arm of the same protective mechanism. Thus, buying football clubsGreek islands and weapons that they don't really need is a way of buying goodwill and fending off international criticism.

And if goodwill is what they want, the British government seems more than happy to sell it to them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 10 March 2013