THE THESIS of J. B. Kelly's Arabia, the Gulf and the West is simple: it is best expressed in Lord Cromer's view that the people of the world are naturally divided into "governing races" and "subject races". The British are, naturally, among the former; and the Arabs, the heathens that they are, among the latter. His massive polemical work is a nostalgic look at 19th-century Social Darwinism and a passionate plea for a return to the imperialism of that age. For him Britain and other European colonial powers have a God-given right and moral responsibility to recolonize the Middle East and recover their "strategic inheritance" east of Suez and bring peace to that area. For when "pax Britannica endured, that is to say, from the fourth and fifth decade of the nineteenth century, tranquility reigned in the Eastern Seas and around the shores of the Western India Ocean."
Kelly, who has taught at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Universities of Oxford, Michigan and Wisconsin, rests his thesis on the hypothesis that the people of the Gulf are inherently unfit to rule themselves. They are a people occupied by "age-old passions and greivances," unreliable and without any morality. He attempts to "prove" his hypothesis by a relatively detailed examination of the last hundred years of history of Yemen (north and south), Oman, Muscat, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. As presented by Kelly it is a history of plunder and despotism, regional and ideological rivalries, ambitions and antipathies. On the whole, Kelly assumes that before the arrival of the British, the Middle East had no history, no tradition, no culture worthy of attention, let alone complement. To accept a real people with real histories and culture would, of course, negate his hypothesis.
When talking of the Ibadis of Oman, however, Kelly falls victim to his own contradictions. He describes the Ibadis as the third, as well as the smallest, of the three major divisions of Islam (the other being Sunni and the Shia) and writes, "The heroic imams of ibadi tradition had been powerful chieftains, more noted for their political skills and military prowess than for their piety and suppleness in religious disputations." Well, if the Ibadis can produce politically skilled leaders, they can certainly govern themselves!
Kelly takes great pains to present historical data and contemporary facts to suit his thesis. He presents British imperial policy as a monolithic, coordinated effort, choosing to play down the contradictions and conflicts among British policy makers and various departments of the civil service -- the Indian office and the colonial office in particular. "The Sharia " [Islamic Law], he writes, "not only places practically no limits on the power of the ruler but it also enjoins complete obedience to his commands." On the contrary, the Sharia seriously limits the power of the ruler by placing it in the hands of those who are ruled. Kelly, in fact, admits this when talking of Ibadi Imams. "The prime duty of the imams was to direct the community in the ways of the Koran, the sunna , or 'custom' of the Prophet, and the example of the early imams. The community, in its turn, had the power as well as the duty to depose incompetent and unworthy imams."
In addition to a host of distorted facts and halftruths, Kelly offers a rather cloisted view of international relations. In his view, only Britain has the right to act in her self-interest. No one else, OPEC, the Gulf States or even the United States has such a right. In fact, it is due to U.S. myopia and self-interest that Britain lost the empire in the first place. The American position in the Gulf was based on the "doctrine" that the sooner Britain abandoned her residual position in the Middle East the better it was for all concerned. This "article of faith", writes Kelly, "was posited upon two assumptions: the first, that the days of European empires were numbered anyway . . . the second, that the demise of the British and the French power in the region would open new and profitable avenues to Amrican commerce."
There is, however, much truth in Kelly's appraisal of Arab despots, sycophantic western statesmen and businessmen and writers dealing with the Middle East. And no one would dispute his claim that contemporary Gulf States are racialist in their treatment of expatriate workers and foreign laborers. But these are minor qualities in a book that is largely devoted to fueling the prejudices and misconceptions that exist about the Arabs and the Middle East.
Essentially, Arabia, the Gulf and the West is a polemic of hate. Kelly hates the Arabs because they are inferior human beings. He hates the Marxists for their political beliefs and revolutionary tactics. He hates the Americans for letting Britain down ever so often and for hastening the decline of the British empire. And he hates those Britons who gave in to Arab demands and abandoned their moral right to rule those who cannot rule themselves. In Kelly's world there is no place for cooperation and sharing. His is a world of domination and seld-arrogated rights and superiority. It is a despicable world. But then this is a despicable book.