Warning Against a Gulf War (in late 1990)

Iraq and the Wealth of Nations

Madawc Williams argues that the differences between Iraq and the tribal rulers of the Gulf states are not worth the lives that are being put at risk by British and American policies.

The quick success of the Iraqi invasion proved that Kuwaitis were mostly not ready to die for Kuwait. But as I write, huge forces are being massed to do the job for them. Thousands may die, for the sake of a greedy little city state. And the Labour leadership are going along with it!

Saddam Hussein must have known what sort of state he was invading. The people there were not so very different from the people all around it. Had it not been for British protection, either Iraq or Saudi Arabia would certainly have swallowed it up. The Independent mentioned in passing that “Iraqis in towns such as Zubair, south-west of Basra, normally dress like Kuwaitis .. ” (August 6th). The paper tried to minimise the importance of such facts, adding that “Baghdad evidently wishes to blur the distinction between Kuwaitis and Iraqis.” But it was blurred already.


The New Right likes to pretend that wealth comes from hard work and intelligence within the framework of a free market. But this is obviously untrue. Some people work hard and stay poor, others grow rich while doing hardly any work at all.

Without oil, Kuwait and the other Gulf Arabs would be as poor as the Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet the Gulf rulers are neither generous nor far-sighted.

No one seriously disputes that Kuwait was cheating on its oil quotas, at the expense of other states that had much less money and far more need for it. The ordinary Kuwaiti soldiers who decided not to die resisting the Iraqis must have known that they were protecting nothing worth dying for.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations assumes that capitalist prosperity comes from large numbers of people separately pursuing their selfish interests, each seeking to grow rich. But the simplest way to grow rich is to steal. Theft of all sorts has increased vastly in those societies where New Right principles have been applied. It happened in Britain in the 1980s, and is still going on. The newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe are having just the same problem, because they can offer nothing higher or more noble than the selfish struggle for wealth.

The New Right try to find differences between theft and other methods of growing rich. But these are doubtful. What is a stock market take-over, after all, but a sort of legalised breaking and entering? The victors of a take-over battle grow rich on what they have looted, and are called far-sighted entrepreneurs. But when Saddam Hussein launched his own take-over bid for a rich but poorly managed enterprise, everyone was supposed to feel indignant.

What the world seems willing to do for Kuwait is notably different from what they have done for the Kurds. Kurds differ as strongly from the Turks, Arabs and Iranians as those three peoples differ from each other. Saladin, the Muslim warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Palestine, and who never the less earned their high regard by his nobility of character, was a Kurd. They are an ancient people who have been very badly treated in the modem world. Yet who shows an interest in giving them the sovereign state that strict justice would entitle them to?

When it became known that Saddam Hussein’s army was slaughtering the Kurds with chemical weapons, they told him he was being very naughty and then forgot about the matter. It is only now that he has offended against one of the rich and well-connected that things are being done. But only for the Kuwaitis – to help the Kurds would not be at all expedient.

[Something that has continued down to the present moment, September 2019, with Turkey allowed to crush Kurds in Syria who had been allies of the West.]

People are talking about the UN’s actions in defence of Kuwait as a triumph for international law. They are instead a clear demonstration that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Kuwait was considered important because it was rich, and because its rulers had used this wealth to integrate socially with the Western establishment. Small nations full of poor people are exactly as vulnerable as they ever were. West Irian has little hope of escaping from Indonesia, nor Tibet from China.

The Arab world is less than indignant with Iraq, because they know how arbitrary the division between Arab states is.


The role of King Hussein of Jordan is especially interesting. He ought to be a bitter foe of all Iraqi Ba’aths, because of their overthrow and massacre of the Iraqi royal family, his close relatives, back in the 1950s. He has no links with the Kuwaiti royal family; having . forgiven what the Iraqi Ba’aths did to his cousins, he is hardly worried what they do to strangers. (A point that the interviewer on Channel 4’s Newsnight of August 4th seems not to have understood.)

King Hussein has good reason to hate the Saudi rulers. His ancestors were the traditional guardians of Mecca and Medina. until the Saudi dynasty drove them out in the successful war of conquest that created Saudi Arabia. It is not a nation state: it is a collection of conquered tribes that may now feel that the Saudi dynasty has discredited itself.

American intervention could create exactly what their propaganda warned against. If Saudi Arabia broke up, or if a pro-Iraqi faction staged a coup, something new could emerge. Possibly a Federation of Arab West Asia, with the PLO taking over Jordan and King Hussein’s dynasty returning to Mecca and Medina.


What should socialists feel? The Iraqi Ba’aths are much closer to Fascism than to Socialism, but the alternatives are not noticeably more pleasant. A unifying secular Arab nationalism is the only serious force that can compete with Islamic extremism. People compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler, but he is actually much more similar to Franco. He doesn’t want to conquer the world, he just wants to build up a strong state for his people, and will kill anyone who gets in his way.

Iraq is less dangerous than Iran was during the Gulf war. Iran’s leaders thought they had a direct line to God, and were capable of almost anything. Saddam Hussein has no such belief. He is coldly and unpleasantly ruthless, and brave enough to gamble for high stakes.

Grabbing Kuwait was a calculated risk that still has a good chance of coming off. America’s way of dealing with him has made him a hero to a large part of the Arab world.

We need not panic even if the end results from the political problems caused result is a unified Arab West Asia. Such a state would only be a middling-strong power on the stage of world politics. It might even be able to make peace with Israel · if Palestinians can merge in with their fellow Arabs, then the vexatious issue of a Palestinian State vanishes. And since most of Arab West Asia’s wealth would come from selling oil to industrialised countries, co-existence would be the natural option. British troops should not be asked to kill or be killed, just to stop this happening.

Saddam has offered to let free the hostages he holds if the troops will get out as well. But the British government, which did nothing to discourage a lot of ordinary Britons from going to work in the Middle East, now seems to regard them as expendable. The skilled workers and small business persons whom the Iraqis hold may think that they are the sort of people a Tory government will look after. In fact only the big rich are looked after, and the Kuwaiti royal family are among the biggest rich of all.

“Britons were fully prepared to flee Kuwait on the day the Iraqis invaded, but were told to stay by the British embassy, said an expatriate who had recently escaped”. The Independent, August 21st 1990.


No one should be asked to die for a low oil price. Indeed, the long-term interests of the whole world might be better served if the price were to rise still further. Cheap Arab oil will run out within the foreseeable future, but governments prefer to leave it to future generations to sort out.

Oil prices are unrealistically low, since renewable sources of energy are still noticeably more expensive. Moreover, oil adds to the ‘greenhouse effect’, whereas solar power or wind and wave power do not. By the time the cheap oil has all been used up, and alternatives have to be slowly and painfully developed, there may be other problems. A rising sea level, a vastly reduced ozone layer, unpredictable and costly changes in world weather. Who knows?

Though I doubt very much if such matters enter into Saddam Hussein’s calculations, if he manages to raise the oil price and keep it high he will be doing humanity a great favour.


[I still think this would have been a much better way to handle it.]


This article appeared in September 1990, in Issue 19 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.