The Middle East Debates the London Riots

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England has been rocked for the last few days by rioting and looting in a number of its larger cities. The London riots, as they are now being called, have given pause to both politicians and commentators around the world, especially in the Middle East — ground zero of the Arab Spring. All are trying to assess the causes and significance of the violence and how to move forward. For some, particularly in Iran and Israel, government reaction to the rioters and protesters has provided an opportunity for scoring political points.

In general, the Gulf media have condemned the rioters and their actions.  The Gulf Times editorial calls the protesters “thugs” noting, “The past few nights in London have revealed…a terrifying and extraordinary display of youth behavior that has left British people all over the world feeling shocked and appalled…. This is indiscriminate violence, and the associated hypocrisy and idiocy is plain for everyone to see. People demand justice while stealing from family businesses and declare their disgust at unfairness while terrorizing residents, smashing windows and torching cars; these are not freedom fighters, laying down their lives for their beliefs and a desire to change their country for the better; these are mindless thugs.”

Likewise, The National editorial accuses the protesters of having “no moral compass,” adding, that “they are taking place, however, is no surprise. Many of the hotspots where the violence began are relatively run-down neighborhoods, areas where social ills, poverty and crime have long been ignored by the police and the government. Sadly, the young rioters have given up any moral high ground with their indefensible behavior. Thursday’s fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, sparking the Tottenham riots, was a tragedy. But the sight of hundreds or thousands of young people stealing shoes, mobile phones and television sets, and anything else they could loot, has done nothing but tarnish his memory.”

For the Khaleej Times editorial board, the riots in England amount to “vandalism.” However, while it draws a clear line between the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings and those in London, the editorial does suggest that British society must revisit its social contract: “The assumption that its roots are in growing disparities in wealth and opportunity is certainly a debatable issue, and demands of the government to take a holistic look at the situation and desist from brushing it aside as a hate-act or racist venture on the part of opportunists…. Though one may not see Arab Spring undercurrents swirling across Britain,…it goes without saying that the resources and human potential of this great country have not been tapped to the best of its sovereigns. It is here that the problem lies and needs to be dealt with in a humble manner. Apart from economics, Britain has to revisit its social contract with its multi-ethnic mosaic and come up with due adaptations in ensuring a level playing field for the stakeholders of the society.”

Others have drawn attention to different aspects revealed by the riots. An editorial in the Oman Tribune sees a “double standard” in the way the Western media handles the riots in England compared to those in the Middle East: “Saturday’s riots are an example of underplaying grim realities by the western media. At the end of last year, huge protests over Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to raise tuition fees for university students did not get the prominence given to the Tahrir Square protests and the stir in a number of Arab countries that was dubbed the Arab Spring. It’s time the western media, which claims to be objective, gave the real picture of the problems facing Britain and told the prime minister to gird his loins to face more trouble, as the economic situation is not going to improve in the coming weeks. On the other hand, it may deteriorate further.”

The Saudi daily Arab News focuses on the potential reverberations the current riots might have in the future remarking in its editorial: “Shocking though the images are, any notion that this is some sort of revolution should be instantly dismissed. It is not, as some pundits in the UK bizarrely suggest, a UK flip side of the Arab Spring. That shows complete ignorance of what is happening in the Middle East. The UK is not Syria or Egypt. The British rioters have no political objectives — no objectives at all other than destruction and theft. This is anarchy, pure and simple…. Thursday’s shooting is more likely to have been merely the catalyst that ignited an existing tinderbox of suburban underclass resentment, in much the same way that the 2005 deaths of two youths from a poor Paris suburb, electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation, exploded existing social tensions into mass violence that spread across France.”

Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan doesn’t buy the argument, at least in terms of the legitimacy of their demands, that there is a great deal of difference between the London riots and the Arab Spring. She admits that “Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and the uprising that followed, happened in a very different context to the British riots. When Tunisia’s peaceful protesters in the underprivileged centre of the country were slain by the police’s use of lethal force, the country’s middle class poured into the streets to show their outrage, and solidarity. In Britain, by contrast, people across socio-economic groups are calling on the police to protect them from the seemingly uncontrollable mobs of youths…. The story of Bouazizi captured so much attention because of the sheer desperation embodied by the act of self-immolation. Britain’s youth may be speaking a different language and their violence turned outwards, rather than inwards, but they have no less legitimacy than their counterparts in the Arab world.”

In Israel, where for the last few days, thousands of people have also taken to the streets to protest government policies, commentators are at pains to draw comparisons with what is going on in London. For example, the Haaretz editorial believes the Israeli government should pay attention to what is going in London, even though “the violent riots in Britain are entirely different from the Israeli summer protest. In Israel the middle class, which bears the main economic and civic burden, is rebelling against the cost of living. In England the most neglected margins of society are rebelling…. Many British commentators are pointing a finger at David Cameron’s government, which…implemented a series of “brutal cuts” in government spending that weakened the welfare services and the police…. Despite the differences between the two countries, the Israeli government should listen to the expanding public protest; the factors that created huge gaps in Israel should be restrained.”

Hanoch Daum, on the other hand, in an op-ed published on the Israeli daily YNet, sees hypocrisy in the way the British government is dealing with protesters at home and its criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians: “There is something important in the way this enlightened kingdom is currently being shaken up, realizing that behind the theatrical prince’s wedding hides an acute cultural and educational problem, which can no longer be hidden…. The firm hand used by authorities to address the angry masses on the streets is also stirring up fresh memories of the British criticism often directed at us over our firm hand in the territories. Yet if this is the way the Brits cope with looting, I wouldn’t want to imagine how the London police would deal with terror acts.”

As has been widely reported, the Iranian government has relished the opportunity to mock and “offer” a helping hand to the British government.  In two separate reports on Iran’s Press TV, both government officials and religious leaders have spoken openly about the London riots. A senior member of Iran’s Majlis, Hossein Ebrahimi, suggested the UK unrest was a consequence of the Arab Spring and called “on human rights advocates around the world to ‘help alleviate the plight’ of the people who are ‘demanding their rights’ in Britain. On Tuesday, the deputy head of the Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy said that Iran is prepared to send a delegation to investigate human-rights abuses in Britain. Moreover, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strongly condemned the violent treatment of British protesters by police forces in remarks made on Wednesday.”

Earlier today, “Tehran’s interim Friday Prayers Leader Hojjatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi blame[d] Britain’s colonial past for the unprecedented social unrest in the country.” According to Seddiqi, “The unrest in Britain was the direct result of the crimes and atrocities it has committed in other countries. ‘The colonialists schemed and spent money to create chaos in [other] countries, and today the result of their plotting is the events they have been stricken with.’ Seddiqi criticized the British government for its lack of media transparency and for imposing censorship on independent media. He said Britain’s military ambitions — which have cost British taxpayers a fortune — have led to social poverty and injustice in the country.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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