I SPENT the first couple of weeks of this month in Dubai, on a family holiday. It is a fabulous place to take the kids – wonderful facilities at our hotel, outstanding service, great food.

And, beyond the hotel, some awe-inspiring development, from the World Islands to the Burj Khalifa, and much in between. All we could want, really.

But, should we have gone? Dubai and its fellow Emirates in the UAE are ruled by family dynasties, not by democracy.

We in the West don’t mind that, of course, because the UAE largely dislikes our enemies and likes our friends, and Sheikh Mohamed of Abu Dhabi’s (and therefore the UAE’s) ruling House of Nahyan is an enthusiastic partner in the fight against radical Islamism, and even maintains relations with Israel.

Life is, in the grand scheme of things, half-decent for its inhabitants too. Emirate-born Arabs, who tend to work for the government, earn the sort of money that most of us would rather like, and the majority population of south-east Asian immigrant workers make more than they would at home.

Stories of awful mistreatment of those immigrant workers are never far from your search engine, yet we turn a blind eye to that, not least since those workers vote with their feet by choosing to work there, even though they cannot do so with a pencil thereafter.

Our approach to Saudi Arabia is not entirely different. As I sat watching the live TV function on my Emirates flight last week, I switched on BBC World News and the first thing I saw was President Joe Biden fist-pumping Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

It was a physical manifestation of the geopolitical reality that producing 10 million barrels of oil every day and providing the most important regional counterbalance to Iran outweighs the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist.

President Biden is hardly alone. Dozens of the world’s top golfers have provoked outrage amongst their peers by joining the LIV Golf tour, bought and paid for by the House of Saud.

The players, many of whose best days are behind them, are receiving pay-days of the sort they have never enjoyed, with a guarantee that they can never lose their playing card (relegation, in effect).

But some of those criticising their erstwhile colleagues have some issues with consistency, since they played in the money-spinning Saudi events on the DP World Tour (and, yes, the ‘D’ is for Dubai). They’re not the only ones. Anthony Joshua, Britain’s pin-up heavyweight boxer, will try to win his world titles back, for the second time, in Saudi Arabia, next month.

And motor racing’s Formula 1 takes its circus there annually, just after its trip to Bahrain. It returns to China soon.

So, where does the world draw the line? With Russia, it seems. Formula 1 pulled the plug after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As did tennis’s Wimbledon and, of course, football’s FIFA, which has banned Russia from its World Cup (in, er, Qatar).

I have, myself, drawn a line there in the past; a few years ago I declined my one and only request to appear on Russia Today to discuss Scotland’s constitutional psycho-drama.

Why do we draw the line at Putin and Russia? We, the West, have other allies (or, at least, regimes we tolerate) which are authoritarian. Which persecute journalists. Which kill their own people. Which oppress women and girls.

We presume that by bringing them into our tent; by trading with them and allowing them to participate in the global order, we are buying an insurance policy against them doing anything which risks that order.

So, when they start a war with one of our friends, with a country which escaped socialist authoritarianism after the fall of the Soviet Union and embraced Western capitalist liberal democracy, we draw the line.

Would we do the same if Pakistan took the decades-long skirmishes with India to the next level? Or if Saudi Arabia decided to murder a BBC journalist? What if China’s President Xi takes a leaf out of Putin’s book and decides to test the US’s limits in protecting Taiwan?

Much as we might like geopolitics to be black and white to fit within our personal moral borders, it isn’t. It is devilishly complicated. And, as we enter this post-Covid era of global economic difficulties, and as national self-interest plays an increasingly leading role in countries both democratic and undemocratic, it will only become more so.

A good time, then, for strong but thoughtful, clear but considerate global leadership to guide us through these choppy waters. Say what you will about Presidents Reagan and Clinton but they had a global plan, and matched it with global action. Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair left controversial legacies at home, but abroad they made their mark in an impactful way.

Who do we turn to now, during a time arguably more unstable than those navigated by those predecessors?

President Biden’s qualification for the job is not being Donald Trump. The European Union’s leaders have shown themselves unprepared to fully punish Putin, because such is their dependence on his gas that in so doing they would punish their own country’s financial security.

Here in the UK, Conservative MPs and, thereafter, members of the Conservative party, are choosing our next Prime Minister; the person who will create policy on all these complex matters for one of the world’s leading soft powers, with a good amount of hard power, too.

We are hearing a lot about Brexit. About tax. About gender recognition. About nationalism. But not about foreign policy. Not about how and where we draw lines.

It’s a shame, that. We – all of us – need to be led. We need the brightest minds with the clearest thoughts to help us tread this rocky path, to know who are our friends and who are our enemies, and why.

Morally, we need that. And practically, we need it too – every time we pay a heating bill, or fill our car with fuel, it should be a stark reminder that taking our eye off the geopolitical ball can have meaningful consequences.

It’s far from clear that any of the world’s top-tier leaders are equipped.


* Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters