Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Beheadings Bribes and Bin Laden

This week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will be transported down the Mall in a stage coach with Queen Elizabeth. He will attend a state banquet at Buckingham Palace and will hold talks with Gordon Brown at Downing Street.

Many people don’t think that he should be here. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is boycotting the banquet in protest at human rights abuses in the country. Labour MP John McDonnell is “astounded that the government can identify shared values with a with a regime that is world renowned for its abuses of human rights and civil liberties”

The national newspapers are regaling us with stories of beheadings, bribery and corruption. The Independent asks how we should be listening to someone who is lecturing us on terrorism and the Mirror tells us the “Truth about the savage house of Saud

Yet Britain historically has close ties with the kingdom. In 2006 the UK did over $9B business with the Saudi’s an increase of 12% in a year. BAE, based in Preston, has been a beneficiary of such business and its military ties have brought jobs to the area.

Last year the Company was embroiled in a scandal which centred on allegations of $10b in bribes to a Saudi Prince in exchange for the placing of aerospace orders. Eventually Tony Blair was forced to step in and prevent an investigation.

The Kingdom of Saud is little understood by the world. It was founded in 1932 as a result of a confederation of tribes following an Islamic jihadist philosophy. Shortly after, it received a massive boost when it discovered that it was sitting on the precious commodity of oil in 1938 and it quickly transformed what was until then a backward country.

Today the country is the world’s largest exporter of oil and holds 255 of the world’s proven reserves.

It is also the keeper of the Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina, and the birthplace of a certain Osama Bin Laden and many of those involved in the 9/11 terror attacks. Its role in the events of September 2001 has never fully been explained.

It is the fact that American troops are based on lands considered holy to Muslims that so angers Bin Laden and his followers.

Should we then be entertaining relations with this country? For some Saudi is a most important partner in the war against terrorism. For others our support for its government is a contradiction of the values that we hold so dear in the West.

According to Amnesty International human rights in the country are bleak.

A recent report stated

“Peaceful critics of the government were subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial. There were allegations of torture, and floggings continued to be imposed by the courts. Violence against women was prevalent and migrant workers suffered discrimination and abuse. Thirty-nine people were executed.”

Court proceedings fall well short of international standards and executions are carried out by beheadings, often in public. Women’s rights are lacking and only this year an attempt to lift the ban on women driving was quashed.

Our own nationals have experienced all too well its human rights record. Four Scottish national were detained in 2001 accused of involvement in a bombing campaign in the capital Riyadh. On their eventual release, after three years incarcerated, they complained of torture and solitary confinement and were made to sign false confessions.

The country is policed by a notorious religious police whom the ruling family tolerate as the price for staying in power. These police allegedly let 14 schoolgirls die in a fire instead of allowing them to leave the building because they were not dressed appropriately.

Yet the country is seen by Britain and America as a bulwark in the fight against global terrorism. Despite the recent comments of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the Palestinian crisis and in its support of American against Iran.

Whatever the conversation over dinner at the palace and at Downing Street, it is unlikely that it will turn to talk of human rights abuse and bribes.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Douglas Alexander-a profile

Over the weekend, Ladbrokes were offering short odds on Douglas Alexander being the first cabinet minister to be sacked under Gordon Brown’s premiership.

The fall out from the debacle of the “autumn election” may be according to Jonathon Freedland”the clearout of Brown’s young advisors punishing those who have led him in the election “

The blame for Brown’s troubles is being pointed at the young buccaneers in the cabinet. Ed Ball’s the schools secretary and Douglas Alexander, the general election coordinator and International development secretary.

One senior minister was quoted as saying “The Youth team has just fought its first general election and lost.”

It will be a dramatic fall from grace for Gordon Brown’s former speechwriter, who joined the cabinet in 2001 as minister for E commerce at the department of trade and industry. He was then the youngest member of Tony Blair’s cabinet.

Since then he has held a number of cabinet posts, and following Gordon Brown’s becoming Prime Minister; he replaced Hillary Benn as International Development secretary.

Alexander was born in Glasgow in 1967. Growing up in Bishopston, where his father was a local minister, he attended Bishopston Primary School and Park Main’s High in Erskine. In a recent interview he said that he owed his parents a lot for a happy and secure upbringing.

At the age of 17, he won a scholarship to attend an international college in Vancouver. After gaining the International Baccalaureate, he returned to his native Scotland to study politics and modern history at Edinburgh University gaining a 1st class honours degree.

Whilst at Edinburgh, he first became involved in politics chairing the university Labour club and getting taking on local constituency work. In 1988, he gained another scholarship, to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. Whilst there, he worked on the failed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign.

Returning to the UK he worked as a Parliamentary researcher for the Labour party, then in the wilderness years of opposition and wrote speeches for Gordon Brown.

Brown was to return the favour earlier this year when he launched his strength of the Union campaign along Douglas Alexander in Edinburgh at a speech to the Fabians’ society. Together they argued for the state of the union, saying that "it is not a historical curiosity, but a blueprint for international co-operation in the 21st century.”

Alexander trained as a lawyer before attempting to enter Parliament in 1995. He fought the by-election in the Tory seat of Perth and Kinross, overturning a large Tory majority in a campaign which broke several post war election records and put the Labour party into second place.

In the General election of 1997 he further eroded the SNP majority. However his opportunity to enter Parliament came three months later, following the death of the Paisley South MP Gordon McMaster Alexander fought and won the resultant by-election, despite some internal Labour problems at the time.
He made his maiden speech in the Commons on one of the parties most significant reforms of the first term the minimum wage, arguing that “For my constituents, it is a matter not of wanting a national minimum wage but of needing one. For 18 years, we had a Government who advanced the idea that the price of greater prosperity was greater inequality and who tried to frighten people out of their commitment to fairness”

He has been a good servant to his local constituents, including campaigns to get greater support for the pensioners of Renfrewshire.

His record in Parliament has shown him up to be a strong supporter of New Labour. He was in favour of the Iraq invasion and anti terrorism laws, voted in favour of student top up fees, the hunting ban and the replacement of Trident.

The importance of his role in Brown’s cabinet was reaffirmed in the speech he made in Washington, days after Brown became M.E. spoke about Britain needing new alliances based on common values. The speech was widely interpreted as a message to the Bush administration about a future direct for foreign policy.

Alexander though rebutted those suggestions. “The speech made clear challenges like climate change and tackling global poverty require the whole global community to work together. Our relationship with America has always been based on not just shared interests but shared values like liberty and democracy.”

If Alexander is replaced in Brown’s team of close advisors, it will be a sad day indeed for one of the young Turks of New Labour.