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.

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