Two days ago, the 90 year old King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-al-Aziz, died.
Yesterday, British flags flew at half-mast across the UK in tribute to this ally of our country and today our Prime Minister David Cameron travels to Saudi to greet the new King, the comparatively youthful septuagenarian, Salman. As well as shaking hands warmly with the new absolute ruler of the Arabian peninsular state, Cameron is going to pay tribute to the deceased monarch, who has been repeatedly described as a "reformer" since his passing. It will be all the more of an emotional event for Dave as Abdullah personally awarded him the Saudi equivalent of the Order of Merit for our PM's services to this exceptionally vicious, dictatorial regime.
Abdullah's death comes at the end of a fortnight when, unusually, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the fiefdom of the Ibn Saud family for nearly a century, has been in the world headlines for two internal matters. Both more than slightly question Abdullah's allegedly reformist credentials.
Still worse was the case of Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim, a Burmese woman accused of abusing and murdering her seven year old step-daughter. She was dragged through the streets, crying out her innocence, before being beheaded in a car park by a state executioner who took a sword to her neck three times before the act was completed. It was the tenth execution in just three weeks, yet by Saudi standards her brutal death was merciful - others are stoned slowly to death or even crucified. Bad enough, but all the more appalling given the random and chaotically brutal nature of the Saudi "justice" system, as evidenced by the terrifying experience of Scottish anaesthetic technician Sandy Mitchell back in 2005 - even his one year old baby son was implicated as a terrorist by the Kingdom's police.
Yet while such barbarities are rightly condemned when carried out by the Islamic State, when they occur in Saudi they pass barely mentioned as our leaders and businesses shake hands with their Jeddah counterparts.
Just yesterday President Obama hailed Abdullah as a man of "conviction" (apparently unaware of the irony of his words) and a great ally of the USA. Similarly, British Premier David Cameron expressed his sadness at the despot's passing and hoped the "long and deep ties" between the UK and the Kingdom of Ibn Saud would continue. He even lauded the dead King for an apparent commitment to peace and a desire to increase understanding between religions. Perhaps he was referring to Saudi Arabia's saturation of Libya and Syria troubled lands with weapons channelled through Abdullah's ally, Qatar. And as for religious understanding, perhaps Dave was thinking of the Saudis' execution of a woman, Amina bint Abdel Halim Nassar, for the crime of witchcraft in 2011.
|King Abdullah awards Cameron a medal for "services to Saudi Arabia"|
Railing against the state religion of Wahhabism, a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam, Ali notes that it was originally sponsored by the British to help defeat the Ottoman Turks in the first world war through the ludicrously lionised agency of T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia fame). Then, with the forming of the Kingdom of the Ibn Saud warlord family in 1932, wahhabism was endorsed by their western overlords, Britain and the USA, as an effective form of total political control over what was once a very diverse and tolerant society. Sunni and Shia Muslims who failed to conform to its extreme teachings suffered at its hands, as well as those of other faiths. As time passed, some Saudis used their petrodollars to export their beliefs at the end of gun barrels.
"During the war against the Soviet Union, Pakistani military intelligence requested the presence of a Saudi prince to lead the jihad in Afghanistan. No volunteers were forthcoming and the Saudi leaders recommended the scion of a rich family, close to the monarchy. Osama bin Laden was dispatched to the Pakistan border and arrived in time to hear President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski giving open support to the jihad. One of his first actions as a pro-western freedom fighter was a raid on a mixed school, which was burnt to the ground, its headmaster killed and disembowelled. (p.323)"
Many Saudis long for the end of a state that bans all freedom of speech, belief or association - indeed, one where new laws in 2014 declared all forms of dissent to be "terrorist". Gay and lesbian people face flogging, chemical castration and even death. And for Saudi women, not only is their country a place where they are infamously banned from driving - it is also a land where women are electronically tracked so they cannot go abroad without the permission of their male "guardian". Their rulers remain firmly among the most authoritarian in the world and use a wide range of torture, repressive laws and a deeply conservative culture to slow change to a snail's pace. Corruption is rife and ordinary Saudis are completely cut out of the decisions that affect their lives. Consequently, with no prospect of liberal reform, many younger people are turning to the violence of al-Qaeda and ISIS as their compass. Were it not so dangerously tragic, these terrorist organisations' policies of adopting the extremes of the Saudi royals' own deeply conservative wahhabist outlook would verge on the satirical.
So why are our leaders so keen to do business with this regime? Why were they so anxious to overthrow the likes of Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad, all of them secular rulers who eschewed links with the likes of Bin Laden, but happily court the favours of the Ibn Saud dynasty?
|British Prince Andrew is a frequent visitor to the Arabian peninsula|
Central to this, of course, Saudi Arabia is the third largest oil producer in the world and critical to the supply of energy to Europe and the USA, as well as a major customer of our arms manufacturing companies. The kingdom produces over 9,000,000 barrels of oil every day. In context, that is currently third in the world, just behind the USA and Russia and more than Iran, Iraq and Kuwait combined. And unlike Gadaffi's Libya or Saddam's Iraq, or Iran now, the Saudi Government, nervous of its own people, is happy to work in concert with the West in return for its support.
So our PM goes to the Arabian peninsula to continue a decades-old dance of diplomatic protocol and corporate greed with a corrupt, repressive regime markedly more brutal than other regimes he and his predecessors invested so much in destroying. It is a dance that suits both parties - the Ibn Sauds depend on their western sponsors military backing to stay in power; the western oil companies and their shareholders meantime benefit from extracting huge profits from the Saudi deserts, pillaging the resources of an oppressed people. And the Saudi people, desperate for change but held down by their medieval rulers, know this.
Tariq Ali explains how this is seen by many Saudis through an interview with the exiled Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif:
"The presence of oil could have led to real improvements and change, creating the opportunities for a better life and providing everyone with a future. The West is not owed the credit for the riches of the Peninsula and the Gulf. These riches come from within the earth. What happened was that the West discovered these riches and took the lion's share, the larger part, which ought to belong to the people of the region. Our rulers were brought in by the West, which used them as its instruments. We all know the sort of relationship there is currently between the West and these regimes."
As oil-addicted western states continue to "do business as usual" with the Saudi Royals, it seems rather unlikely that, in the future, their subjects will quickly forget our nations' collaboration with this most odious regime. Just as the USA/UK overthrow of Iran's democracy in 1953 for the sake of corporate oil profits ultimately drove dissent into the arms of Ayatollah Khomeini, the West's grasping alliance with the slowly crumbling House of Ibn Saud means there is little hope for progressive social change in the peninsula. Instead, when the current regime has finally sunk in the desert sands, Arabia and the wider world face an uncertain and potentially terrifying future.