King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is to receive a ceremonial welcome in London later. He’s going to meet the Queen and be treated to a sumptuous banquet being thrown in his honour. The King is not a man who likes to travel light: it took a squadron of six planes to fly him and his 400-strong entourage to Britain and 84 limousines to transport them from Heathrow airport into central London. It would seem that he is also not a man who worries too much about his carbon footprint.
Despite the efforts being made to accommodate the King in the manner to which he has become accustomed, however, he has been something less than gracious towards his hosts. Not only has he claimed that Britain is not doing enough to fight international terrorism, but he has also announced that his country passed on information to British intelligence services which could have prevented the attacks in London in 2005. Whitehall officials have been almost as quick to offer embarrassed, low-key denials as government ministers have been to placate the King with sycophantic, simpering, clichéd words promising friendship and cooperation. King Abdullah is clearly not a born diplomat and seems more than happy to humiliate his hosts safe in the knowledge that the British establishment will happily clean up whatever mess he chooses to make.
As if his comments about terrorism were not gauche enough, he then waded (not unprompted, admittedly) into the Israel question: ‘we don’t want concessions from Israel’ he told the BBC, ‘we are people with rights and we demand our rights’. It was an interesting choice for the king to talk about rights. Saudi Arabia has one of the most dubious human rights record in the Middle East (and that’s saying something). As a result, voices of opposition to the King’s visit have been raised throughout Britain. Vince Cable (the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats) has even promised to join a protest against his presence. The King, however, seems to be completely oblivious of all going on around him. ‘Islam’, he went on, ‘has given the most rights to women in the world and they are strong and important parts of our society’. Perhaps it had escaped his notice that in his country, women make up only 5% of the workforce, that they are not allowed to testify in court and that they cannot vote.
Indeed, the list of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses goes on at length. From deporting HIV positive foreigners, to being able to execute homosexuals, to censoring all forms of media, to banning trade unions and public demonstrations, to deporting foreigners who own non-Islamic religious symbols, to building a bypass around Mecca and Medina so that non-Muslims do not enter the place, the Saudi obsession with oppression and division would be comical if it were not, on occasion, so brutal.
Yet this country is considered by the US and Britain as a close ally in the war on terror. Despite apparently ‘remaining concerned’ about the small matter of human rights abuses, the coalition recognises the vital strategic importance of its ally in the Middle East and, for this reason, King Abduallah can do and say what he likes. Indeed, for all the cruelty of the Saudi regime, for all the repression and segregation, something which is not lost on the West is that having a brutal dictatorship on your side when you’re fighting a war is rather useful. The USSR taught us all that lesson all too well during the Second World War. The Saudis not only provide convenient sites for US airbases (not more than an hour’s flying time from Iran, helpfully), but they are also good enough to take various terrorist suspects off our hands and do the kinds of things to them to extract confessions that we haven’t been allowed to do since the 15th century. In Saudi Arabia, suspects can be beaten up, placed in solitary confinement and injected with drugs to their heart’s content, and all without the awkward necessity of having a curious media and prisons standards committees poking their noses in.
This, of course, is rather an uncomfortable reality. Many in the west would certainly much prefer to distance themselves from the Saudi regime and are deeply embarrassed that, in the coalition, they take the role of chief interrogator. Nevertheless, the fact that has been realised by, amongst others, the Whitehall mandarins so desperate to cover up King Abdullah’s misplaced comments is that a little bit of brutality goes a long way. So long as Saudi Arabia stays on side, the West can remain morally upstanding. We don’t have to face the awkward questions which would certainly arise if we started torturing suspects in penitentiaries in London or New York in sight of the rest of the world. We can just ship them off to the sunshine of the Middle East and let the Saudi’s do it quietly so that nobody notices.
Torture has become a grim necessity. The shocking images which emerged from Abu Grahib have done much to ensure that no western nation can ever seriously hope to get away with torture again, at least in the long run. Nevertheless, the war on terror (if that phrase is even valid anymore) is a conflict in which grim necessities are unavoidable. So, for all the moral questions which are raised by Britain’s willingness to pander to the Saudis and for all the uncomfortable smiles and PR-driven denials which King Abdullah’s visit has extracted from the British establishment, perhaps we need to realise what the King himself has long since known: we need the Saudis, and they know it.