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Notionally "barbaric" societies have always exercised an ambiguous hold over our imaginations. On the one hand they encouragingly confirm our sense of superiority - the anatomy of their barbarism is also, by simple process of inversion, an anatomy of what makes us civilised. On the other hand they deliver a visceral thrill of savagery, the sight of a place where the unsatisfactory repressions of civilisation - all those instincts curbed - have been removed. This is enjoyable, however guilty we might feel about it.

The point was well made by Panorama's Death of a Principle (BBC1), a slightly muddled film about the relationship between British governments and Saudi Arabia. Nick London's film was at pains to establish a general failure on the human rights front, an indifference to conventional Western values which ran from imprisoning men who sell alcohol to executions on the basis of confessions extracted by torture. But London also took care to have some secretly filmed video of an execution at the very top of his programme, complete with an electronic spotlight directing your attention to the doomed man. This was a sort of promise, that if viewers stuck with the slightly abstract questions of principle involved here they might, like the white-garbed figures seen running to fill the grandstands, be shown a man having his head chopped off.

I'm glad to say he failed to keep that promise. You did later return to that distant spectacle - the bureaucratic throng of policemen, the sun gleaming for an instant on a long sword, the humdrum arrival of water- trucks and rubbish carts after the event - but London cut away just before the executioner did, perhaps aware that our abstract indignation at the idea might not survive the indulgence of our prurience. Elsewhere in the programme, he relied on spoken testimony to convey a sense of Saudi Arabia's unpalatable justice system. Some of these accounts were less outrageous than others - if you decide to establish yourself as an alcohol dealer in a famously dry country, your protestations about the exact nature of the charge are bound to look a little nit-picking. There's no law against stupidity, but even the most liberal observer will sometimes feel there ought to be.

Other cases clearly pointed to an institutionalised and cruel xenophobia which the Saudi ambassador's urbane and unruffled responses only served to confirm. He didn't really care what John Ware, the reporter, thought of Saudi Arabia's interpretation of sharia law and didn't waste any breath pretending that he did. In this respect, Saudi Arabia is rather different to the various regimes who have enjoyed the British government's blind- eye in the past. In those cases, the regimes usually needed something from us, their only bargaining chip being their role as a fancied bulwark against the enemy of the month. In the case of Saudi Arabia we very badly need something from them - oil money and the commercial contracts by which it is siphoned into this country, a circumstance that is hardly likely to stiffen the notoriously flexible spine of the Foreign Office.

Then again, if an arrogant indifference to a foreign nation's values is to be condemned in the Saudis, why would it become a virtue in the case of British ministers? Panorama ended with the latest embarrassing collision between British principle and British interests - the case of Dr Mohammed Al-Masari, a Saudi dissident currently seeking asylum in Britain. The Saudis have made it clear that if their wishes are not respected in this matter they will consider taking lucrative contracts elsewhere. The British government would like to oblige but has been prevented, more than once, by the British courts. If anything, this seemed like a vindication of British justice rather than evidence that it had been sold out, as Panorama suggested in conclusion. There is a real story here, that of the Al-Yamamah arms deal, which keeps cropping up in public life like a badly-buried body. With more work Panorama might dig it up, instead of just complaining about the smell.