Labour's ethical stance on foreign policy looks increasingly shaky when the realpolitik issues of trade and diplomacy become involved
SIX days before the two British nurses flew into Gatwick Airport from Saudi Arabia to mix it in a media scrum, another visitor had arrived from the same place. Prince Sultan bin Fahd bin Abdul Aziz is the Saudi sports minister and yesterday he attended Saudi Arabia's first football international match at Wembley. Hardly anyone had noticed him, however.

As with most Anglo-Saudi matters, Prince Sultan's visit was not at all straightforward. He had arrived more than a week before the match, taking in the FA Cup Final, demanding more protocol and receiving more flummery than the FA has seen in years. On Tuesday there was a lunch, attended by Tony Banks, the sports minister, at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London, on Friday a dinner hosted by the FA at the Guildhall, and last night a return function at the Dorchester, courtesy of the Saudis.

Power politics was not far below the surface, albeit football politics. England wants to host the World Cup in 2006. The Saudis have a place on the executive of the international football federation, Fifa, which will decide where it will go. Their regime may not be nice, and its standards of human rights may be well short of those expected elsewhere, but they are reliable and stable allies. Britain is in a position to influence Saudi thinking and benefit from its regional power.

AS WITH football, so with politics. The case of the two British nurses convicted of murder and released last week from a Saudi jail has illustrated various awkward elements.

Like other episodes - most especially the furore over the Death of a Princess television drama - the release of the nurses has drawn attention to undoubted human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. But it has also raised further questions about the Labour government's foreign policy. Is it motivated by the "ethical dimension" or old-fashioned, cynical realpolitik?

Booming trade, particularly in arms, oils the wheels of the close relationship. In 1996 Britain exported pounds 2.6bn-worth of goods to Saudi Arabia, a figure which increased by pounds 1.3bn the following year, and a further pounds 1.3bn if invisible exports are included. Roughly 30 per cent of that is arms. Since imports from Saudi Arabia are pounds 1bn, the UK has a healthy trade surplus. With no direct evidence that British arms are being used for internal repression or external aggression, the government is happy to approve export licences.

The biggest and most famous arms contract, the Al-Yamamah deal, which includes Tornado aircraft and combat ships, creates some 30,000 jobs in Britain. So important are Anglo-Saudi relations that British Aerospace is thought to have paid a large slice of the "blood money" demanded by the brother of the murdered nurse Yvonne Gilford to set aside the death penalty. Little wonder then that there are close military and diplomatic ties. Last year the MoD spent pounds 120,000 on military assistance to Saudi Arabia, including exchanges and funding for Saudis attending UK training courses. Prince Saud, the foreign minister, is only one of a number of Saudi rulers who can put Sandhurst on his cv.

This year Robin Cook went to Saudi Arabia in February, the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, visited in March and in April the Prime Minister spent a night in Riyadh during his Middle East tour. The Saudi foreign minister repaid the compliment with a trip to London for the EU and Gulf Co-operation Council.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy and, despite the fundamental difference in the relative political power of the British and Saudi royal families, ties are good. Prince Charles, for example, paid a visit in March last year.

With Iraq a continuing threat to the West, Saudi is a vital military ally, and the two intelligence services share many common interests. Last week Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Tory cabinet minister, was reported by the Daily Telegraph to have said that lies he told in his libel action against the Guardian newspaper were to cover up his role as a purveyor of British intelligence secrets to the Saudis. Mr Aitken denied this in a letter to the Times yesterday, but his claims were certainly being treated as plausible in Westminster.

This frenetic diplomatic, military, trading and intelligence activity would be much less remarked upon were it not for the clear and undisputed abuses of human rights which periodically strain relations. In Saudi Arabia public executions and floggings are common. Last year the Saudis executed 125 people, according to Amnesty International, nearly double the number killed in the US. Two-thirds of the victims are thought to be foreign nationals, particularly Pakistanis, Nigerians, Indians and Filipinos, and the total puts Saudi Arabia behind only China and Iran in the number of people it executes.

The Saudis have ratified a UN convention against torture but their performance has not impressed international observers. In its statement on 14 April the UN Commission on Human Rights pulled few punches in its condemnation. Among "continuing matters of concern" it listed "Saudi Arabian practices in places of detention including torture and other inhumane treatment, shortcomings in the administration of justice, violations of womens' rights and the many barriers to freedom of expression, assembly, association and freedom of religion."

Around 30,000 Britons live in Saudi Arabia, but few are enamoured by the more brutal aspect of life there, particularly for those who fall foul of the law. Public opinion is easily aroused when a Briton faces flogging or execution, and credible claims of sexual harassment, intimidation and torture made by the two British nurses naturally aroused public sympathy. For a government that is highly sensitive to the tabloid news agenda, the cases of the two nurses ranked as a political nightmare even before it emerged that the women were being paid by the Daily Express and the Mirror to tell their stories.

WAS THE release of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan a victory for British foreign policy? If so what does it say about our conduct of foreign affairs? The decisive moment seems to have been Tony Blair's visit to Saudi Arabia during his Middle East tour in April. At the time Downing Street, naturally aware of media interest in the cases, briefed journalists that the issue would be raised at Blair's meetings with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah. Details of the discussion remain unclear.

According to the Saudi ambassador to London, Ghazi Algosaibi, the Prime Minister made no direct plea for the freedom of the British prisoners, but simply "asked for an update". King Fahd was, according to his account, already considering the petition. The Foreign Office insists that there was no secret deal or conspiracy, and that Britain's interest in the case was "solely consular and humanitarian".

But by pleading the cause of two Britons, rather than lecturing the Saudis on the wider issue of human rights abuses, Blair was treading a familiar path. Western countries face a dilemma in their dealings with Saudi Arabia. Dr Kirsten Schulze, lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics, argues: "On the one hand there is a general interest in Europe and the USA in promoting stability in the region. On the other, they would like to push for reforms - yet pushing too hard might backfire and open the door to a worse system, from the point of view of Europe and the US. A fundamentalist Islamic system, for example."

The simplest explanation of the politics of the nurses' release is that it is a classic example of realpolitik. The releases were the easiest way of smoothing a continuous relationship which benefits both Britain and Saudi Arabia. A year into office, and the ethical dimension to Labour's foreign policy looks less important by the day.