Saudi Justice: Blair may be forced to make pilgrimage

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Nothing, they say, ever happens by accident in the Middle East. And the Saudi court conviction and sentencing of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan is no different. True, Saudi Arabia is a state more fundamentalist, far more illiberal - if the very word "liberal" could ever be used in a Saudi context - and, these days, more brutal than Iran. True, its religious muttawa police are largely ignorant zealots. And true, Saudi Arabia has an unhappy habit of chopping off heads outside mosques every Friday - every year, two or three of them of women - but the heads tend to belong to Sri Lankans or Nigerians or Filipinos or Indians or Pakistanis.

While the last remnants of the British empire faded away in the Gulf in the 1970s, killing young English ladies is still not the kind of behaviour that the Saudis would undertake lightly. And it isn't just a question of whether the Saudi Embassy in London would be burned to the ground by mobs and its gentle and literate ambassador given undiplomatic treatment by outraged Britons. Britain remains one of the principle armourers of the kingdom, as well as being the staunchest ally in the Gulf to that most loyal and greedy of Saudi Arabia's friends: the United States.

And, since Saudi courts are little more than a mockery - readers in doubt should call up Amnesty and ask for their latest file on the country - the sentencing of the two British nurses must have political reasons.

So what are the Saudis unhappy about in Britain just now? It is impossible to escape the name of Mohamed al-Masari, the Saudi dissident whom John Major tried to deport to a remote holiday island but whom the courts decided could stay in Britain. The Saudis were enraged by this decision - just as they are furious with the continued base in London of other opponents of the royal family. Mr al-Masari would rather like the king and his princes to meet the sort of fate that one of the nurses might supposedly endure. And if Mr al-Masari were to be sent back to Saudi Arabia, he, no doubt, would endure just such a fate.

King Fahd can ultimately quash any sentence. But, given the Saudi propensity to continue with this case, it looks as though the Foreign Office is going to have to perform some party routines. Praise for the Saudi royal family along with some special pleading and gentle reminders of Gulf War sacrifice, perhaps? Or promises to shut up Mr al-Masari and his mates - a swift bit of legislation about the use of fax machines might bring a smile to the FOC men.

Or maybe the Saudis need a bigger institution to grovel to them for mercy. Heads of state visiting Riyadh are regularly reminded that the House of Saud demands respect. In the end, therefore Tony Blair might himself have to make a pilgrimage to the land of the two Islamic holy places and show as much concern for the two peoples' nurses as he did for the late people's princess.