Saudis in 'secret talks' with dissident

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

The new ruler of Saudi Arabia has opened a secret dialogue with Islamic dissidents linked to Professor Mohammed al-Masari, the prominent London-based exile, according to well-informed sources in the kingdom.

The move by Crown Prince Abdullah, who took over last month from King Fahd, could wrong-foot the British Government, which is embroiled in a complex legal battle to expel Mr Masari to the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Since Britain has conspicuously staked its interests in Saudi Arabia on a continued hard line against religious dissidents, any change in tone by the Saudi authorities themselves could prove a severe embarrassment to Whitehall.

Crown Prince Abdullah, himself a religious conservative, is said to have authorised discussions with militant Islamic clerics detained by the authorities. The sources say he wants to defuse the religious opposition and perhaps to split dissidents inside Saudi Arabia from those like Mr Masari abroad.

But Mr Masari, while critical of many members of the royal family, has never attacked Crown Prince Abdullah, prompting speculation among Arab diplomats that the dissident's activities could all along have been part of a devious power struggle within the Saudi court.

It is also a long-standing Saudi tradition to buy off or to co-opt opponents of the ruling family and some diplomats believe that a change in the religious and political climate in Riyadh might eventually lead to Mr Masari returning home.

There is no organised opposition movement in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by Islamic Sharia law. Mr Masari's propaganda campaign by fax and computer from London has, however, reached hundreds of prominent people in the kingdom and created a loose alliance of activists.

The British move to get Mr Masari out of London followed bitter complaints to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary by leading members of the Saudi royal family.

British businessmen warned the Foreign Office that they were at risk of losing lucrative contracts, including the controversial pounds 20bn Al-Yamamah oil-for-arms deal.

It is understood that Home Office lawyers initially argued that the Government had little chance of winning a deportation case but were overruled by legal experts at the Foreign Office. The decision was made to throw out Mr Masari and to defend the move on the grounds of British commercial interests.

As the argument in Whitehall moved to a conclusion in January, however, there was a change of guard in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Abdullah took over from the ailing King Fahd, and has since signalled he is less instinctively pro-western, a more committed Arab nationalist and a more conservative Muslim than his predecessor.

A change in approach to Mr Masari and other dissidents, according to experts on Saudi affairs, would therefore not be at all surprising.