A royal guest to be proud of?

His regime is condemned as one of the most brutal in the world, but today Britain will roll out the red carpet for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
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Indy Politics

This week, Gordon Brown and David Cameron will welcome the leader of one of the world's most vicious dictatorships to Britain. Both men will embrace King Abdullah al-Saud, who heads a regime in which, according to Amnesty International, "Fear and secrecy permeate every aspect of life. Every day the most fundamental human rights of people in Saudi Arabia are being violated."

In his Labour Party conference speech last month, the Prime Minister declared that he would oppose dictatorship everywhere: "The message should go out to anyone facing persecution from Burma to Zimbabwe ... human rights are universal." He has refused to even attend the same summit as the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe, on the grounds that "there is no freedom in Zimbabwe, and there is widespread torture and mass intimidation of the political opposition." David Cameron has also just promised to put "human rights" at the heart of his "foreign policy vision".

Yet both political leaders refuse to make a commitment to even mention human rights to the king. Instead, he will ride in a golden carriage with the Queen, and be guest of honour at a Buckingham Palace banquet. It is the start of a three-day state visit, funded by the British taxpayer. The decision to lavish large sums and the rare prestige of a state visit on King Abdullah has attracted severe criticism in Westminster. The Liberal Democrats' acting leader, Vincent Cable, has refused to attend the banquet. The Labour MP John McDonnell said: "We are feting this man because Saudi Arabia controls 25 per cent of the world's oil, and because we sell him billions of pounds' worth of weapons. It is an insult to everything Britain stands for to put these geopolitical concerns ahead of the rights of women, trade unionists and all Saudi people."

While King Abdullah is cheered by our political leaders, many of his victims will be protesting outside. Sandy Mitchell, 52, went to Saudi Arabia to work as an anaesthetic technician at a hospital in Riyadh more than a decade ago – and got a rare outsider's glimpse into how the king maintains his power. He explains: "One day in 2000 I was getting out of my car at the hospital when I was pounced on. I was battered to the ground, a hood was put over my head, and they manacled my hands and feet. I thought – I'm being kidnapped."

He woke up in the Madhethe interrogation centre, where the Saudi police demanded he confess to being a British spy ordered to plant bombs in the country. He told then the bombs were obviously the work of Saudi Islamists – a view now accepted to be true – so they hung him upside down and began to beat his feet and buttocks with an axe handle for eight days. All the while, he could hear his friend Bill Sampson being gang-raped in the next room.

Mr Mitchell was eventually released after 32 months, when he was swapped for several Saudi citizens being held in Guantanamo Bay. But he warns: "The torture chambers in Saudi weren't created for me. These rooms were like a human abattoir. There was years' worth of blood on the floor that nobody bothered to clean. It was all over the walls. We were lucky we survived, but there are countless Saudi people who we never hear about who don't survive those chambers." Mr Mitchell will be joined at the protests by many refugees who have narrowly escaped this fate, including the trade unionist Yahya al-Faifi.

But life in Saudi Arabia is worst of all for women. While King Abdullah offers praise for Britain's female head of state, in his country all women are kept in effect under house arrest. They are banned from driving, from leaving the house without a male guardian, even in a medical emergency, or from holding a passport. Whenever women try to struggle free from these rules, the "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" – a posse of uniformed thugs who stalk the streets – beat them with batons.

There was a rare glimpse into how this system of gender apartheid works last year when a female Saudi writer called Badria al-Bisher authored a plea for change. She wrote: "Imagine being a woman, and being subject to harassment, beating, or murder, then when your picture is published in local newspapers, along with the criminals' in all their murderousness, there will still be those who ask if you, the victim, were veiled ... Imagine being a woman whose nose, arms, and legs are now broken by your husband, and when you submit a complaint to a judge saying: He beats me! He'd casually reply by saying: Yes? What else? ... Imagine being a woman, and this "guardian" of yours is your 15-year-old son."

The website on which this appeal appeared has since been shut down. The House of Saud's dysfunctions are not contained within the Arabian peninsula; they are burning their way out across the world – and backfiring on Britain.

In order to appease their own internal Wahabbi-Islamist extremists, the Saudi dictatorship is handing them tens of billions of oil-dollars to promote their vision across the globe. As the dissident ex-CIA agent Robert Baer says: "Never forget that it is the al-Saud who sign the cheques for these extreme mosque schools all over the world. It's hush money to divert Muslims' attention from the [activities of] the al-Saud [royal family]." The Saudi dictatorship is slowly poisoning global Islam, ensuring the most austere and fanatical desert vision liquidates the softer, more mystical strands – and we are already seeing this backfire on to the streets of London and New York.

Privately, government ministers claim King Abdullah is slowly reforming the kingdom. They contrast him to the Interior Minister, Naif al-Saud, who blames the September 11 attacks on the Israeli security services and is even more hard line. But Human Rights Watch says that under King Abdullah, "reform has been more cosmetic than real". For example, two of the country's leading liberal reformists, Abdullah and Isa al-Hamid, are currently awaiting trial. Their "crime" was to support a totally peaceful protest organised by mothers of men who have been seized without explanation by the Saudi state and held for years, without contact, lawyers or trial. Their names will not be uttered by Brown or Cameron this week.

The truth is that the British Government – and all Western societies – are so addicted to Saudi Arabia's oil that they feel they can't speak back. They are terrified of seeing the petrol that lubricates our economy (or the arms deals that butter it) being turned off, as it was in 1973 oil crisis. It is only by making a rapid transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels that this depraved relationship with a tyranny can be unpicked – but the Government shows no sign of doing this, preferring to stick to the old exchange of sycophancy, arms deals and crude oil.

As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman puts it: "Addicts don't tell the truth to their dealers." That's why this week the torturer will be inside Buckingham Palace, and his victims left outside, alone.

King Abdullah's itinerary

King Abdullah and his entourage will receive the full red carpet treatment throughout their state visit to Britain.

The Queen will greet the king tomorrow. He will review a guard of honour before a state carriage procession to Buckingham Palace.

The all-male royal party of 12 will stay in style in the palace, where a display of Saudi art from the royal collection has been assembled for the Queen to show to the king.

They will then be guests of honour at a state banquet attended by nearly 200 VIPs, including all senior members of the British Royal Family. Gordon Brown is expected to wear white tie and tails for the first time at the banquet.

The king will hold private talks on Wednesday with the Prime Minister before dining with several senior members of the Government.

The king will also be received in Clarence House by the Prince of Wales, who will brief him on his charitable activities.

King Abdullah will then attend a banquet on Wednesday held by the Lord Mayor. The Duke of York will represent the Queen.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will bid farewell to their royal guest on Thursday.

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