Blair visit cancelled as Saudis opt for caution

War against terrorism: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair encountered the first setback to his three-week whirlwind diplomatic mission when he was obliged to call off on Thursday a planned visit to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the bombing of Afghanistan.

The shelving of the trip was immediately attributed by Arab sources to extreme sensitivities in Saudi Arabia about the Allies' military action against Afghanistan and the al-Qa'ida terrorist network operated by Osama bin Laden, who is Saudi Arabian.

However, British officials travelling with the Prime Minister strongly denied such suggestions, insisting that the visit had been postponed because of logistical difficulties in arranging adequate time to make full use of the visit, and saying that they were hopeful that Mr Blair would visit Saudi Arabia in the near future.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The government of Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it would welcome a visit from the Prime Minister but, as ever with these things, it is a matter of sorting out a convenient time for both sides."

But the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted "informed sources'' as saying that the Saudi sensitivities had been explained by Crown Prince Abdullah to the Prime Minister before he left for Oman and Egypt earlier this week.

While many ordinary Saudis, like Arabs elsewhere, regard the United States' war on terror as a pretext for attacking Arabs and Muslims, the Saudi government has cautiously allied itself with Washington.

That support has its limits: mindful of the need to avoid inflaming tensions at home, the Saudis did bar the United States from using a key air base to launch bombing raids.

Saudi officials said the authorities had turned down Mr Blair's request to visit, citing a conflict in schedules, saying officials were busy on Wednesday with the visiting Eritrean President, Isais Afwerki, and that Thursday and Friday were the Saudi weekend.

Nevertheless, both Britain and the US, whose Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Saudi Arabia last week before the bombing began, continue to see Riyadh as pivotal in maintaining the coalition against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Muslim clerics in the country have strongly condemned the mass murders of 11 September, and terrorism in general, as incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

In addition, and despite the hitch, Saudi influence appears to have been brought to bear on this week's Organisation of Islamic Countries meeting in Qatar, which issued a – relatively – moderate statement condemning attacks on Islamic states under the guise of fighting terrorism, but also roundly condemning the terrorist attacks on the US.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair himself conceded that the West was in danger of losing the propaganda battle for Arab and Muslim support. Speaking on board a British Airways jet as his whistle-stop diplomatic tour took him from the Gulf state of Oman to Egypt, Mr Blair said the only solution was for the Allies to put the case for their military campaign on Afghanistan more actively.

"One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world," the Prime Minister told reporters. "There is a need for us to communicate effectively."

Already this week, Mr Blair has taken his battle for Arab public opinion to the Arabic satellite television channel Al-Jazeera, giving a series of interviews to rebut Osama bin Laden's video statement after the launch of American air strikes against his al-Qa'ida organisation. He also wrote an opinion piece in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat yesterday.