Rifkind tries to quell exile row

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Jeddah

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday spearheaded a damage- limitation exercise to soothe Saudi Arabia's anger over the activities of dissidents based in London.

A constant stream of propaganda and agitation from exiles opposed to the Saudi royal family has infuriated senior princes, and local businessmen believe lucrative British contracts could be at risk.

According to reliable sources, both the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, and the Defence Minister, Prince Sultan, have expressed the desire to favour other countries over Britain in the allocation of future government business.

The issue of the dissidents was raised during the first round of talks here yesterday between the Foreign Secretary and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

The Saudis want Britain to crack down on a prominent figure in the opposition, Professor Mohammed Masari, who fled the kingdom last year. He has lodged an appeal with the Home Office after his application for political asylum was rejected. Mr Masari is a self-proclaimed revolutionary who wants to replace the Saudi monarchy, which he denounces as corrupt and irreligious, with a government adhering to the pure principles of Islam.

Mr Masari has set up the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights, in north London, from where he bombards supporters in the kingdom with faxes and telephone calls.

"One or two individuals in London are given an importance far more than they deserve by the media," Mr Rifkind said after the talks. "We have no time for those who are making mischief."

British officials said both sides had agreed that the Masari affair should not affect the "perception which surrounds the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia". They were also at pains to represent the discussions as a dialogue in which the Saudis were aware of the mutual benefits of the relationship. The Foreign Secretary repeated the line that the British Government can take no measures against Mr Masari unless he breaks the law.

"We take action against people on the basis of their deeds, not their opinions," Mr Rifkind told a local interviewer. "If people have opinions, we may disapprove of them or dislike them intensely but our society is such that that is something which is tolerated."

These explanations, however, have failed to make much of an impression on the absolute monarchy which governs Saudi Arabia. It is also hard for British diplomats to gauge the level of support for the dissidents in a society notable for its reticence, and carefully monitored by the secret police. Several radical clerics were detained last year after disturbances in the northern town of Bureidah, while economic austerity measures were damaging the monarchy's customary use of financial benevolence to shore up its authority.

But there have been no recent reports of trouble, while a slight rise in oil prices over the last year has enabled the government to benefit from an improved economic climate.

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