A friendship that corrupts

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The Independent Online
THREE days before Malcolm Rifkind hatched his deal with Dominica to appease the Saudis by packing Mohamed al-Masari off to the Caribbean, a lone Egyptian was led with his legs in shackles into a marketplace in Saudi Arabia's al-Qassem province. There, in full view of local shoppers, the state official responsible for corporal punishment lashed him with a bamboo cane for the 3,800th time in three years.

The Egyptian had been convicted of theft in 1991 - after a secret "Islamic trial" - and condemned to 4,000 lashes, to be administered at the rate of 50 every two weeks. Each session of whipping is reported to leave him with bruised or bleeding buttocks and unable to sleep for days. It would be hard to imagine a more grotesque or sadistic punishment.

The Egyptian's name, Mohamed Ali al-Sayyid, is not one to trip off Mr Rifkind's tongue - certainly not when he is kowtowing to the royal dictators of Saudi Arabia - but Amnesty International has consistently pleaded for clemency for Mr al-Sayyid, as it has for countless other foreign and Saudi nationals caught in the ferocious wheels of Saudi Arabia's so-called "justice" system.

The facts are not in doubt. Last year alone, 192 prisoners were beheaded with swords in Saudi Arabia either for alleged murder or drug-related offences. Among them were a mother and daughter decapitated together in a Dammam marketplace. At least 11 women have been publicly beheaded - their veils already torn from their heads by state executioners in public squares - in less than three years. Witnesses have recorded seeing many of the women dragged weeping to their deaths in front of baying crowds of men. And it is for this country's sensitivities that John Major's government has now decided to break Britain's human rights record and deport Mohamed al-Masari to Dominica.

Perhaps the Government's latest folly was prompted by last week's effective takeover by Crown Prince Abdullah from his sick half- brother, King Fahd, a change that threatens to create new tensions. Abdullah's command of the 77,000-strong Saudi National Guard places him in potential conflict with the seven princes of the Sudeiri line (one of whom, Sultan, the Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister, may one day be King). It is Mr al-Masari's contention that the British government favours Abdullah - along with his allies Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister, and Turki al-Faisal, the intelligence chief - while the Americans back Prince Sultan and the Sudeiris. The King's death could therefore engender a bitter conflict not just within the royal family but between London and Washington.

Ironically, Mr al-Masari's volleys of faxes have tended to leave Abdullah untouched: "a nationalist with Arab tendencies", he has called him, with "all the manners of the traditional Arab ... a man's man". King Fahd has fared less well, along with others of the 7,000-member royal family, one of whose principal members has been infuriated by repeated claims from Mr al-Masari's group in London that he suffers from "the sin whose name cannot be mentioned, the love which dare not speak its name". One by one, Mr al-Masari says, Crown Prince Abdullah will now clip the wings of the Sudeiris, removing them from their cabinet positions in the ministry of interior, defence, the governorship of Riyadh and other posts.

No wonder, then, that the Saudis have come to regard Mr al-Masari as a mischief-maker, a man who can with his faxes circumvent the information monopoly which the Saudis now exert through their ever-growing newspaper empire and their financial stake in BBC TV's Arabic service.

If Saudi Arabia were no more than a rich, eccentric monarchy at the corner of the Arabian peninsula, none of this would matter. Britain has long been accustomed to ally itself to Omanis, Kuwaitis and other emirate warriors of the desert. But Saudi Arabia is different. For in order to maintain their hold on power, the Saudi princes run an Islamic fundamentalist state whose day-to-day governance has gone from paranoia to police state with all the accoutrements of torture and routine injustice.

Did Mr Major, one wonders, or Mr Rifkind ever mention in conversation with their Saudi hosts the secret trials which preceded the thousands of individual lashings to which men and women - particularly Filipina women - are routinely subjected in Saudi Arabia for crimes which they may never have committed? The Independent on Sunday has signed testimony from one Filipina girl of her whipping by a male Saudi prison official, each lash accompanied by giggling and sniggers from members of Saudi Arabia's muttawa religious police. Testimony from two Western women, also in this paper's possession, describes harassment and physical abuse by the same Saudi muttawa who operate under the indirect authority of the King - or, today, of Crown Prince Abdullah.

The problem, then, is the nature of the regime for which Britain is prepared, courtesy of Messrs Major, Rifkind and Portillo, to bend the rules. For Saudi Arabia is an autocracy whose royal elite fly out of their repressed country to enjoy the fleshpots of Egypt, Morocco, London and New York, whose oppression of women is an international disgrace, whose brand of Muslim "fundamentalism" makes a mockery of Islamic principles of tolerance, and whose punishments are more than unjust. For those lashings and beheadings have gone beyond cruelty; Saudi punishments have moved into a new sphere - that of the perverted, the warped, the kinky.

None of this is any secret to the British government, nor to the thousands of Britons and Americans who live and work in Saudi Arabia. It is certainly no secret to the Arabs - not to the Egyptians, for instance, who have been reading of the savage public flogging of an Egyptian doctor who dared to complain that his seven-year old son had been raped by a Saudi schoolmaster. But Saudi Arabia - and this is the point - is phenomenally rich in natural resources, its oil comprising an epic 26 per cent of the world's known reserves, its insatiable thirst for advanced weaponry oiling the industries of the world's developed nations.

Just as Saddam Hussein seemed worthy of our greed in the 1980s - when he obligingly invaded Iran and needed billions of dollars of our armaments - so now Saudi Arabia has become a materialistic as well as a spiritual Mecca, in which Britain's pounds 20bn "Al-Yamama" project has become a matter of almost metaphysical importance. Our financial reliance on the Saudis has contaminated our political morality, just as Saudi hand-outs and generosity have corrupted so much of the Arab world.

Of course, every writer on Arab affairs should regularly visit the Department of Unpalatable Facts. Fact number one is that Mr al-Masari's vitriolic campaign against the Saudi royal family has endangered British trade - and the jobs of at least 7,500 Britons. Fact number two is that although Mr al-Masari is a non-violent activist whose Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights supports human rights and justice in Saudi Arabia, his own preferred version of a nation without the House of Saud would not guarantee women's equality or Western-style democracy under Sharia law. And Fact number three is that when they are compared to the gallery of Middle East rogues, our old friend Saddam Hussein among them, King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah and the other senior members of the Saudi royal family are not quite the monsters Mr al-Masari would sometimes have us believe.

Mr al-Masari himself can understand the concern for British unemployment. He was himself dismissed from his job at Riyadh university. And, as he himself put it in conversation with the Independent on Sunday last week, shortly after he learnt of the deportation order, "the bulk of the al- Yamama deal is signed and sealed and cannot be changed - the rest of the project may never be paid for anyway because of the state of Saudi finances; the Saudis don't even know if they can pay for the McDonnell Douglas Boeing [aircraft] project. Deporting me won't change this". Maybe, Mr al-Masari scornfully suggests, the British should in future add a condition of silence to their offers of asylum.

But the al-Masari affair is not just a matter of political refuge and freedom of speech. Like the scandal over British arms sales to Iraq, it proves yet again that when a nation allies itself too deeply to a fragile, potentially unstable but ruthless and undemocratic state for pecuniary reasons, the continuance of that relationship becomes a "national interest" whose maintenance takes precedence over the most basic freedoms and human rights.

The Middle East is filled with states that ended up dictating the behaviour and morality of bigger countries that purported to be their mentors: Moscow's obligation to resupply Egypt with weapons under Nasser comes to mind. So does Washington's foreign policy in the Arab world, which is today decided by Israelis rather than Americans. Now the Saudi princes tell John Major and Malcolm Rifkind how to deal with refugees in London. And Mr Major and Mr Rifkind do as they are told.