Adrian Hamilton: Don't underestimate the Saudis in this pomp

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The Independent Online

There is something terribly old-fashioned about King Abdullah's state visit to Britain and the fuss it has engendered. Old fashioned and wrong. The whole point of state visits is that they are a way of providing pomp and ceremony for visits from a whole range of disreputable and not-so disreputable heads of state in a non-political, or at least non-judgemental, way. If people don't like the visiting dignitary, they can always shout their objections from the sidewalks.

What is wrong is not that heads of state should be invited. Better keep lines of communication open than close them down. Nor is it discourteous that these dignitaries should be exposed to a bit of democratic outcry – which is what made it so disgraceful that Tony Blair attempted to suppress such demonstrations when the Chinese President came to town. It may upset the guest, but better they know that there are strong objections to their visit than pretend all is sweetness and light.

What is wrong in this case is that it is exactly the sort of overblown occasion which the Saudis themselves should be avoiding, never mind their hosts. Saudi Arabia's lack of human rights is just a red herring. If that were the key point we should refuse President Bush for Gauntanamo, rendition and the extensive use of the death penalty in the US. There is little difference in kind between Saudi's public execution and America's much-publicised methods of judicial murder.

No, the problem is basically money. Saudi Arabia has become rich on oil exports. Fearful of the fates that have befallen the Shah of Iran and the Kings of Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the house of Saud has chosen to use that wealth to buy off every conceivable threat and purchase the loyalty of every conceivable ally.

Hence the problem of the Wahhabi religious establishment, given huge subventions to propagate its form of Islam abroad on condition that it didn't stir things up at home. Hence the wealth of the now thousands of princes and tribal leaders in the country. And hence too the huge contracts given to those it sees as its allies – the US and then Britain, with France, Japan and others drawn into the net .

You can call it bribery, but to the Saudi royals it is a matter of everyday insurance. The trouble is that it corrupts everyone who comes in contact, particularly Western companies and politicians. But it also corrupts the body politic of Saudi Arabia itself, suppressing dissent, making the regime endlessly accommodating to extremist factions (as General Musharraf does in Pakistan) and cutting off development of a domestic economy and the educated, professional middle class who are emerging elsewhere in the Gulf. Corruption is the enemy of change, not its lubricant.

Whether demanding reform from the outside does much good is a moot point. It can help push social reforms that the ruling elite might wish in any case, such as women's rights opposed more by conservative religious and tribal forces than government interest. Democracy is more difficult because it threatens the whole network of family and tribal alliances on which the royal regime is based. It could also unleash the very forces of extremism inside Saudi Arabia which are currently being bought off at home if not abroad.

The trouble with the sort of royal pomp and ceremony which we are witnessing this week is that it plays into the worst of this particular relationship. All this gaudy ritual serves to confirm the British in their sense that they are keeping a corrupt and rapacious regime happy with ceremony and baubles, and the Saudis in their sense that British support has been safely bought.

But that's not what it is about any longer, or at any rate not what it should be. Britain should have outgrown its need to beg and grovel for foreign arms contracts and to keep in with Ryadh in order to preserve a special importance in the Middle East, which we no longer have. But, more to the point, Saudi Arabia is also outgrowing this relationship, and the need to buy protection from Western powers.

King Abdullah, who came to power in 2005, is presented as a force for reform. That may be true in a modest sense. He does want to modernise his country. But in his eighties, he is probably too old to take on the vested interested that would block real institutional change, even if he felt it in his interest to do so. But he has developed a genuinely independent policy towards the Middle East.

To the shock of Washington and the surprise of many in the region, Saudi Arabia under his rule has refused to become an instrument of the West's vision of a Sunni-Shia split to combat Iran or to follow tamely Washington and Jerusalem's idea of a Middle East peace based on a divided Palestine. He has thrown his considerable weight behind an overall settlement based on the 1967 borders, has kept up relations with Tehran and continued vehemently to oppose Western occupation of Iraq.

In the profoundly depressing politics of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a real, and, I think, constructive player. This week's royal visit, with all the protests, the Government's obvious desire to distance itself from it and the Foreign Secretary's ill-advised cancellation of a meeting with his Saudi opposite number, is not just a distraction but a positive liability to that.