The Gulf widens over executions

The news that Saudi Arabia has executed 11 women - all of them apparently beheaded in public - within the past three years is truly shocking. There may be other executions of women that we do not know of, quite apart from the 182 men who have also been decapitated, supposedly according to Islamic law, since January of this year. Among the most dreadful of the executions, as our Middle East correspondent reports today, was that of a mother and daughter who were beheaded together in Saudi Arabia in August for allegedly killing the elder woman's husband, the girl's father.

What should be our reaction to such ferocious deeds by governments, for the defence of whose freedom - if that word does not lose its meaning in such a context - Britain, America and other western nations sent half a million troops to the Gulf in 1990?

Inevitably, the Saudis and their Gulf neighbours will try to excuse their behaviour by claiming that threats to civil order must be met with a "strong hand". Gulf rulers argue that these punishments must be seen as part of a cultural, even tribal tradition very different from our own.

Such moral relativism is as unacceptable as it is misleading. Many of the hearings that sentenced these women were travesties of justice; in some cases, it is reported that the women were given no defence lawyers. The trials themselves were held in secret and the sentences only revealed - and this rarely - after the executions had taken place. Even those who accept capital punishment in specific circumstances will find no sanction for the act of beheading in the Koran. And it cannot be argued that men and women must receive identical punishments in Saudi Arabia on spurious grounds of equality. For how can a kingdom that does not even allow women to drive cars hold them responsible for their alleged crimes?

Our response to events in the Middle East has almost always been flawed, the reporting of wars and revolutions generally skewed to present a favourable view of those "allies" that support the West's policies in the region. Thus human rights abuses in countries like Iran have been rightly condemned; but those in Saudi Arabia have not elicited a mouse-squeak of complaint by the US and British governments. Indeed, ever since the liberation of Kuwait, they have laboured to persuade us that Saudi Arabia is becoming more liberal, not more restrictive, more democratic, not more theocratic.

Of course, we derive massive economic benefit from our arms trade with the Gulf. And, sadly, few nations are prepared to lose millions of pounds of exports to save a few human lives. But perhaps the time has now come to tell our friends in the Gulf that we shall in future be much less ready to rescue them from external tyrannies, if they do not end the cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments that they impose on their own people and upon their guest workers.