Kowtowing to royal dictators in the `national interest'


THREE days before Malcolm Rifkind hatched his deal with Dominica to appease the Saudis by packing Mohamed al Mas'ari 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.

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 market. At least 11 women have been publicly beheaded in less than three years.

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 Mas'ari 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 Mas'ari's contention that the British government favours Abdullah and his allies 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.

One by one, Mr al Mas'ari says, Crown Prince Abdullah will clip the wings of the Sudeiris, removing them from key ministries, the governorship of Riyadh and other posts.

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 allied itself to Omanis, Kuwait is and other emirate warriors of the desert.

But Saudi Arabia is different. 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.

The al Mas'ari 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.