Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kow-Towing to the House of Saud demeans us all


I've drunk Malt Whisky with Saudi Arabian friends in private homes in Jeddah. I've been taken to see the open square in Riyadh where public executions are carried out (called, oh so wittily, “Chop Chop Square”). I’ve travelled along the highways where bored, rich Saudi youth drive their fast cars at terrifying speeds and not infrequently kill themselves. I've waited an hour in a line at Airport immigration only to have the window closed as I arrived and had to start again.

I've met Saudi women in their homes, beautiful in Paris fashions, who have completely to drape themselves in black, and veil their faces, if they venture outdoors. I've met Phillipina maids who have suffered sexual abuse from their masters but would be the guilty party if they had the temerity to complain. I've visited a millionaire Sheikh in his mansion in Marbella where his wine cellar is famous, and his tarts are many and varied. I've sat all day with another Sheikh in Riyadh, a holy man, who leaves meetings to pray five or six times a day.

I've been told about ageing Saudi men who add to their collection of “wives” by taking a “bride” just out of puberty for their pleasure, and then discarding her at a whim. And other men who are in the forefront of the homophobic assault on gays, whilst secretly having sex with boys available to anyone with the money to pay.

I've met the Saudi who claims to run the largest distribution agency for a famous brand of whisky in the world, and the financial beneficiaries of which were members of the Royal family. I’ve seen conclusive evidence of fraud and bribery by Western companies anxious to ingratiate themselves with corrupt Saudi princes. I’ve watched as the commercial rules which apply to the rest of the world are bent and broken to get greedy hands on Saudi riches.

I’ve stayed behind high compound walls in expatriate housing where drunkenness and sexual licence is rife and where the claim is often that “this is the best posting I ever had”. I’ve seen collusion, protection and sleaze distorting normal commercial practices.

Let’s be clear these are not random acts of dysfunctional behaviour - these are symptoms of a sick and crooked society. A nation which for all its faux-tradition is only fourteen years older than I am! A country which follows the “Divine right of Kings”, which has not even the vestige of proper democracy and which concentrates immense wealth in very few hands indeed. A country which practices a “law and order” that was abandoned by a civilising world shortly after the Middle Ages era when it was standard.

Behind the front of religiosity which provides the rationale for a totalitarian control of the population is institutionalised hypocrisy. It is a misogynous society where the rights of women simply don’t exist, where there is no freedom of worship or expression and where anyone who challenges the status quo will be imprisoned, or worse.

Remember Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis as well. Of course they were at the lunatic fringe of religion-driven madness, but they grew up in a society where religion theoretically dictates every aspect of behaviour. But this is to a large extent a front for an Orwellian control system which keeps power in a very few hands indeed.

And what of the West? Well many of us do condemn what we know to be happening in this sordid apology for a society. Amnesty International and others publicise the daily obscenities – like the public torture of Raif Badawi. Brave journalists have exposed the evil imperative of the House of Saud and of the institutionalised corruption that emanates from it. But the death of the Saudi King has brought cringe-making tributes - and the British Prime Minister and Heir to the British throne will be jetting off to Riyadh to “pay their respects”.

Let's be clear – my objection to the Saudi regime and how they run their country is not cultural insensitivity or ignorance on my part. I lived in the Middle East for six years and travelled widely including, for a time, to Saudi Arabia every month. I had my eyes and ears open and talked at length with Saudis - many of whom became friends. Islam is the State religion across the region but nowhere is it so insidiously distorted as in the Kingdom. It is the shield which protects the leaders from the people – the King is the “Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques”, one of which is, of course, in Mecca to which devout Muslims travel for the Haj. This, his unchallenged power, a formidable Army, and an extensive security apparatus make the King invulnerable. And there are plenty of Mullahs around to provide a quasi-spiritual justification for any and all of the daily atrocities committed by this vile regime.

Kow-Towing to the House of Saud demeans us all.


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