16 Jan 2012

Did Cameron's Saudi trip have to be so brief?

The prime minister made a quick and extremely low-profile visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

Whilst Downing Street managed a 100-word account of the matter at 19.44 on Saturday evening, the content was bland – “met the King”… “importance of bilateral relations”… “recent developments in the region”… and “the countries of Syria, Yemen and Somalia were mentioned”. Bahrain – where Saudi troops and hardware are still deployed – was not mentioned in the communiqué.

The king’s men are there to keep the exploited and rebellious Shia at bay. Mr Cameron will have had no quarrel with a deployment seen at containing Iran across the water.

And yet, beyond egging on our £62bn trading relationship – plenty of it in weaponry – was there anything else that perhaps should have transpired between the two men?

Old King Abdullah’s mission in life is the spreading of the Sunni faith, particularly the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of it. The proselytising of this particular somewhat intolerant form of Islam is achieved through the funding of madrassas from Luton to Lahore and beyond.

Once the Saudis formally funded the Taliban. There remains a widespread suspicion among many American and British intelligence and service personnel that informal Saudi funding continues.

Read more: Saudi women given right to vote

With the export of Saudi mullahs and the Saudi education of many others, huge numbers of Saudi-funded mosques and madrassas are developing exponentially in Somalia, Afghanistan, and most particularly in Pakistan. Coincidentally these are countries in which UK forces are engaged in active service – the SAS and the Royal Navy in and off Somalia; the SAS and other special units in Pakistan; and virtually every facet of land forces in Afghanistan.

No-one suggests that the weaponry the UK supplies King Abdullah ever ends up in these places, but history may judge what Mr Cameron called our “close relationship” with Saudi Arabia an intriguing one, given the wars currently being fought.

There is finally the matter of human rights. Was there even time, in so short a visit, to raise the plight of the bruised and battered Shia population in eastern Saudi? Was there time to raise the oppression of women? Or even time to deliver the laundry lists of political prisoners assembled by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In short, should Mr Cameron’s visit have been longer?

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