24 Oct 2011

Death and the dictator

I saw the helicopter rising out of the forest trees beyond the Owen Falls Dam. After a long chase, Uganda’s blood-stained President Idi Amin was airborne en route to a peaceful exile in Saudi Arabia. He was to live on there in unmolested peace for nearly a quarter of a century in a villa provided with wives, staff, and a swimming pool, outside Jeddah.

What a contrast from his old friend Gaddafi. Unloved by nearly all the other Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships, when his end came he had few sanctuaries to turn to. The finale for him was reminiscent of Ceaucescu of Romania – shot dead by a chaotic firing squad in 1989 – the video is still easily found online. The abuse of dying or dead dictators is not new.

Mubarak of Egypt is of course still alive, carted about in a bed whenever he enters court, a pathetic postscript to his Western-supported regime.

Perhaps it is reassuring to report that few dictators die comfortably in their own beds. For those who do survive the wrath of their own people, the Saudis are still on hand to provide a haven. As they have for Tunisia‘s supposedly ailing ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

So to the death in a New York clinic of Crown Prince Sultan bin Al Aziz of Saudi Arabia, on his 86th birthday on Saturday. He was heir to King Abdullah’s throne. Sultan was also Minister of Defence. The eulogy expressing “sadness” at his passing that instantly flowed from Downing Street was no surprise. He was the agent of the UK’s biggest-ever overseas defence deal – the controversial Al Yamamah contract negotiated under then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Britain remains in lock-step with the Saudi regime.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Arab Spring Special Report

Amid the Arab Spring and the rumblings of discontent in the totalitarian kingdom that very occasionally surface, there has been little criticism from any of the Saudi oil client states. King Abdullah is not a dictator, he is a king. The oppression of women, the corruption, and the regular Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports of human rights abuses, so far do not apparently qualify the kingdom for candidate status for the Arab Spring.

Even for the Saudis, Gaddafi was beyond the pale. But should the Arab Spring ever dawn in Riyadh, where then for the fleeing despots like Uganda’s Amin, who died there eight years ago, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, who continues to live there?

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