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Salman at the Beach: The Saudi King's Commandeering of a Stretch of the French Riviera Is Hardly Crime of the Century

24/07/2015 11:05 BST | Updated 22/07/2016 10:59 BST

News that Saudi Arabia's King Salman and a 400-strong entourage will have a one-kilometre stretch of the French Riviera closed off for their enjoyment this week has been ... ahem, making a few waves.

Notably, I caught it on the Radio 4 news bulletins at the weekend. It was in an "And finally" slot and inevitably made the Saudi monarch sound rather ridiculous. Well, kick sand in my face and call me a puny weakling, but this doesn't seem the most earth-shattering bit of news on Saudi Arabia out there.

True, it certainly doesn't sound very fair to affected residents and other less-elevated tourists who apparently will be prevented from accessing even the public beach near the Saudis' sprawling villa complex at Vallauris. In some news reports a person called Mohamed - described as a "fishing enthusiast" - is quoted as saying "Looking after their security is fine, but they should at least let us go for a swim".

He's got a point! Come on King Salman, let Mohamed go for a swim!

But no, along with cordoning off roads for leaders to make state visits or the over-zealous use of red ropes to keep the vulgar public away from "VIPs", I'm not overly-exercised by this sort of stuff. (Mind you - true story - I did used to bridle at the fact that the Chris Evans TFI Friday rent-a-crowd used to take over the Riverside Studios in west London back in the 90s. It was my local cinema and me and my partner would get down there to have a drink before our Éric Rohmer double bill - quite possibly featuring Pauline At The Beach - only to be told by a pair of not-especially-friendly bouncers - we "weren't allowed" into the bar because "they're filming tonight". Thanks for that, Chris).

No, bearing in mind that the Saudi Arabian authorities systematically trample over human rights on a daily basis, the French Riviera spat is a storm in a plastic sand-bucket. For a country that bans political parties, trade unions, human rights organisations and public demonstrations, that regularly jails critics and opponents, and thinks little of rounding up 431 people in one fell swoop - closing off a short stretch of beach is pretty tame stuff.

So before we get too worked up about Vallauris, let's not forget that peaceful critics of the government like Raif Badawi still languish behind bars back in Jeddah. Meanwhile, torture in Saudi police stations and prison cells is rife, executions have already topped 100 in 2015, women still can't drive or do a host of other things without the approval of a "guardian", and the criminally under-reported Saudi Arabian-led operation in Yemen has led to at least 1,400 civilian deaths.

Yes, it puts the beach blanket babylon of the Vallauris row into perspective. How many grains of sand are there on that private beach in Vallauris? A lot, but not as many as the sum total of human rights violations in Salman's authoritarian kingdom in the past few years.