The rush of international dignitaries to Saudi Arabia paying their respects over the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has been illuminating. If we'd ever been in any doubt that the House of Saud exerts a powerful magnetic pull on world leaders, we could be in none now. At one point this weekend the leading item on the news was that President Obama would "cut short" his visit to India to travel to Riyadh. What did the average Indian citizen make of that I wonder? Their nation might be 40 times larger than sparsely-populated Saudi Arabia and arguably every bit as geopolitically significant, but no, Air Force One's passage to India would conclude a day early, with a planned visit to the Taj Mahal unceremoniously cancelled.
Whether or not David Cameron and Prince Charles needed to make the geo-political pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia is probably not for me to say, but there's no question that the backdrop to their visit is striking. For the past two-and-half weeks there's been extensive media coverage of the case of Raif Badawi, the 31-year-old Saudi blogger lashed 50 times in a public square in Jeddah on 9 January and still facing another 950 lashes. As I pointed out recently, the fact that Badawi has been jailed (for ten years) and cruelly punished merely for discussing matters of religion and politics on a website, throws into sharp relief the absence of even basic protections for free speech in Saudi Arabia's hyper-autocracy. And the fact that Badawi's flogging occurred less than 48 hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris only sharpens this picture. One of Badawi's supposed crimes was "insulting Islam", which is exactly what Saïd and Chérif Kouachi claimed to be punishing Hebdo's cartoonists for doing.
UK ministers have been squirming when asked about Badawi's plight. No, the UK doesn't agree with meting out lashes (it always "condemns" such punishments is the policy line), but ministers remain tight-lipped about Badawi's lengthy jail sentence and refrain from any significant public criticism of the Saudi authorities (see examples from Philip Hammond, Tobias Ellwood and David Cameron).
What are ministers actually concerned about here? Are they genuinely trying to gauge the best way to influence the recalcitrant rulers in Riyadh, or ... is it something else? The Foreign Secretary has swatted away calls for a public statement on Badawi's case, claiming the government has "found in the past the best way of influencing Saudi behaviour is to message them privately through the many channels we have available." Message them privately? Really? And this works? Can Mr Hammond supply any examples of private messaging successes? Or would even this revelation break the self-imposed "privacy" rule?
It could, of course, be that fear of "offending" Saudi royals is actually uppermost in British officials' minds. Leaving aside ministerial doublespeak, there are numerous other UK-Saudi interactions to mull over - from the stupendously large Al-Yamamah arms deal (and the UK's successful efforts to close down a Serious Fraud Office investigation into this allegedly corrupt deal), a controversial arrangement for the UK to supply prison services (of all things) to the Saudi kingdom, and, most recently, Friday's flag day fiasco. Though no-one seems quite sure exactly how public buildings like Downing Street and Westminster Abbey came to lower their Union Jacks to mark King Abdullah's demise, one assumes the ritual was considered politically important and was authorised by No10 (ironically the flag flying over the Saudi embassy in Mayfair actually remained fully aloft, as the country has no tradition of "half-masting"). As Brian Whitaker points out, hoisting down the flags appears to have completely missed the public mood in Britain (a Daily Telegraph poll found 75% opposed the gesture), indicating, it seems, not so much an act of careful political signalling as reflex obeisance towards Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, with British politicians and officials not averse to receiving titles and decorations direct from the Saudi royals, it's hard not to worry about their determination to communicate some home truths about torture and unfair trials to their counterparts in Riyadh.
So we need to ask: amid this swirl of private and public "messaging", of deals done and honours bestowed, has there been anything like a positive impact on Saudi Arabia's woeful human rights record? To listen to Tony Blair (King Abdullah was a "skilful moderniser", David Cameron (the late king "strengthen[ed] understanding between faiths") or former UK ambassador Sir Alan Munro (he achieved a list of reforms "as long as your arm") you'd imagine so. But frankly this is all a complete mirage. These commentators must be referring to a different Saudi Arabia and a different King Abdullah. In 20 years under King Abdullah (ten on the throne, ten as de facto ruler before that), the country has executed hundreds of people (often after ludicrously unfair trials), jailed hundreds of dissidents (many others, if lucky, have fled the country), allowed its police and prison guards to routinely torture detainees, persecuted Shi'a groups in the Eastern Province, generally treated its population as medieval subjects (denying elections, the formation of political parties, trade unions or NGOs), and kept women on a tight leash (they remain forbidden from driving and must by law obtain the permission of a male relative to work, seek higher education or travel). See more on King Abdullah's disastrous human rights record here.
Though eulogies for the Saudi king have focused on his supposed work to bring about "understanding" between faiths (the Queen) and his efforts to combat "interfaith violence" (Archbishop of Canterbury), in truth Saudi Arabia remains hostile to anything other than its state-approved version of Sunni Islam, banning believers from freely practising other faiths and harassing them if they don't comply. There's a kind of wilful indulgence at work here. One anecdote that's been doing the rounds is from a former UK ambassador in Riyadh, Sherard Cowper-Coles, whose memoir tells the story of how, on an occasion in 1998, the Queen apparently drove Abdullah (then Crown Prince Abdullah) around the Balmoral estate in one of the royal Land Rovers, unnerving Abdullah with her speedy driving. All very amusing, but 17 years later Saudi Right2Drive campaigners are still getting arrested and threatened with a flogging.
Meanwhile, with some commentators lauding Saudi Arabia as a bulwark of regional "stability", it's also worth remembering that in recent times Saudi military forces have bombed civilians in villages in northern Yemen (using UK-manufactured aircraft) and have helped shore up Bahrain's violent crackdown on democracy protests. An estimated 15,000 Saudis went to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden among them, and of course 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. As with Mubarak's Egypt and Saddam's Iraq, the notion that "stability" is a necessary trade-off against a diminution of human rights is fallacious, dangerous and has in the case of Saudi Arabia effectively condemned thousands of people to lives of misery and suffering.
In the end then, Cowper-Coles' Balmoral story is a self-indulgent diversion from the harsh realities of life in the petroleum-rich desert kingdom. A more telling anecdote can be found in Fred Halliday'sTwo Hours That Shook The World:
"It does not take one long when travelling to Saudi Arabia to realise that one is entering a domain of sanctioned religiosity. At Jeddah airport, the customs officer searching for alcohol and other prohibited imports enquiries when the arriving passenger is going to convert to Islam ... 'Next time you come through, you should have converted'."
As we've seen with Raif Badawi's case, the authorities in Jeddah are quite capable of turning this airport official's remark into a draconian punishment if an individual shows the temerity to publicly question the Saudi state's stranglehold on matters religious. People like Alan Munro are keen to extol the virtues of King Abdullah's legacy - including in a memoir entitled, topically enough, Keep The Flag Flying - but in truth Abdullah's human rights record is appalling. One presumes that Messrs Cameron and Obama will have escaped any cross-questioning about their religious observance by airport officials on arrival in Riyadh. But for almost everyone else, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a place of fear and repression.
Amnesty's #FreeRaif petition can be found here.